NBA Fact or Fiction: 'Old heads' vs. the new guard, Jazz as contenders and De'Andre Hunter's upside

Ben Rohrbach
·10 min read

Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week: The next 81-point scorer, skipping the COVID line and the upstart Cavaliers]

‘Old heads’ are responsible for communication breakdown with new guard

Charles Barkley called Kevin Durant a “bus rider” for joining the 73-win Golden State Warriors, and Shaquille O’Neal believes Donovan Mitchell is not ready to be the best player on a championship team. Those appear to be the combustion points for one-word answers from both stars to their predecessors.

Neither side is helping themselves in driving forward conversations about basketball.

The disconnect between O’Neal and Mitchell is clear. As is often the case, O’Neal had a tough time finding the best way to phrase his opinion and what came out was this awkward question to Mitchell on TNT’s “Inside the NBA”:

“I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players, but you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level. I said it on purpose. I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?”

It was a terrible encapsulation of what was a worthwhile conversation earlier on the broadcast about what separates stars from superstars and Mitchell’s ability, or lack thereof, to impact games beyond his scoring.

“A’ight,” Mitchell responded. When pressed further by his 48-year-old interviewer, the 24-year-old Jazz star added, “Shaq, I’ve been hearing it from my rookie year. I’m just going to get better and do what I do.”

“OK, good,” said O’Neal. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say. I love your game, brother. Keep it up.”

No big deal, right? Fair criticism. Awfully phrased question. But we got to the heart of it. As he reminded us, O’Neal won four titles in six Finals trips with Hall of Fame guards as co-stars. For better or worse, this was the motivating tactic he culled from his experiences. As he told Yahoo Sports, “I was just trying to test his temperature. ... You’re either going to be soft about it and complain, or you’re going to step your show up.”

Charles Barkley is not afraid spark conversation with the current generation of NBA stars. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images for PGD Global)
Charles Barkley is not afraid to spark conversation with the current generation of NBA stars. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images for PGD Global)

Except, this does feel like a big deal, because the game’s best two players of the past decade — Durant and LeBron James — are upset about it. In response to an Instagram post asking, “Why are young players so sensitive when OG Legends give them constructive criticism?” Durant said, “Them old heads need to go enjoy retirement,” and James added, “There’s a difference between constructive criticism and soft hating.”

James and Durant have respectively said before, “What makes what he says credible? Because he’s on TV? ... Screw Charles Barkley,” and, “I don’t know why they still ask for this idiot’s opinion” The former’s rant came in response to Barkley’s criticism of James’ expletive-laden takedown of his 2017 teammates.

Barkley’s commentary, including pokes at Durant’s “thin skin” and Kyrie Irving’s confounding approach to the media, hardly rise to the level of disrespect returned his way. Barkley is paid to give his opinion. A lot of people tend to disagree with those opinions, but he is always willing to explain how he arrived at them.

“Well, my philosophy hasn’t changed in 20 years,” he told The Athletic’s Sam Amick. “I’m gonna do my job. I’m gonna be fair. I’m gonna be fair, and I’m gonna be honest. I criticized Kobe Bryant back in the day. I’ve criticized LeBron James, so I’m not going to have a double standard about these guys today just because they’re sensitive. I mean, I’ve always told the story about me and Kobe Bryant going about it. And LeBron James went crazy on me a few years ago, which was fine. But I’m gonna do my job — plain and simple.”

But the new guard has a different idea about what Barkley’s job is. This may be generalizing a bit, but they appear to believe the job of former players is to promote the greatness of current players — full stop. Barkley reportedly got calls for fairly criticizing James Harden’s behavior on his way out of Houston. People took issue with him asking Paul George a question about reported turmoil in the Clippers’ locker room.

Both James and Durant have even taken issue with Barkley even taking the job. “I know he wanted to retire a long time ago, but he can't,” James said a few years back. “He’s stuck up on that stage every week.”

Barkley made $40 million in his playing career. James will make more than that this year. That is not some fault of Barkley’s. It is because his generation raised the game’s profile that made this possible for James.

Now, have Barkley and O’Neal been models of great communication? Absolutely not. Long before social media, when discussions around mental health were shunned, much less embraced, before opponents worked out and plotted their futures together, this is how they communicated. This is no excuse. It is a fact of life that embodies a larger cultural phenomenon, and the “old heads” do have a responsibility to evolve.

But James and Durant do not represent what that evolution should be. They, too, have a responsibility to better communicate with their predecessors. Their vision of what “Inside the NBA” should be is not so entertaining. It is not lost on me that James’ “The Shop” and Durant’s “The Boardroom” are versions of their self-aggrandizing ideal. The absence of their understanding is no better than the failure to understand.

