As the calendar flips to 2023, Luka Doncic is in the midst of a historical run to bolster his MVP case, while the Brooklyn Nets have remained the league’s hottest team overall, led by Jacque Vaughn.
With that in mind, this week’s NBA notebook includes Vaughn’s early Coach of the Year candidacy and Jeremy Sochan’s free throw revelation from our own Michael Scotto, the latest trade rumors commentary on D’Angelo Russell and Kyle Lowry from our capologist Yossi Gozlan, a free agency stock watch from our Frank Urbina and a look inside Doncic’s historical run by Alberto De Roa.
Luka Doncic's historic run enhances his MVP case
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
NBA fans are getting used to plenty of what-in-the-world moments lately. From Donovan Mitchell scoring 71 points and Giannis Antetokounmpo raking up 40-point games to ridiculous Nikola Jokic’s triple-doubles and the incredible longevity of LeBron James. But Luka Doncic’s run of play in the last couple of weeks has been perhaps the most extraordinary thing.
Since December 21, the Slovenian superstar has nearly averaged a 41-point triple-double, leading the Mavericks to seven consecutive wins. This feat is even more impressive considering that prior to this run the Mavericks had lost five of their previous seven games and were hanging on to the last play-in spot with a mediocre 15-16 record.
How special is all this? For starters, his seven-game run averaging 41.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 9.9 assists is unique. No player in NBA history has ever reached these numbers. He’s also the first to score 40 points per game while shooting at least 55 percent from the field and 40 percent from downtown in seven consecutive wins. Even some of his individual games are nothing short of historic.
The epic win against the Knicks in overtime two days after Christmas was the obvious highlight, posting a never-seen 60-21-10 line. But on New Year’s Eve, at San Antonio, Doncic also became the only player in NBA history to record 50 points and nine assists in a game with zero turnovers. In a four-day span, Doncic had more games with 50-plus points and 10-plus assists than legends such as Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant had in their entire careers.
A crunchtime takeover.
An unreal tip-in.
A never-before-seen statline.
Who else? @luka7doncic
60 PTS 🤯 21 REB 🤯 10 AST pic.twitter.com/AouJqobfzR
— NBA (@NBA) December 28, 2022
To say he’s been the key player in the Mavericks’ win streak is an understatement. Doncic has not only been a scoring threat but also an elite playmaker, creating 27.3 points through assists in the seven games since December 21. That means he has been responsible for an average of 69 points, more than 58 percent of Dallas’ total scoring. Without him on the court, they scored only 94.9 points per 48 minutes on a 43.6 shooting percentage. With him, 122.2 points while shooting 50.5 percent.
For the 2022-23 Mavericks, the playoffs will be the ultimate measure of success, especially after falling three games short of the NBA Finals last season. At some point, adding extra talent will be necessary to boost their championship chances. But in the meantime, they can enjoy a wild historical year from Doncic, who is currently the only player to average a 34-8-8 line in a season, all while playing for the slowest team in 2022-23 (95.6 possessions per game). At age 23, he’s only beginning to take over the NBA.
Best players in 2022, per @TikotDeRoa's Global Rating.
Doncic really made a strong run late in the year. pic.twitter.com/rTWCComcET
— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) January 1, 2023
– Alberto De Roa
Could trading D’Angelo Russell help fix the Timberwolves?
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Timberwolves are losers of six of their last seven games, and the pressure is starting to feel insurmountable. While there is still room for improvement, it’s becoming more apparent as time goes on that they won’t reach the expectations the organization had for this season. They’re arguably better than their record, and the return of Karl-Anthony Towns should help. The question is, can they turn things around enough to claim a playoff spot, or are they a lower-tier play-in team?
Don’t expect the Wolves to be very active in this year’s trade deadline. They can’t trade any first-round picks after giving up all their tradeable ones for Rudy Gobert. They only have three second-round picks they could offer in trades this season. Their overall lack of flexibility gives them few options to move forward if it’s concluded that this group does not work together. Any deal they make would improve them incrementally.
Minnesota’s only way out of this hole could be to trade Towns or Anthony Edwards to replenish some of the draft equity they gave up for Gobert and depth. Trading Edwards seems like a complete non-starter, and while they could trade Gobert, they probably won’t be able to get enough value for a trade to be worthwhile. We may hear in rumors the name of Towns, who becomes trade eligible this offseason. He extended with the Wolves for four years, projected at $224 million, so it will be interesting to see how his trade value fares considering he’s under contract for five more years but at an average salary of $56 million per season.
Although it is far from their biggest issue, the point guard position could be improved. D’Angelo Russell is more or less the same player impact-wise Minnesota initially acquired. He is currently extension-eligible to add up to an additional four years and could be at a crossroads with the organization with his future up in the air. If not extended, he will enter unrestricted free agency this offseason.
It’s hard to identify teams in need of a starting point guard where Russell presents an upgrade. One team that could make sense is the Wizards who, for example, could put together matching salaries through a combination of Will Barton, Monte Morris, and Delon Wright. The Wizards are set to be an over-the-cap team, provided they keep Bradley Beal and re-sign both Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma this offseason. Trade will likely be their main avenue toward acquiring a new starting point guard, and this framework keeps them close enough to the tax that they could stay below it with some additional maneuvering.
