Last year, the Miami HEAT never quite reached their full potential due to injuries and roster changes. The team ultimately finished the season at 37-45, which put them outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. This year, the team is looking to not only return to the postseason but be one of the East’s top squads. Their team looks great with Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire among others. But can they stay healthy and play to their full potential?
Basketball Insiders previews the Miami HEAT’s 2015-16 season.
The Miami HEAT could make one of the largest jumps in the standings of any team in the East. Last season they were hampered by injuries, most significantly losing Chris Bosh mid-season due to blood clots. A healthy Bosh and Dwyane Wade give them an automatic boost in production. Then, throw in a full season with Goran Dragic and add the selection of Justise Winslow in the draft and the HEAT should have no problem surpassing their 37-win total from last season. Keep an eye on Hassan Whiteside, who is coming off of a breakout season and will try to continue to improve after establishing himself as an NBA player. The HEAT missed out on the playoffs after falling out of contention late in the season, but this time around they should be able to stay in the race the entire time if healthy.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Jessica Camerato
Miami quietly had a fantastic summer. They were able to keep all of their veterans (Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, etc.), steal Justise Winslow on draft night and then sign Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire to bargain minimum contracts. This is a team that has a ton of talent on paper and could be elite if they stay healthy. I expect Chris Bosh to return at 100 percent after he was limited by a blood clot last season, I think Dragic will be better in his first full season with Miami and I believe Hassan Whiteside will prove that his success last season wasn’t a fluke. I’m excited to see what this HEAT team can do this season, since we didn’t get to see them at full strength at any point last year. Not only do I have Miami returning to the postseason this year, I think it’s possible they could go on a deep playoff run if they play as well as they’re capable of and everything goes their way.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
It certainly didn’t take long for the world to fall out of love with the Miami HEAT. Apparently all it took was for King James to leave his throne for everything to fall apart in South Beach, but 2015-16 is a new year full of promise for Miami, especially with Chris Bosh coming back healthy following his blood clot scare last season. We assume that Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng are going to be healthy as well, but what’s really exciting is finally getting the opportunity to see how Goran Dragic and Bosh will play together now that they finally have a shot to jell properly. Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow bring some exciting youth to the squad, and Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire were nice budget buys in free agency. This is a team back on pace to contend in the Eastern Conference. Maybe we’ll all fall back in love with the HEAT this year.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
Miami will head into training camp in much better shape than last year, which was their first season without LeBron James. The HEAT stayed in the playoff mix most of last season before injuries derailed the team’s progress. All-Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade missed a combined 58 regular season games. Veterans Luol Deng and Chris Andersen missed 32 games. Meanwhile in-season acquisitions Goran Dragic (26 games played) and Hassan Whiteside (48 games played) didn’t appear in many contests with the franchise either. The addition of rookie Justise Winslow should provide the team with lineup flexibility and newcomers Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green add much needed scoring and depth. There’s no reason why Miami shouldn’t be among the top eight in the Eastern Conference at season’s end.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
I think, along with the Indiana Pacers, it is incredibily difficult to figure out what the Miami HEAT are going to be this coming season. There is no arguing that Hassan Whiteside has incredible upside, that Goran Dragic can be a difference maker and that Justise Winslow was widely regarded as being the steal of the first round in this year’s draft. With LeBron James gone and Chris Bosh injured last year, Dwyane Wade proved to me that he still has a lot left in his tank and Erik Spoelstra, in my opinion, is one of the best coaches in the league. If things break right and if they are fortunate with regard to the health of both Wade and Bosh, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the HEAT end the regular season as high as the second seed. If, however, either Bosh or Wade struggle with the day-to-day rigors of the season, then I could just as easily see them facing the second seed in the first round (of course, as the seventh seed). I’m looking forward to seeing Amar’e Stoudemire posertize a few guys off of some pick-and-roll action with Dragic and let’s not forget that Luol Deng is still kicking as well. I see big things for the HEAT this year, even if they finish as low as third in their division. But I’ll put them in at second.
