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2017 Free Agent Rankings: Point Guards

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the tiers of a deep point guard free agency class.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the final weeks of the 2016-17 regular season upon us, the looming playoffs will have major implications for this summer’s impressive free agent class. While many observers expect the major stars to stay put, an early playoff exit could be the first domino to fall in a series of events that reshapes multiple NBA franchises. With so much at stake in the coming days, Basketball Insiders is getting an early jump on 2017 free agency, starting with today’s look at a deep point guard class.

A common theme throughout is that players, in most cases, will exert major leverage on the teams that will bid for their services. The available players are divided into four tiers, two for starters and two for the reserves.

Tier 1: Top Shelf Starters

1. Stephen Curry, Warriors

The Golden State Warriors, despite Kevin Durant’s injury and an off year from Stephen Curry — by his standards — are still the best team in basketball. And it is the two-time defending MVP who is leading the way, despite shooting a career-low from three-point range and his worst overall field goal percentage since 2012-13. After posting a 31.5 Player Efficiency Rating during last year’s back-to-back and unanimous MVP season, Curry is currently posting his lowest PER in four seasons (23.7).

Despite any struggles, the Warriors are performing better as a team with Curry on court than any other player. Golden State outscores opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry on court. That isn’t a team-high, but his off-court net is by a wide margin. The Warriors are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on court than on the bench. Draymond Green is second in on/off net differential (+10.5), Klay Thompson is third (+9.8), and Durant fourth (+9.1). Even with Curry struggling from three-point range as he never has in his career, he makes the best team in the world better through his presence on the court.

As such, anything other than a super-max contract for Curry this summer is impossible to imagine. Durant also has a player option, but with Thompson and Green each signed for 2+ seasons at relative bargains, he’s likely to stay the course as well. That may mean departures for unrestricted free agents Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pachulia, but that’s the price of having a Big Four.

2. Chris Paul, Clippers

Advanced stats actually favor Chris Paul over Curry. The Clippers’ floor general has a +18.4 on/off differential that leads the NBA. Paul is third among point guards in Box Plus-Minus per Basketball Reference and fourth in PER compared to a rank of fifth in both categories for Curry. This likely results from the additional burden on Paul due to a top-heavy roster that isn’t getting as much from its bench as the Warriors.

While the Clippers dominate with Paul on court, the team is 9.3 points per 100 worse with Austin Rivers on court compared to off, while Raymond Felton’s differential is a disastrous -12.8. Perhaps if Paul and Curry switched teams, Curry would struggle more while Paul led the Warriors to even greater heights. But in the real world, the tie goes to the player that produces in the standings, and ultimately in the playoffs. With the Clippers now only a game ahead of the seventh-place Grizzlies, Curry has a clear edge as the best point guard available in the coming offseason.

Barring health concerns, Paul will almost certainly exercise his early termination option to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. It’s a tricky situation for the Clippers as Blake Griffin has the same option while J.J. Redick is on an expiring contract. Luc Mbah a Moute — who has become an important piece — has a player option for $2.3 million he will almost certainly decline. DeAndre Jordan is the only player in the top five of the Clippers’ rotation who is under contract for next season with no options.

Is the Clippers’ late-season swoon a sign of fractured chemistry, or a consequence of lingering effects from the thumb injury Paul suffered earlier in the season? It’s hard to say, but an early playoff exit could ignite a chain reaction with one or more starters defecting in free agency. If Griffin leaves, there’s no telling where Paul could end up. And if the Clippers go deep into the luxury tax to sign Griffin and Paul to massive new contracts, would Redick — easily among the league’s best shooters — compromise his career earnings to stick around on a bargain contract? Anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance could have disastrous consequences for L.A.

3. Kyle Lowry, Raptors

Among NBA point guards, only Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Curry and Paul have a better on/off differential than Kyle Lowry. His +10.1 trails only Patrick Patterson’s +10.9 for Toronto. With Terrence Ross departed to Orlando via the trade that brought back Serge Ibaka, Lucas Nogueira (+8.1) is currently the only other Raptor with a positive differential (minimum 300 minutes). The rest of the roster ranges from DeMarre Carroll’s -1.2 to Jakob Poeltl’s -8.8. The positive differentials for Patterson and Nogueira are almost certainly a consequence of spending the bulk of their minutes on court with Lowry (846 of 1328 minutes this season for Patterson, 734 of 1067 for Nogueira).

