Jayson Tatum is a star, but that’s not the only thing we learned from the 2019-20 NBA season before the league suspended play.
We’re still waiting to see if the 2019-20 NBA season is truly over. Even if play can’t resume we were treated to the bulk of an incredible regular season that included some incredible breakout performances.
Using this moment to take stock of what happened in the NBA through the first 65 or so games of the season, here are the undeniable, no-brainer things we learned in 2019-20:
Nick Nurse is the best coach in the NBA
As it stands with the season suspended Toronto is 46-18 and the second seed in the Eastern Conference. After losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers and Danny Green to the Lakers, the Raptors faced a crossroads and, rather than dump the team’s veteran players, Masai Ujiri opted to allow Nurse to try his hand at winning with a group led by Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry.
What followed was a magnificent coaching performance, which turned Nurse from an interesting upstart NBA leader to its best. Maybe a Finals win as a first-time NBA head coach should have been enough, but his performance this year ensured there is nothing left to deny.
Siakam was unleashed more fully as a shot creator. Nurse gave his young superstar the green light to take pull-up 3s and score in isolation, and handle the ball in transition. Though Siakam is not yet a reliable go-to scorer in the halfcourt against great teams, the 2019 Most Improved Player scored nearly 24 points per game on a solid 55.9 true shooting percentage.
The veterans around Siakam and Lowry bought in perfectly and were effective in the variety of creative roles in which Nurse deployed them. Whether it was the continuation of box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses originally installed during last year’s playoff run or young players comfortably stepping up into larger roles, the Raptors basically did not miss a beat. Though their G League system has always been among the NBA’s best, breakouts from Chris Boucher and Terence Davis exemplify that while they’re still winning, Toronto is also maximizing its young talent for the future.
Nurse’s impressive coaching job was already manifest in a trophy — this year showed it was no fluke.
Jayson Tatum is the league’s next breakout superstar
His second season suppressed the excitement about Tatum, who — don’t forget — went toe to toe with LeBron James in the playoffs as a rookie. History will forget Tatum’s 2018-19 campaign and instead skip to this spring when the young wing made the leap to a bona fide superstar.
On his way to his first All-Star selection, Tatum nearly doubled his free-throw attempts per game and shot nearly 60 percent at the rim, in addition to nailing 40 percent of his pull-up 3s. Since the All-Star break in February, Tatum was even better, scoring 30 points per game on a 60.2 true shooting percentage while using nearly a third of Boston’s possessions.
Take it from James himself, who pumped up the young Celtics star after the Lakers narrowly beat Tatum and the Celtics in Los Angeles earlier this month. That matchup included Tatum guarding James, showing that Tatum’s growth is not purely as a scorer. The young star is a fantastic team defender as well, tallying the 17th-most deflections in the NBA this season and allowing Boston coach Brad Stevens to not worry about hiding his high-usage scorer on a weaker opposing player.
The Celtics’ system is predicated upon using a deep stable of versatile wings to create mismatches on offense and swarm on defense, and Tatum has become a vital key to that system on both ends.
Luka Doncic is a future MVP — and Kristaps Porzingis is a perfect running mate
Remember when it was unthinkable that anyone could average a triple-double for a whole season in the modern era? Now that Russell Westbrook has done it twice, it looks like Doncic could very easily do the same — though much more organically. This year, Doncic averaged 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game in just his second season.
Doncic is one of the most exciting players in the league to watch, and already has added several little wrinkles to his game since making the leap from Real Madrid. The first is rebounding. Doncic grabbed nearly a quarter of available defensive rebounds while on the floor for the Mavericks and was the best rebounder on his team. The second was an even more thorough mastery of the pick-and-roll, with Porzingis and Maxi Kleber opening up the paint and help Dallas become one of the most efficient and devastating offenses in the history of the NBA, with a 116.7 offensive rating.
Simply put, Doncic was one of the most valuable offensive players in the league this season. When he shared the floor with Porzingis, the Mavericks outscored teams by 6.7 points per 100 possessions, slightly better than their overall mark. Though the two-man unit of Doncic and Dwight Powell was even better, Porzingis’ versatility shows just how much room for improvement there is for the Mavericks’ already-historic scoring.
Dallas quickly took the lessons learned from Doncic’s time with Real Madrid, added in coach Rick Carlisle’s affinity for multiple ball-handler lineups, and unleashed an attack no one had an answer for. Despite losing Powell to injury, the Mavericks should be a handful in the playoffs (assuming they’re played), and the Doncic-Porzingis pairing will be a load for years to come.