2nd Place — Southeast Division
— Moke Hamilton
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Dwyane Wade
There’s no question that when healthy, Wade remains the team’s top offensive weapon. Aside from LeBron James for a brief stretch, Wade has led the HEAT in scoring since his second season in the league in 2004-05. During that time, Wade has averaged 24.8 points per game. As he is set to enter his 13th season in the league, health concerns will continue to linger until he hangs it up. He has nearly two extra seasons on his legs from postseason time alone and has suffered numerous injuries over the years.
Despite the concerns, Wade turned in a great 2014-15 campaign. He averaged 21.5 points, 4.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in 62 contests. His 21.5 points per game was good for third-best in the Eastern Conference and his PER of 21.44 was 10th-best in the East. It’ll be interesting to see how head coach Erik Spoelstra handles his minutes this season as he’s coming off of a career-low 31.8 minutes per game last season. Given the uncertainty with how Chris Bosh will return from his health scare last season, Wade should be a top contender to lead the HEAT in scoring once again.
Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside
We’re all familiar with the impressive season Whiteside had last year. He blew up with the HEAT and completely dominated at times after bouncing around between overseas and the D-League. Had Whiteside started his dominance at the beginning of the season (instead of when he joined the team around January), then we very well could be talking about Whiteside as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. But since Whiteside only played in 48 games, we’re left to wonder what could have been.
During the time in which he did play, he averaged 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. His 2.6 blocks per game was second-best in the league, behind only Anthony Davis. It’s become clear that Whiteside has established himself as an elite shot blocker for the HEAT. He held opponents to 55.7 percent shooting less than five feet of the rim and 38.5 percent shooting between five and nine feet of the rim. His numbers less than five feet of the rim are in the same range as Draymond Green (54.8 percent), Tim Duncan (54.9 percent) and Joakim Noah (55.7 percent). Because Whiteside was able to alter shots and control the paint, the HEAT were a much-improved team defensively when Whiteside was on the court. The team posted a 105.6 defensive rating when he was on the court, compared to a 113 defensive rating when he was off of the court. If Whiteside can stay healthy this season, the HEAT should be one of the better defensive teams in the league.
Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic
Wade received consideration here, but Dragic earned this label instead. Retaining Dragic this offseason was perhaps one of the most important things for the HEAT. Now with Dragic re-signed for at least four more years, they’ll have a go-to playmaker on any given possession. Dragic has shown a great ability to be able to run an offense and create opportunities for his teammates. Since becoming a full-time starter three seasons ago, he’s averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game.
He only played in 26 games for the HEAT after joining the team at the trade deadline, but left many excited about the impact he can have going forward. While he put up good numbers in a limited sample, the argument can be made that he will be even better now that he’s in his first full season with Miami. He had little time to learn the playbook and adjust to playing with new teammates when he joined Miami midseason last year, so a full summer learning plays and getting to know his squad should put Dragic in a great situation to be successful this season.
Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade
It’s clear that Wade is the go-to player during crunch time. Given his long history in the league, he’s established himself as one of the best players when it comes down to hitting big-time shots. Wade finished inside of the top 20 last season in total points scored within the last five minutes games when the HEAT were either ahead or trailing by five points. Over the years, Wade has shown that he can be clutch in a number of different ways – the most obvious of which is hitting jumpers and layups. He’s also gotten the job done of the defensive end in late-game situations as he’s had a number of had game-saving steals and blocks.
The Unheralded Player: Luol Deng
Deng arrived in Miami last season as one of the most-established players at his position. He signed a two-year deal with a player option for the second year, which he utilized earlier this summer. Last season, much of the hype was put on Whiteside after his incredible start. Players like Wade and Bosh also stole the headlines as well, leaving Deng completely out of the picture. But Deng turned in a quiet season and was the team’s fourth-leading scorer with an average of 14 points per game.
As he prepares to enter his 12th season in the league, Deng is still a proven defender and a player that can spark the team when needed. His experience will prove to be beneficial for rookie Justise Winslow. Now that Deng opted in for this season, Winslow will be able to learn from Deng and he won’t face the pressure that comes with starting in the NBA. Deng has had long-term success in the NBA and his knowledge of the game will surely help some of the younger players on the team. While he may not go out and drop 20 points every night, he still deserves a ton of praise for what he adds to this team.