Lowry may not be in the same conversation with Curry and Paul, but these numbers show that he’s a difference maker that deserves to be on the highest tier of pending free agent point guards. One need look no further than the near-max contract the Magic gave Bismack Biyombo after his heroics in the playoffs to see the Lowry effect. A stout rebounder, defender and shot blocker, Biyombo has looked like a shell of himself this season without Lowry to set him up for attacks on the rim. Basketball Insiders editor and publisher Steve Kyler spoke to sources close to the Raptors during All-Star festivities in New Orleans, who said there is almost no scenario in which Toronto wouldn’t pay whatever it takes to keep Lowry, despite the wrist injury that has cost him extended time.

Simply put, the Raptors without Lowry are in danger of falling into the dreaded NBA purgatory. A healthy Toronto squad can compete for a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. If Lowry departs in the summer, the Raptors lack the cap space to replace him with anything close to equal talent. In that scenario, the Raptors would be too good to tank for high draft picks, but not good enough to contend. Toronto must do everything within its power to keep Lowry long term. Trading for Ibaka was almost certainly part of that equation.

4. George Hill, Jazz

The Jazz emerged as clear winners of the draft-day, three-team trade that brought George Hill from Indiana, sent Utah’s lottery pick (12, became Taurean Prince) to the Hawks and delivered Jeff Teague to his hometown Pacers. Hill has vastly outperformed Teague and newly-minted Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schroder this season, as evidenced by the Jazz’s current fourth seed in the brutal Western Conference. Hill’s +9.1 net differential ranks seventh among NBA point guards behind Lowry. He’s eighth in BPM and 14th in PER, placing him a step below Lowry but firmly in the upper echelon of free agent point guards.

Although Hill has only appeared in 43 games due to injury, he has emerged from Paul George’s shadow in Indiana and come into his own in Utah. It’s much easier now to see why San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich agonized over trading Hill for the pick the Spurs used to draft Kawhi Leonard. As with Lowry, the Jazz are left with no choice but to pay whatever the market demands to keep Hill. Trading a lottery pick made sense — even with Hill entering the season on an expiring contract — because Utah had plenty of young talent on the roster but lacked a frontline point guard. The Jazz’ situation was so dire last season that the team started Shelvin Mack in 27 games. That may be the fate that awaits Utah again if the organization can’t convince Hill to commit long-term. Any player that can elevate a lottery team to the brink of home-court advantage in the West deserves a spot this high on the list.

Tier 2: Serviceable Starters

5. Patty Mills, Spurs

While teams like the Warriors and Clippers are extremely top-heavy in terms of net rating differential, the Spurs are an anomaly. Patty Mills is nominally a bench player who leads San Antonio in net differential (+7.7) followed by fellow reserves David Lee (+4.7) and Manu Ginobili (+4.3). None of the trio has started more than 10 games this season. Meanwhile, the entire starting lineup is in the bottom six. This is likely due to Popovich starting Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, two players in the twilight of their career. Parker ranks no higher than 40th among NBA point guards in net differential, BPM and PER.

The upshot is that Mills may be a reserve for the second-best basketball team on Earth, but he could easily start for half the league’s teams. Mills will be paid as such this summer, and San Antonio shouldn’t think the rest of the league has failed to notice how good he is. Fortunately, the Spurs have LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard signed through next season on reasonable contracts. Parker has one year left at $15.5 million and Gasol has a player option for $16 million, but the Spurs have full Bird rights for Mills. As such, San Antonio can spend into the luxury tax to keep Mills if that’s what is required. With the number of teams that will be after him, it almost certainly is. Mills’ piddling $3.6 million contract that expires at season’s end will have the old timers pining for the days when you could go to the movies for a nickel.

6. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans

Jrue Holiday is statistically very similar to Mills and Teague in terms of the stats used above. Mills obviously distinguishes himself by playing a major role on a true contender. But Holiday has another similarity to some of the point guards already discussed. Like Lowry and Hill, Holiday will have an unbelievable amount of leverage with his incumbent team when his final year at $11.3 million expires in a few short months.