A discussion between them about the divide in how their generations communicate, the validity of criticism that comes from experience and how best to navigate their differences is a conversation I would watch. The rest of this nonsense? It does no service to culture or the game beyond a viral clip everyone can dunk on.

Determination: Fiction

Utah Jazz are championship contenders

The best response to the old guard came from Mitchell, who handled O’Neal’s awkward interview with aplomb and responded by extending the Jazz win streak to 10, pushing their record to an NBA-best 14-4.

The question is whether a roster that does not look all that different from the one that entered last year’s playoffs as a sixth seed has transformed into a bona fide contender, or if their early success is a product of that continuity and will ultimately get them no further than their first-round playoff exits of the last two years.

The return of Bojan Bogdanovic, whose wrist injury cost the Jazz his 20 points per game in the playoffs, would be a simple explanation, if he had not struggled so far to find the consistent efficiency that made him so valuable. Mitchell’s continued progression as a deep scoring threat and playmaker has contributed to Utah’s improvement, as has the reestablishment of Rudy Gobert as the game’s most dominant interior presence. High-efficiency scoring from Jordan Clarkson off the bench has also helped elevate the offense.

But it is Mike Conley’s resurgence that makes Utah a serious contender in the Western Conference. The 33-year-old’s Jazz tenure began last season with a whimper, and even signs of reinvigoration were stunted by the NBA’s hiatus. He has been open about how difficult the adjustment was after 12 years on the Memphis Grizzlies, from playing off Mitchell to setting up Gobert, and the compounding nature of his struggles.

That is behind him now. He has started this season as he always has been, a would-be All-Star were the West not so deep at the guard position. Conley is averaging 16.6 points per game on 46/42/76 shooting splits, a 60-point year-over-year improvement in true shooting percentage, and he is doling out more assists per 36 minutes than he ever has in his career. The hamstring injury that slowed him last season is no longer hindering his defense. The result has been the NBA’s best individual plus-minus (229) by a wide margin.

The Jazz are 27.3 points per 100 possessions better with Conley on the floor than they are without him in non-garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. That will be impossible to sustain over the course of the season. Odds are the hot-shooting starts for Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale (45% on 9.5 combined 3-point attempts per game) will also fall back to earth. Improvement from Bogdanovic could help offset that.

Regardless, the addition of Derrick Favors and a rejuvenated Conley extends Utah’s potential playoff rotation to eight deep with serious talent. That they are connected so early in the season is even more important, especially after questions last season about the relationship between Mitchell and Gobert.

None of this may be enough to unseat the Lakers as NBA champions or the Clippers as the biggest threat to their Los Angeles rivals, given Utah’s opposition to those teams’ star tandems, but a fully realized version of the Jazz presenting a united front across all five positions will not go down easy. A playoff loss to anyone but the two L.A. teams would be a serious disappointment, and an upset of either is not out of the question.

Determination: Fact

De'Andre Hunter has shown tremendous progress in his second NBA season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
De'Andre Hunter has shown tremendous progress in his second NBA season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

De’Andre Hunter will eventually be the Hawks’ best player

Few, if any, players have surprised me more this year than De’Andre Hunter, the second-year forward out of the University of Virginia. None of what was so impressive about him in college — a 6-foot-8 frame fit for the modern NBA and a skill set to maximize it as a versatile scorer and defender across multiple positions — was evident in his rookie season. And I was afraid Atlanta’s losing culture would poison all that promise.

But he has been a revelation in his sophomore season. Injuries to free-agent acquisitions Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, among others, have opened 33.4 minutes a night to Hunter, and his seizure of that opportunity has made it impossible for coach Lloyd Pierce to play him fewer when they return. He is averaging 17.9 points on 52/38/88 shooting splits, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists with those minutes.

He has been everything I thought he could be. He can score off the dribble at all three levels and is shooting 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. He is welcoming difficult defensive assignments. In three games against the Nets — a win and two close losses — he has been the primary defender against Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden for almost 24 minutes and held them to combined 12-for-37 shooting. The Hawks defense has operated at a top-three level with him on the floor and a bottom-third level without him.

Given his progression from his first year to his second, there is every reason to believe he could develop into a frontline scorer and defender. His 2.3 assists per game flash potential as a playmaking option. If he puts all his potential into practice, there is every reason to believe he could become Atlanta’s best player.

That may sound ridiculous to the Trae Young faithful, but Hunter has a chance to impact the game in significantly more ways. And consider this: Statistically, given his current efficiency levels, if Hunter were to take the same number of shot attempts as Young, he would be averaging 30.5 points per game. That is an exaggeration of this point, but do not take this as a slight to Atlanta’s starting point guard, because if Hunter does become their best player, the Hawks are going to be a formidable force in the coming years.

Determination: Fact

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