Best New Addition: Gerald Green
Winslow is the best addition for the team’s long-term plans, but Gerald Green gets the nod here because of the impact he’ll have right away. Green was one of just a couple players that the HEAT opted to bring in over the summer. The team mainly worked on retaining Wade and Dragic, but did add Amar’e Stoudemire and Green through free agency (and draft picks Winslow and Josh Richardson). While Winslow seems like he’ll receive plenty of playing time during his rookie campaign, adding Green will help the HEAT solve an immediate need: three-point shooting.
The HEAT finished 24th in the league last season in three-point shooting and didn’t have one player average more than two three-point baskets per game. Green is a career 37 percent shooter from long distance, and is just two years removed from knocking down a career-high 40 percent from three-point range. He figures to be Wade’s primary backup at shooting guard, and could even start on select nights in place of Wade. During a time in the league in which three-point shooting is extremely valuable, Green will be counted on to help the team improve its shooting.
– Cody Taylor
Who We Like
1. Chris Bosh
Everyone in the NBA community collectively breathed a sigh of relief once it became known that Bosh’s health scare last season wasn’t too serious. He’s now said to be healthy and very eager to return to the court. He’s been putting in some work in the weight room as well, as he’s added a lot of muscle to his 6’11 frame. He’s been one of the most productive big men in the league throughout his career and seems poised to continue at that level. While he was viewed mainly as the third option when LeBron James was on the team, he’s now become one of the top scoring options behind Wade. In fact, last season without James on the team, Bosh’s scoring went from 16.2 points per game in 2013-14 to 21.1 points per game. Having a healthy Bosh back next season is going to be a huge boost for the team’s expected playoff run.
2. Justise Winslow
Somehow Pat Riley and the HEAT managed to get lucky again. Miami got perhaps one of the biggest steals of the draft when Winslow fell to No. 10. His addition to the team already seems like a great fit. And as mentioned above, Winslow will be able to come in and learn from a proven veteran in Deng. He’ll be Deng’s primary backup and won’t face the pressure that comes with starting in the NBA. He’ll have the benefit of just coming into the game and playing his style. He was viewed as one of the most complete players in the draft and will be able to step onto the court this season and help contribute immediately (but without the lofty expectations that would’ve come with being a higher pick). During his time at Duke, he showed that he can drive to the basket and initiate contact in order to get a foul. He’s also excelled on the defensive end with his ability to lock up players and he figures to benefit with Whiteside patrolling the paint behind him. He may not ultimately get enough playing time to be a legitimate contender for Rookie of the Year, but he could prove to be one of the more productive members of this draft class.
3. Erik Spoelstra
HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra has become one of the best coaches in the league. He has one of the best minds in the game when it comes to drawing up plays and getting the most out of his players. It’s obviously helped that he’s coached players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but last year’s HEAT squad represents arguably one of Spoelstra’s best performances. When you look at the up-and-down year that the HEAT had, it’s amazing to think that they narrowly missed the playoffs by just one game. Bosh played in just 44 games, Whiteside played in just 48, Dragic joined the team at the trade deadline, newly-signed power forward Josh McRoberts missed all but 17 games with a knee injury and Luol Deng and Chris Andersen combined to miss 32 games. This left the team relying on three different players from the D-League: Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Henry Walker. It should be noted that all three players were significant contributors in one way or another. With so much uncertainty that surrounded the team throughout the year, it’s an accomplishment that the team was still alive in the playoff hunt until the final day of the regular season. It’s shocking that Spoelstra didn’t place inside the top 15 in Coach of the Year voting.
4. Pat Riley
The HEAT re-signed Wade and Dragic, added Stoudemire and Green and drafted Winslow and Richardson. That was pretty much the team’s offseason summed up in one sentence, and even still the HEAT have been mentioned by some as winners of the summer. Other teams in the league earned that label by signing top-tier free agents to max deals, but Riley didn’t make any splashy moves. Instead, he recognized that retaining their players was the best possible move. They recognized that their projected starting five of Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside could be among the Eastern Conference’s best and opted to keep it intact. Who knew just one year after losing LeBron James that the HEAT could once again become a serious contender in the East?
