Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First quarter: Stephen Curry’s future
Stephen Curry really looked like a chef when he spoke to the media before the Warriors’ loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday, wearing a large brace on his surgically repaired left hand.
"I definitely expect to be ready to play," Curry told reporters. "I don't know when — at some point in early spring. Just a matter of the rehab process. … I’m excited about the potential that the rest of the season isn't lost.”
Curry is a professional and realizes his importance to the league, as much as his importance to his franchise. Kevin Durant is out all season, making it two superstars who’ll keep fans from tuning in and hitting the turnstiles all year.
Curry’s team is struggling and will struggle all season, reeling from the losses of championship personnel and the recovery of All-Star Klay Thompson.
Bravo for a quiet understanding of his responsibilities.
But … the man has played 93 playoff games in the last five seasons. And they weren’t just random games against Memphis — well not anymore. There were grueling series against the Grit-n-Grind Grizzlies, slugfests with the Houston Rockets and fatiguing wars against LeBron James and the Cavs at the end of the yellow brick road.
So when he’s medically cleared to play, in the interests of a man who’ll turn 32 in March, perhaps it would behoove everyone to have this listing: “Curry—DNP (Career management)”.
It’s ideal to have the best version of Curry for games and seasons that matter.
Unless we agree the Warriors won’t matter anymore in the grand scheme of things. Hmmm …
Second quarter: When breakouts go wrong
Just as there are players who’ve surprised in a good way, there are some who’ve trended in the other direction.
Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen hasn’t fulfilled the expectations many had for him in his third NBA season. From what we’ve seen over the previous two seasons, he seemed like a prime breakout candidate.
The 7-footer with above-average ball skills, a dead-eye jumper and an organization that desperately wants him to succeed was part of the package the Bulls received when they traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota on draft night two years ago.
But so far, Markkanen has regressed: 38.5 percent shooting (43.2 percent his first two years) and 27.9 percent from 3-point range (36.2 percent the previous two seasons). Whether it’s a heavy emphasis on the Bulls taking more threes — now 35 a night compared to 26 a game last season — or merely a slow start, it’s caught notice. Half of Markkanen’s shots are from 3-point range this season compared to 40 percent last year.
He doesn’t look as authoritative with his moves, his drives don’t come as often and even though he’s not hesitating on his shot, he doesn’t look comfortable in the Bulls’ offense just yet.
“I’m sure he’s shooting too many threes like everyone else in the NBA,” one scout said. “If a guy that skilled and dynamic has that percentage of his field goals from three, that’s analytical [driven].”
Another scout didn’t see Markkanen as a future All-Star to begin with, so he’s not as surprised.
“I’ve never seen him play well. I know he has it in him, but when he’s good, how much of it leads to winning? Is he a top-level talent on a good team? I have my doubts. I don’t think he’s a star at all, but maybe it’ll click.”
On great nights, like last year against Boston, he’s a matchup nightmare.
Now it just seems he’s living in one.
Third quarter: The X-factor in Miami
Usually around the 10-game mark, scouts and executives start discussing players who are surprising them. In a little while, they’ll start figuring out who’s available in the trade market.
One guy who’s caught the eye of a few scouts: Miami’s Bam Adebayo. Jimmy Butler has made everything go in Miami and deservedly gets the lion’s share of notice. Adebayo has flourished since the departure of Hassan Whiteside because he no longer has to share minutes.
Adebayo has quick hands, quicker feet and plugs in all the holes defensively. He could be a huge key to the Heat jumping into the fray with Philadelphia and Milwaukee for Eastern Conference supremacy in the postseason.
“I’m a big fan,” a high-ranking executive told Yahoo Sports. “He’s all about the right stuff on and off the court.”
“He’s a warrior, competes, makes shots and gets the 50-50 balls, just does so much stuff that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. And he understands spacing. He’s smart.”
He does fill up the stat sheet, though, averaging 9.3 rebounds and nearly five assists while adding nearly two blocks and two steals per game. He does plenty for a Heat team that is as versatile as it is deep.
Adebayo wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a sure-fire Most Improved Player candidate yet, but there aren’t many who can do all the things he does.
Fourth quarter: The difference-makers
So much of the discussion to start the season has revolved around the clusters of stars realigning and how they’ll change the playoff landscape.
But take these names down, because they’ll win playoff games for their respective teams when it’s time:
Danny Green (Lakers) with his shooting.
Marcus Smart (Celtics) with his shooting, and, yes, you read that right.
Pat Beverley (Clippers) with his nonstop harassment that will drive some sane point guard out of his mind.
Chris Boucher (Raptors) with some rim-protecting exploits.
Laugh if you like, but one playoff game can make a series.
One series can make a ring.
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