Statistically, Holiday is around average for an NBA starter. Just don’t expect him to ask for an average salary July 1. If Holiday leaves New Orleans this summer, the Pelicans would only have as much as $15 million in cap space to find a replacement. That won’t get you any of the point guards listed above, nor some listed below. Teague will certainly be out of that price range after the Pacers gave up Hill to get him.

New Orleans’ best hope might be convincing Jrue’s older brother Justin Holiday, currently enjoying a breakout season with the Knicks, to join the team via an exception or cap space. The elder Holiday recently discussed his desire to play next season on the same team with his brother with Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto. The two may be a package deal for next season, which could work out well for a Pelicans team in desperate need of aid on the wing. Since New Orleans holds full Bird rights for Jrue, the team could potentially sign Justin with cap space then exceed the cap to sign his brother. This scenario becomes even more workable if Dante Cunningham declines his player option for $3.1 million to seek a longer-term deal.

7. Jeff Teague, Pacers

Theme warning: Market economics for NBA point guards will favor the supply side this summer, and that means suppliers of spin dribbles, assists and three-pointers like Jeffrey Demarco Teague. Back in 2013, then-Hawks GM Danny Ferry decided to play hardball with Teague, a restricted free agent. Rather than make an offer, the team waited for Teague to sign a dirt-cheap, four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks where he would have reunited with recently-departed Hawks coach Larry Drew. Ferry and newly-hired coach Mike Budenholzer likely made many a toast to their bargaining acumen.

But then, a few years later, Budenholzer learned the downside of such tactics. With the Hawks organization showing so little commitment to him, Teague apparently wasn’t too enthusiastic about spending the final year of his contract in Atlanta. Early last season, Teague put his condo in Buckhead on the market. Shortly after the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals, Teague removed all Hawks-related images from his Instagram account. Teague then made and deleted a post on Instagram claiming that he played the entire 2015-16 season with a torn patellar tendon.

Perhaps it was the Hawks’ bargaining tactics, or perhaps it was fractured chemistry after his backup Schroder was quoted by German magazine Bild saying that he would seek greener pastures if he had not secured the starting job by the end of his current contract (Schroder insisted before a road game in Charlotte last season that he was misquoted and taken out of context by Bild). Whatever the reasons, Budenholzer made the decision to accelerate Schroder’s timeline by shipping Teague to the Pacers for the lottery pick Atlanta would use on promising small forward Taurean Prince. As mentioned, with Utah easily getting the best point guard out of the deal, Larry Bird’s back will be against the wall when it comes time to negotiate with Teague. There probably won’t be as many congratulatory slaps on the back as there were in Atlanta.

8. Darren Collison, Kings

Darren Collison has been a nomadic NBA starter who hasn’t won a lot. This is likely as much the fault of roster construction as Collison’s inability to elevate his teams. That could all change this summer after his contract expires with a final year at $5.2 million. One of those hard-bargaining point guards mentioned above could very well change teams, which would leave the incumbent team scrambling for an affordable replacement. Of all the players mentioned so far, Collison is the most likely — but by no means certain — to be available for a reasonable price. For example, if Holiday bolts from New Orleans, Collison could rejoin Cousins with the Pelicans and have the opportunity to play with a superstar in Anthony Davis. That has a much better ring to it than sticking around for an excruciating rebuild in Sacramento. Collison is at the lower end of starting NBA point guards, but he’s definitely a starter. He ranks in the 26-35 range in net differential, BPM and PER.

9. Derrick Rose, Knicks

Ranking Derrick Rose with the second tier probably counts as flattery. Rose will no doubt be seeking a max contract from his next super team, but the reality is that he’s 41st among NBA point guards in net differential and 48th in BPM. He’s somehow 21st in PER, a stat which is known to inflate the value of inefficient volume scorers. For the Knicks, Rose is right in the middle, neither elevating the team nor dragging it down from a net rating perspective. A bigger issue is probably Carmelo Anthony checking out on the organization with a -4.3 net differential that is worse than every Knick except Lance Thomas (-8). Rose has certainly been a workhorse, soaking up nearly 2000 minutes through 60 games, the third-highest total on the team.

Has Rose done enough to justify the kind of payday he doubtless believes he’s in line for after his deal expires July 1? With so many teams with their back against the wall, it only takes one. But if the Knicks double down on a failed personnel mix, it could be another wasted opportunity to begin building around Kristaps Porzingis.