– Cody Taylor
Looking at this HEAT team on paper, it’s obvious that the biggest strength is their experience. They have plenty of veterans such as Wade, Bosh, Deng, Stoudemire, McRoberts, Green, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers, all of whom have been in the league for at least seven years. Many of those players were key contributors on those HEAT Finals runs in recent years. In fact, the HEAT are tied with the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs for the second-highest average team age in the league. For that reason, the team’s window to compete is getting smaller and smaller. But, given the amount of veterans on the team with championship experience, the HEAT should among the favorites in the East this season.
– Cody Taylor
Given that the HEAT have one of the oldest teams in the league, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one potential weakness is going to be the team’s overall health. Wade represents one of the biggest question marks on the team, as he’s missed time over the last several seasons with various injuries. Bosh is said to be completely healthy and ready to go this season, but we’re still not quite sure how he’ll return once he steps back out onto the court. McRoberts is coming off of a season in which he missed all but 17 games with a knee injury. Stoudemire has played in just 278 games out of a possible 394 games since 2010. Additionally, Andersen has missed time as well. If healthy, the HEAT could be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but that will hinge largely on how healthy they can ultimately be. In terms of on-court weaknesses, as previously mentioned, Miami was 24th in the league in three-point shooting last season and that needs to improve.
– Cody Taylor
The Burning Question
Can the HEAT seriously challenge for one of the top seeds in the East?
There’s no question that Pat Riley and the HEAT are preparing for a long season. They feel their team, as currently constructed, can compete with the best teams in the East and make a deep run in the playoffs. You’d be hard-pressed to disagree with them given the amount of established players on this team, but health concerns will ultimately be there all season long. How many games will Wade play? Can Bosh return to the level of play that we saw out of him last season? Can Whiteside pick up where he left off last year? How will young players like Winslow and Tyler Johnson fit in? There seems to be a lot of questions surrounding this team, but there’s no doubting that the HEAT can be among the best in the conference if they can stay healthy. Don’t sleep on Miami this year.
– Cody Taylor
NBA Daily: Gary Trent Jr. Pushing Portland to Defy Expectations
Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and defying expectations. As to how, look no further than Gary Trent Jr.
Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and exceeding expectations. They’re currently fifth in the Western Conference and within three games of the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.
It’s abundantly clear that Damian Lillard is most responsible for Portland’s success. However, one player can only take a team so far and, as great as Lillard has played the role of Batman, Gary Trent Jr. has taken a huge step up and emerged as his Robin in the absence of CJ McCollum.
In fact, in their Feb. 4 tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, a game in which the Trail Blazers were without Lillard and McCollum, Trent scored a team-high 24 points and led Portland to a 121-105 victory at the Wells Fargo Center, just the 76ers second loss at home on the season.
Lillard, McCollum and Trent have only played 11 games together this season — and, in one of those, Trent logged fewer than six minutes. When the three of them suit up, Portland is 7-4 and has scored 136.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest offensive rating of any trio on the Trail Blazers that has played at least 10 games together, per NBA.com. That group will have to provide more defensive resistance for Portland to succeed in the postseason — in their time together, the trio is surrendering 117 points per 100 possessions — but their offensive potency would give them a chance against just about any opponent.
McCollum, who has missed time due to a fracture in his left foot, hasn’t played since Jan. 16. Since then, Portland, who recently rattled off six consecutive wins, are 10-6. In February, the team is 8-3 while Trent, who is averaging 18 points per game since McCollum’s injury, has proven an essential part of that success.
For the season, the former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 15.4 points per game while splashing 44.2 percent of his 7.4 three-point attempts per game. Trent is also 13th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, contributing 3.3 per contest. But what’s pushed his game to a new level this season?
Well, Trent has improved his greatest strength: the catch-and-shoot three. Last season, Trent shot 41.5 percent on 2.9 catch-and-shoot opportunites per game. This season, not only has he improved that percentage to 44.6 percent, but he’s done so on four such attempts per game.
Trent has also become more dangerous off the dribble: while he averaged just 2.9 pull-ups per game last season, Trent has appeared far more comfortable creating off the bounce this season, hoisting 6.3 pull-ups per contest this season and knocking them down at a 39.2 percent clip. 3.3 of those attempts have come from beyond the arc and are going in at a rate of 43.3 percent compared as well. The fact that Trent has more than doubled those attempts per game is an accurate reflection of his evolution into more than a long-range threat.