One framework being floated around involves Miami and Kyle Lowry. Like the Wizards, the Timberwolves will be an over-the-cap team going forward and will have a difficult time replacing Russell in free agency. If they do not plan on re-signing him, then swapping him for a different point guard makes sense. Lowry presents a short-term option at point guard but would bring some much-needed veteran leadership.
Lowry is struggling with the Heat for the second year in a row. While it’s debatable whether Russell is an upgrade or can be reinvigorated under “Heat Culture,” their reasons for doing this deal are mainly financial. Miami is set to be close to $20 million over the luxury tax next season after extending Tyler Herro to a four-year, $130 million extension. Swapping Lowry, who is owed $29.7 million for next season, for Russell’s expiring contract would solve that tax crunch.
Free agent stock watch: Up
Stacy Revere-Getty Images
In what has been a rough season for the Timberwolves, one bright spot has been the play of impending unrestricted free agent Naz Reid, a floor-spacing big man who plays with energy and boasts defensive skills as well as solid scoring chops down low. Over his last 12 games, only four of which have been starts, Reid is averaging 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, and 1.4 threes while shooting 41.5 percent from three. Currently making just $1.9 million this season, Reid’s salary is set to explode by 2023-24, as big men with his skill and intensity get rewarded as unrestricted free agents.
Jason Miller-Getty Images
The Lakers have been playing better basketball of late, and outside of LeBron James’ brilliance, a reason for that has been the play of Thomas Bryant, another impending unrestricted free agent center on a minimum salary, like Reid. Bryant has been a double-double machine lately, averaging 17.3 points and 12.5 rebounds over his last four appearances while shooting 69.8 percent from the floor in the process. He lacks Reid’s offensive game from beyond the arc, but Bryant is a better defender and rebounder. If Bryant stays healthy and keeps up this pace, he’ll also be looking at a hefty pay raise this summer.
– Frank Urbina
Free agent stock: Down
Tim Nwachukwu-Getty Images
Firmly out of the Knicks’ rotation since December 3, Cam Reddish and his camp need to be hoping New York finds a trade for him. Reddish is heading into restricted free agency this summer without having shown much thus far in his career outside of the occasional flash. Reddish has a ton of ability, but for whatever reason, he has now failed to establish himself as a firm rotation player under multiple coaching staffs. If he doesn’t find a new home and consistent playing time, it’s going to be an awkward offseason for the former Duke standout.
Carmen Mandato-Getty Images
Another young player currently out of his team’s rotation is Talen Horton-Tucker, who hasn’t gotten into a game for the Jazz since December 22. It’s not hard to figure out why head coach Will Hardy has him benched, either, as Horton-Tucker is averaging a measly 6.7 points and 2.3 assists on 38.2 percent shooting on the season, struggling mightily in his fourth NBA campaign. Horton-Tucker was blessed with the Laker bump earlier on in his career, seeing early playing time for a strong Los Angeles team in his first two seasons, which led many to believe he had star potential when in reality, he doesn’t look like much more than a solid role player in the NBA, if that. If Horton-Tucker doesn’t find a way to get back on the floor for Utah and improve on his numbers, it’s reasonable to believe he’ll choose to exercise the player option on his deal for 2023-24, one that will pay him $11 million for next season. It’s hard to see him earning anywhere close to that if his form remains where it is now.
– Frank Urbina
Is Jacque Vaughn an early Coach of the Year candidate?
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
After turmoil surrounded the Nets to start the season amid the firing of Steve Nash and the suspension of Kyrie Irving, coach Jacque Vaughn has led Brooklyn to 12 straight wins, the most for any team this season.
Since taking over as Brooklyn’s coach on Nov. 1, the Nets are a league-best 23-7. That marks the best 30-game start to a season for a head coach in franchise history. During that span, Brooklyn has made extraordinary strides on both sides of the ball, ranking first in offensive effective field goal percentage and defensive effective field goal percentage, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Following fractured relationships between Irving and Kevin Durant with Nash, Vaughn has simplified the offense and improved communication with both stars and each Nets player. In years past, Vaughn worked out Irving before games as an assistant coach.
The Brooklyn Nets are really responding well to Jacque Vaughn 🙏
— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) January 4, 2023
Since moving into the head coaching role, he’s made it a point to call early timeouts at the start of a quarter if the team loses focus defensively or defers offensive play calls, which Durant has publicly supported.
“I love when he does that, it keeps us on point,” Durant said. “I appreciate that as a player.”
Fun Fact: Ben Simmons hasn’t made a free throw during Brooklyn’s 12-game winning streak. Oddly, the Nets are 1-6 when Simmons makes a free throw and are 17-3 when he doesn’t, per StatMuse.
– Michael Scotto
Jeremy Sochan’s new free-throw routine
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
With the encouragement of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, rookie forward Jeremy Sochan has seen a dramatic improvement in his free throw shooting since switching to a one-handed motion.
Before making the switch, Sochan shot 45.8 percent. Since then, he’s up to 71.4 percent at the foul line.
– Michael Scotto