Tier 3: Quality Reserves

10. Devin Harris, Mavericks

Devin Harris grades out better than Rose in the above-referenced metrics but he’s only played 867 minutes this season. Harris has battled injury issues throughout his career and been highly effective in stretches when injuries haven’t held him back. He’s a borderline starter when healthy but he’s getting toward the end of his career.

11. Yogi Ferrell, Mavericks

Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds. How painful must Yogi Farrell’s breakout for the Mavericks but for Brooklyn fans starving for talent? Sean Marks is a young, inexperienced GM, and this was a sharp lesson in the value of taking a longer look at guys before cutting them loose. It’s a sample of fewer than 800 minutes, but Ferrell has a very respectable +1.8 net differential that’s in the top half of the Mavericks’ roster. He’s also 30th among point guards in BPM and 38th in PER, giving him stats that verge on lower-end NBA starter. There’s a less than zero chance the Mavericks decline the team option to make Ferrell a free agent. He’s only mentioned here in the interest of piling on.

12. T.J. McConnell, 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers are within a game of the Knicks and the metrics say T.J. McConnell is a better player than Derrick Rose. Shouldn’t he be ranked higher? It’s actually a fair question. McConnell has started 38 games this year with Sergio Rodriguez starting 30. The 76ers will likely target a point guard in the upcoming draft, which is rich with them. But the numbers say McConnell rates as a very competent reserve. Philly would be quite foolish not to guarantee his 2017-18 salary.

13. Ty Lawson, Kings

Although his stats can be dismissed as having been compiled on a bad team, Lawson ranks between 30th in PER and 40th in BPM. That indicates quite a bit of value for a reserve as long as you’re confident that Lawson has put his past off-court issues behind him. The one-year veteran’s minimum deal he signed with Sacramento may have served as a good rehab stop for him and a better situation could await in free agency.

14. Deron Williams, Cavaliers

The Mavericks were outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions in Deron Williams’ 1171 minutes on the court this season, so it was understandable for the team to take a shot on some younger talent. Nevertheless, he represents a significant upgrade at backup point guard for the Cavaliers, who had relied on Kay Felder previously. One of the more favorable stats for Williams is PER, where he ranks 28th among NBA point guards. As with Collison, he could be a viable Plan B for a number of teams if they miss out on their primary target in free agency.

15. Rajon Rondo, Bulls

It just hasn’t been all that the Bulls’ collection of veterans hoped at the beginning of the season. After Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler cracked down on the rookies, Rondo stood up for them. It wasn’t any one player’s fault, but the net result was fractured leadership and disunity. Only $3 million of next season’s $13.4 million is guaranteed, and there may be no front office less predictable than Chicago’s. Rondo could be sent on his way as a scapegoat for this season’s shortcomings, or he could be back with the Bulls providing quality minutes. Rondo is definitely in decline but there’s still something left in the tank.

Tier 4: The rest

Beno Udrih and Toney Douglas, two NBA nomads, along with Spencer Dinwiddie, are the closest players in this tier to making a move up. Brandon Jennings, like Rose, has some cache as a longtime starter, but the numbers in New York were brutal. Hopefully, he can have a good run with the Wizards and move up a tier ahead of this summer’s unrestricted free agency. Felton, as mentioned above with Paul, has also underperformed. Chicago’s Michael Carter-Williams, a pending restricted free agent, is statistically similar to Felton. The Bulls gave up a rotation player in Tony Snell to get him, so Chicago will almost certainly extend a qualifying offer in hopes that he will fulfill the promise he showed as Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez gave way to McConnell in Philly, and rightly so. He grades out worse than Felton.

Mack enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as the Jazz’ starter last season. His on/off numbers improved dramatically as opportunity and role often allow. But as soon as he went back to the bench, his efficiency numbers went back to their accustomed place south of the Felton Line. C.J. Watson, Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Brian Roberts, Jose Calderon, Shaun Livingston and Isaiah Canaan have all lived further south this season. Felder, Trey Burke and Semaj Christon have been at the farthest fringes among NBA point guards with enough minutes to draw any conclusions about.

 

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins

Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.

Buddy Grizzard

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Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.

“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.

“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.

“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.

“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.

“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”

Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.

With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.

“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.

With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.

“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”

Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.

In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.

“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”

While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.

Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.

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