The same goes for his newfound penchant for coming off a pindown and snaking his way from the slot — the space between the three-point line and the top of the key — to the opposite elbow for a mid-range jumper.
For all his improvement, Trent still has a lot of room to improve his game. To put it mildly, his numbers at the other end of the floor are underwhelming at best. According to , Trent ranks towards the bottom of the Trail Blazers’ roster in numerous defensive metricsm, per basketball-reference: his 1.1 steal percentage would be 10th on a roster currently of just 14 players; his .1 defensive win shares ninth; his -2.3 box plus-minus 11th; his 120 points per 100 possessions 14th.
His effort is evident — Trent’s 2.1 deflections per game, the third-most on the Trail Blazers, is a testament to that — but, as someone who’s typically alongside at least one of (if not both of) Lillard and McCollum, Trent is often charged with more difficult defensive assignments, arguably more difficult than he’s suited to take on, hence the poor stats. But, sometimes, that difficult is just life in the NBA; Portland must see better from him on that end going forward if they are to truly compete for a title.
While Lillard has carried much of the load himself, Trent’s growth has also played a crucial part in Portland’s ability to keep their heads above water as they’ve dealt with an onslaught of injuries this season. If, upon the return of McCollum and the others, he can continue to do his thing on offense and also improve on the defensive end, Trent might just help push the Trail Blazers farther than they’ve ever gone in recent seasons.
NBA Daily: Where Does Blake Griffin Fit?
With the news that Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons will part ways, Tristan Tucker breaks down which teams do and don’t make sense for Griffin’s services.
Blake Griffin is unlikely to ever suit up for the Detroit Pistons again, with the two sides agreeing to part ways by means of a trade or buyout, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. As laid out excellently by Duncan Smith of Hoops Habit, Griffin is probably unlikely to be traded by the Pistons. Detroit shouldn’t want to part with any asset just to unload Griffin’s gargantuan contract, which leaves a buyout as the only other option.
With that being said, Griffin is one of the more prolific names that could reach the buyout market in recent years, even in spite of the decline of his health and play. The 6-foot-9 forward would be an attractive buyout asset due to his work ethic, veteran status, a crafty passing game and occasionally-streaky jump shot. Let’s take a closer look at which teams do and don’t make sense for the six-time All-Star.
Miami is at an interesting crossroads after a Finals run during the 2020 bubble as the team currently sits at just 13-17. Because of the slow start, whatever the case may be, it’s heavily rumored that the team will scour the market for something to mix the team up in a similar way that brought Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala in last season.
Several teams will be major factors in the buyout market, but Miami has more than what some teams can offer, having a disabled player exception valued at $4.7 million after the injury to Meyers Leonard, as well as the bi-annual exception valued at about $3.6 million, though it might better to preserve that exception for next year (if any team uses its bi-annual exception, it loses it for the following season).
The HEAT will call around the league for a blockbuster trade, but if nothing comes to fruition, stretch forwards like Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Nemanja Bjelica make sense. Miami desperately needs more big man talent to surround Bam Adebayo as Precious Achiuwa isn’t developed enough to play next to the cornerstone and Kelly Olynyk is in the midst of a regression. Griffin’s offensive upside likely makes him appealing to the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Boston is middling too, experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks within the team early, all while Kemba Walker continues his struggles to return from injury and losing other pieces along the way. Griffin’s former teammate Andre Drummond is often discussed when it comes to the Celtics and buyout options, but the current Piston himself is another great fit.
The Celtics aren’t trading for Griffin with their historically large $28.5 million traded player exception; plus the forward is under contract for $36.6 million in 2020-21, making such a move impossible. Boston can offer the bi-annual exception to Griffin, and add some stability to a team that should be contending this season.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are going to be one of the most aggressive buyout market players, much like any other year, but especially given that Anthony Davis is hurt, big man depth is an issue for the Lakers and that the team has an open roster spot to use.
While Griffin is only averaging 12.3 points on 36.5 percent shooting, one doesn’t have to look far to see a former All-Star. Just two seasons ago, Griffin averaged 24.5 points and shot 36.2 percent from deep to go along with 5.4 assists per game. If the forward can get anywhere close to any one of those aspects of his game, it makes the Lakers even scarier.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers are an interesting option for Griffin, seasonally ravaged once again with injuries to big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Griffin’s fit is easy to see, and he would join a scorching-hot Damian Lillard who is currently carrying Portland to a playoff spot.
