The Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors have passed the 41-game midpoint of the regular season. The NBA’s other 28 teams will soon join them.
It’s an ideal time, then, to consult a few advance scouts for their unvarnished takes on some major story lines.
Few jobs in the game are as demanding as advance scouting, which requires its practitioners to attend three or four games weekly as courtside spectators and then file detailed reports to their teams with the lofty goal of being able to identify every offensive play call, defensive scheme and general tendency emanating from future opponents. The four I spoke to were granted anonymity, as is customary with scouts who in most cases do not have license from their teams to speak publicly.
A scout in the West chooses his favorite in the East
“I’m off the Celtics. It’s almost like they have too much talent. Something has gone awry there. It’s too much my-turn basketball whenever I see them. The ball doesn’t move the same way it used to. And I just don’t know if Kyrie Irving is the kind of guy who can get everybody on the same page.
“Philadelphia is my team in the East. I know people say they don’t have enough shooting and they don’t have enough depth, but they have more tools than you think. Jimmy Butler has made them better. Joel Embiid is a monster. Ben Simmons: Talk about his shot all you want, but he’s a monster. J.J. Redick’s shooting might be the glue to the whole thing. And even T.J. McConnell — people say he can’t score and he’s short and he’s slow. But he makes every pullup jumper. He gets into the paint. He steals inbounds passes. He takes charges.
“The Sixers are physical. They will give you a problem physically. I’m telling you: Anybody who gets Philly in the first round of the playoffs is going to be unhappy about it.”
A scout in the East discusses slow starts by Houston and Utah
“The two teams from Day 1 that most of the advanced analytics told you would be good, regardless of how bad their records got, were Houston and Utah. And I agreed with that. The Rockets have had their injuries. The Jazz have had their imbalanced scheduled with so many more road games than home games. They’re going to be there in the end — and when I say ‘be there,’ I mean top four, top five.
“James Harden is fantastic. I know you’re going to ask me if he can keep this up. Is he going to keep scoring 40 points a night? Probably not. But is he going to keep scoring 33 a night? Yeah.
“The one thing about the Jazz is that they’re short an athlete. They’ve been exposed a little bit there. They’re short a disrupter on the perimeter — someone who gets that deflection, gets that extra ball, creates some easy baskets for them. They’ve been exposed a little bit by athletic teams. But they’re built to play in the playoffs. They can play half-court basketball. They can play half-court defense.”
The same scout in the East assesses Utah’s Donovan Mitchell
“The league really studies you and tries to develop a book on you. It’s no different than baseball. He’s not the new kid on the block anymore, so teams are able to guard him a little better. He’s in a good situation where they have complete trust in him. They’ve given him the keys to the city. And if he has a bad game, they’re going to go to him again the next time. The Jazz are lucky to have him, but he’s lucky to be there, too.
“He isn’t a pure shooter like Damian Lillard who will destroy you in pick-and-rolls. And he’s not as crafty in his game like C.J. McCollum, who has a real slithery game. Donovan is trying to develop that — those Tony Parker floaters, those McCollum shots. I think it’ll happen. The real chapter will be written on him next season. Last year, he was the savior. This year, it’s ‘What happened?’ Next year will be the stock market correction of where he really is — and I would guess it’s going to be somewhere in the middle. He’s a good player, but he’s got some work to do.”
A scout in the West wonders why Denver doesn’t get more coverage
“I don’t know why we don’t talk about the Nuggets more. They’ve been the steady ship all season. No adversity yet. I think they’re for real.
“They play extremely hard. They’ve made a big step up defensively — very aggressive on the ball and in their pick-and-roll coverage. They know what their identity is, and they play to it. Nikola Jokic is an All-Star, but it’s a team that understands that it’s not flashy. It’s really the sum of its parts.
“They haven’t been in a series yet, so they may be a higher seed and still be the underdog. But I see them being competitive in any series they’re in. I think Jamal Murray will help them there. I like the way he’s wired. He makes mistakes — he’s not perfect — but he’s fearless. And with Jokic, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee — they’ve got a good mixture on the front line.
“Give Mike Malone credit. They’ve done a good job developing their younger players and winning at the same time, which isn’t easy.”
An East scout urges you to dismiss the Warriors’ so-so first half
“I just can’t buy into the idea that they should be panicking. They’re basically in chill mode until after the All-Star break, which will probably be about the time that DeMarcus Cousins is playing regularly. It may be hubris. It may be thinking they can turn it on and turn it off because that’s what they did last year. But I still think they can.
“I watched the Sacramento game over the weekend. They should have lost. But there was never a doubt, to me as an outsider, that they were going to win that game. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to compete for championships year after year after year — with everybody gunning for you. A lot of nights, I think they’re just going through the motions.
“Their season really starts when Cousins starts playing and they have to figure out how to integrate him. They would really be better with a center that rolls to the rim, but he causes problems in the paint — and they don’t have that. Everybody says he’s not a good defender, but he’s always been among the league leaders in charges drawn. He’s not a natural shot-blocker, but he will block some shots. Cousins is so talented that I think they’ll be really good when they add him.
“The West isn’t as good as we all thought it was going to be, which works in the Warriors’ favor. The level of teams they need to get through to get back to the finals is not as high as we expected.”