NBA Stock Watch: Jayson Tatum’s MVP case grows, Lakers point far down

from The Weizmann boy
FOX Sports NBA writer

A weekend of NBA basketball is in the books. Of course, this is a small sample and all, and we don’t want to jump to too many strong conclusions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t highlight some notable trends.

So, with that, welcome to FOX Sports’ NBA Stock Watch, a weekly column where we look at whose stocks are rising and whose are falling.

LOADING: Jayson Tatum MVP application

So much for the Ime Udoka saga affecting the Boston Celtics on the court. The defending Eastern Conference champions opened the season by winning their first three games – including wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat, two teams expected to be among the best in the conference. They dropped Monday night’s game to the Chicago Bulls.

A scorching offense has been the catalyst for the hot start — the Celtics are scoring 124.3 points per 100 possessions, 10 points more than last year’s No. 1 Phoenix Suns — and if you want to know how the Celtics score at such a fast pace, look no further than Jayson Tatum’s continued growth.

Tatum’s point-by-game totals in his first three games are: 40, 29, 35. More impressively, he started off on a whopping 58.7 percent shooting from the field. The most encouraging sign is that he completed 82 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass, after struggling in that area (60 percent) during last year’s playoffs.

Obviously, these numbers will decrease. But watch the Celtics and you’ll see that something about Tatum just feels different. Call it Leap, Maturation or whatever you like. But he’s established himself as a definite top 10 player. Put a guy like that on a team that looks like it might rack up 55 wins, and you have what could be a good bet for MVP.

FALL: LeBron’s chance for another ring

Entering the season, there was a belief among some that the Los Angeles Lakers, despite their obvious roster issues, could be a tough team for the simple fact that in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they had two of the game’s top 15 or so that the players.

Well, there are only three games left in the Lakers’ season opener, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone other than GM Rob Pelinka who still holds that belief. The Lakers are bad. Very bad. It’s not just the 0-3 start. It’s that they have the worst offense in the league. That’s no big deal — no team is scoring fewer points per possession, according to NBA Advanced Stats. And the reason is one we can all see: They can’t shoot.

LeBron, Lakers fall to 0-3 after loss to Dame Lillard and Blazers

The Lakers went 6-for-33 from 3, and Russell Westbrook was benched for the final three possessions.

They’ve hit 118 3-pointers this season. Do you know how many they hit? Twenty-five. For challenged math, it was 21.2 percent.

And as LeBron hinted after Game 1, those numbers are no fluke.

Russell Westbrook is clearly the biggest problem here. Case in point: After a two-point win over the Lakers on Sunday, Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said he subbed center Jusuf Nurkic over Westbrook late in the game so Nurkic could play free safety.

“Putting him against Russ, we were just going to play Russ,” Billups told reporters.

But it’s still stunning that Pelinka has largely avoided adding shooters to the roster over the past two years. Because it doesn’t matter how hard the Lakers play or how well they defend. No shooting means no space, and no space means they will struggle to be even a league-average offense.

Oh, and making matters worse – it’s not even like the Lakers can tank this season; The Pelicans, thanks to the AD trade, own the right to trade picks with the Lakers.

LOADING: To Brooke Lopez rim protection

Since arriving in Milwaukee, Lopez has become one of the best defensemen in the league. One of the reasons the Bucks took a step back defensively last season — they finished just 14th in the league — is that a back injury sidelined Lopez for all but seven regular-season games.

When healthy, Lopez is an impenetrable force, the rare center who has the size and strength to handle power on the rim, but also the mind to know when and how to jump up and attack. And after two games this season, he looks as healthy and fit as ever. Exhibit A:

Lopez struck out seven batters in two games. The shooters have converted just six of their 14 looks at the rim with him nearby, according to NBA Advanced Stats. This number is no accident either; he held opponents to under 50 percent shooting at the rim the previous two seasons.

When Lopez plays like that, the Bucks’ defense becomes impenetrable. They run him in the paint, allowing them to unleash Giannis Antetokounmpo as a roving threat. How do you score with Lopez blocking the way to the rim and Giannis lurking on the weak side? The answer is that you usually don’t.

FALLING: The Jazz’s Wobbling for Wembanyama

When Utah Jazz CEO Danny Ainge decided to ship both Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert this offseason and give the team’s head coaching job to a 34-year-old assistant named Will Hardy, well, it’s fair to say, that Ainge wasn’t exactly tight-lipped about his plans. There is a once-in-a-generation prospect in this year’s draft in Victor Wembanyama, and the Jazz were going to do everything they could to be able to land him.

The problem, though, is that it appears Ainge may not have gone far enough. The Jazz got off to a 3-0 start before finally dropping a game to the lowly Houston Rockets on Monday. And while they’re clearly not that good, they have enough pros on the team to hurt their chances of finishing with one of the three worst records in the league (all three worst teams enter the draft lottery with a 14 percent chance of best choice landing). Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk…these are legitimate NBA players with legitimate skills.

I’m not saying this is a playoff team. But the Jazz’s early season wins do present an interesting question: Is Ainge better off waiting a few months for a more desperate team to come to him and make a better offer for one of these vets, or should he just sell for What can he do now to improve his team’s lottery chances?

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Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Rising to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Daring Trial in Professional Sports History.” Follow him on Twitter @Yaron Weitzman.

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