Portland used its entire mid-level exception on Derrick Jones Jr., so it only has its bi-annual exception to use, an offer that gets easily beaten by other teams. The only way this happens is if Griffin actively seeks Portland, which is probable, especially if he saw how the franchise rebuilt Carmelo Anthony’s value.
Likelihood: Relatively likely
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are somewhat of a sleeper team for Griffin, the team is in the hunt for a playoff position but injuries to its big man rotation are hampering expectations. Rookie James Wiseman is out, Kevon Looney is missing time, Marquese Chriss is out for the season and Draymond Green is occasionally in and out of the lineup.
Griffin’s passing technique and former sharpshooting form make him a potentially attractive addition to the group. The Warriors will likely eye the former superstar, but it remains to be seen if Griffin would have any interest in signing with a team that’s projected to finish as a lower playoff seed in the Western Conference.
It’s important to note that the Warriors have about $3.5 million remaining in their MLE, meaning that the team could preserve its equally-valued bi-annual exception for next year.
Likelihood: Relatively likely
Here’s a quick speed round. The Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers could all add Griffin but each with caveats. The Jazz has a solid foundation and the NBA’s best record — adding a big personality like Griffin, especially without a defined role, could jeopardize that. Milwaukee is interesting, but Bobby Portis is playing extremely well in his role, so the team should look for backup wing or guard depth first.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s rotation is pretty full, it would need to decide that it wants to go a different direction with some of its players. If it does, Griffin makes sense.
The 76ers are interesting given its contending status and the fact that it has nearly its full MLE, valued at around $4.8 million. The San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Indiana Pacers could theoretically be options, with their full $9.3 non-taxpayer MLE’s available.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns make some level of sense, but it is unclear whether Griffin has any interest in reuniting with the front office that traded him or his former co-star in Chris Paul.
On the other hand, sleepers include the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets. Dallas and Brooklyn are exciting options and more likely than one might think, while the Hornets are in the midst of a playoff push and Griffin is notably a Jordan-brand athlete. Meanwhile, the Nets have a $5.7 million disabled player exception from Spencer Dinwiddie and the full non-taxpayer MLE to offer Griffin, making them enticing.
As is made clear, Griffin would be a hot commodity on the buyout market, with several teams that could benefit from the added services of an aging former All-Star. Be sure to tune into Basketball Insiders as we approach the NBA trade deadline on Mar. 25.
LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton: Two Different But Equally Impactful Rookies
LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton have turned heads during their rookie campaigns. Quinn Davis takes a look at their very different yet equally impactful play thus far.
With apologies to Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Saddiq Bey and a few others, the league’s best rookie is a two-man race. Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball have staked their claim at the top of the rookie ladder and both show no signs of relinquishing.
The two young guards are helping to elevate a mediocre draft class, both showing a precocious ability for their respective teams. While they play similar positions, their games are nearly polar opposites.
Ball thrives in chaos, sometimes even creating that chaos himself to gain advantages for his team. His size and vision make him a weapon in transition and he has a knack for turning a loose ball scramble into a positive play.
He will often make decisions on the fly rather than planning things out, relying on his incredible instincts. Below, he slips a screen, draws two defenders as he goes to the rim and makes the last-second call to drop it off to PJ Washington just before he travels.
Haliburton creates structure, filling in gaps and connecting dots for a team that has desperately needed that kind of consistent presence. Watching Haliburton play, you’ll see a surprising amount of orchestration for a rookie. Where Ball sniffs out opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, Haliburton sees multiple steps ahead. Take this play against the Miami HEAT, where Haliburton comes up with a steal, directs the fast break and gets an open three for Kyle Guy.
Notice Haliburton immediately points to the player he wants Hassan Whiteside to pass it to. Whiteside obliges, Haliburton gets it back on the wing as planned and waits for his teammate to cut to the rim, drawing defenders and freeing Guy for the three, which he missed.
Haliburton’s fastidiousness has made him averse to turnovers as he is averaging only 2.6 per 100 possessions. Conversely, Ball’s moxie leads to few more giveaways, with the Charlotte Hornets rookie posting 4.6 turnovers per 100.
Both have shot better than expected from deep. Haliburton has shot 46 percent from three while Ball, considered a non-shooter coming into the league, has shot 37.
The tracking data helps tell the story of the differences in their shooting. Haliburton, who has a slow and slightly funky release, mostly attempts wide-open threes and has made nearly 50 percent of them. Ball’s quicker release has allowed him to shoot 41 percent on triples where defenders are within 4-to-6 feet.
When attacking the rim, Haliburton relies almost exclusively on a floater. While he hits it at a decent clip – 51 percent from the short mid-range area per Cleaning the Glass – it’d be nice to see him get to the rim and try to draw contact. Only 15 percent of his total shots come at the rim, and he draws a shooting foul on a measly three percent of his attempts.
Due to his lack of downhill explosion, Haliburton can often be too eager to pass when the right play is to go up for the layup. Here, Ivica Zubac is clearly playing the pass while Marcus Morris stays home on the shooter in the corner. With a more aggressive mindset, Haliburton could have had a decent look at the rim, but instead, it’s a turnover.
Ball attacks more frequently but isn’t yet a great finisher. He often attempts wild layups, looking to avoid defenders rather than go through them. In the next clip, he tries to switch to his left hand to go around the shot blocker, rather than go into the body, and the attempt is promptly swatted.
Still, he draws fouls on 7.8 percent of his attempts and has improved steadily at finishing throughout the season. It is common for rookies to take time adjusting to NBA athleticism around the rim, so the fact that Ball is at least willing to attack is a good sign.
Defensively, a similar pattern emerges. Ball is an occasional gambler whose risks can lead to big rewards but also causes his fair share of breakdowns. Haliburton, meanwhile, is wise beyond his years as an off-ball defender – his advanced understanding of positioning pairs well with those great instincts.
Ball leads all rookies in steals per game at 1.6 and is 12th overall in the league – already adept at lingering around in the backcourt and swiping the rock from unsuspecting rebounders.
But Ball’s biggest weakness as a defender right now is his closeouts. He tends to hang around the paint a bit too long when guarding the weak side, forcing him to close out hard, thus leaving him very susceptible to pump fakes and fouls. Often, his ball-watching leaves him caught on a screen, then recovering too hard to a non-shooter in Tyrese Maxey, allowing for the drive.
Even with his flaws, Ball’s energy and feel make him a decent defender for a rookie. Of course, he should only improve as he becomes accustomed to the speed of the game.
Haliburton’s defense, like his offense, is more carefully approached. Haliburton can be caught on screens and fooled by good fakes as many rookies can, but it is rare. Watch as the Kings double Ben Simmons in the post, leaving Haliburton to guard two shooters. He plays a brief game of cat and mouse with Simmons, forcing the pass to the wing. The talented youngster then feigns the closeout to Danny Green before pouncing on the swing pass to the corner – all in all, this is a veteran play.
Overall, Haliburton and Ball are yin and yang. The introvert and the extrovert. Each could probably use a dash of the other’s game to take themselves to the next level.
While their styles are opposite, their impacts and intangibles are similar. Both players rely on their brains first and foremost. More importantly, both have gained the trust of their coaches.
Haliburton earned it almost immediately and has been a mainstay in the Kings’ crunch-time lineup. That five-man group, featuring the rookie along with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, has been incendiary, outscoring opponents by just over 20 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Ball took a little more time to get there but has since shown flashes of brilliance. Just watch the second half of the Hornets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season to see how Ball can take over a game on both ends when everything is clicking.
Ball will likely win Rookie of the Year, his counting stats and occasional standout showings give him the edge in that race. Haliburton’s efficiency and mistake-free play might give him the edge as the better player right now, though.
Ball’s ceiling is demonstrably higher as he does things on a basketball court that not many in the league even attempt, let alone other rookies. Haliburton will be a consistent contributor and likely have a long career, but it is hard to see a path to superstardom.
There will be many years ahead to dissect their games as they improve and begin competing at a higher level. For now, we can appreciate two bright spots in a previously dismissed draft class.