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A Look at the NBA’s Top ‘Energy Guys’

Every team needs at least one energy guy. Jake Rauchbach highlights some of the NBA’s best.

Jake Rauchbach

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Great NBA teams require a leading scorer, a captain and veteran leadership. However, in today’s ultra competitive league, a player who can lift the play of his teammates through effort and passion is an invaluable commodity. Having players like this, who are willing to do whatever it takes to win, can be the difference between mediocre and playoff-bound.

A player who brings a high level of energy while simultaneously positively affecting the game without necessarily needing the ball in his hands is considered an “energy guy.” This type of player generally has a high level of intangible attributes.

Maybe the best energy guy of all-time was Dennis Rodman. Rodman could likely be the benchmark for all other hustle players to be measured against. Despite being an undersized big, Rodman’s relentless approach to the game produced absurd rebounding numbers and fueled championship runs for both the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. At the height of his career with both teams, Rodman averaged 18.7 rebounds (and 9.8 points) during the 1991-92 season with the Pistons, and 16.1 rebounds (and 5.7 points) during the 1996-97 season with the Bulls.

As the NBA season has opened, there are several players around the league who stand out among the rest as premier energy guys. Let’s take a look at today’s impactful energy players.

Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets – Nasty. That’s the word that comes to mind when describing how Patrick Beverley plays. The point guard finds ways to get under the skin of even the most poised players around the league. Views differ on whether Beverley’s play is considered dirty or just hardnosed. Nevertheless, it’s hard to refute the energy and effort that the 6’1 guard brings to his team. Beverley’s pressure of opposing ball handlers (sometimes in a full-court press) often rubs players the wrong way and leads to confrontations. Just ask Russell Westbrook, who has had several run-ins with Beverley.

Despite his antics, Beverley’s intensity on the defensive end, combined with his steady play on the offensive end, gives his team a boost that is often contagious. Last season, Beverley averaged 9.9 points and boasted nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while also adding 1.3 steals per contest. Assuming he bounces back from minor knee surgery, expect Beverley to resume his high energy ways this season in Houston.

Bismack Biyombo, Orlando Magic – Biyombo had a breakout postseason in 2016 and brought tremendous grit and enthusiasm to the Raptors during their playoff run. The big man helped the Raptors reach the Eastern Conference Finals. His most notable performance came during Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Biyombo recorded 26 rebounds, four blocks and seven points and was one of the central reasons for the win. Kyle Lowry explained how valuable Biyombo’s approach to the game and impact on the Raptors was last season. Speaking to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Lowry described Biyombo as “our lion.”

According to NBA.com, during the last year’s regular season, Biyombo averaged 1.8 minutes between passes from teammates, which ranked him in the bottom 16 players in the league for a player playing at least 20 games. He is the quintessential energy guy – doing the dirty work and not needing the ball. He rebounds, sets screens and uses effort to affect the game. Between Serge Ibaka and Biyombo, the Magic now have two junk yard dogs who they are hoping will lift the team into contention for a playoff spot.

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers– Players around the NBA cite Thompson as one of the top energy guys in the league, because he seems to never get tired and is always focused on rebounding the ball. Recently, a big man told Basketball Insiders that Thompson was his least favorite player to go up against because he’ll make you work for everything. Thompson helped spark the Cavs’ success over the past few seasons. The big man tenaciously attacks the glass and his high-energy play allows him to grab rebounds that, on first glance, seem out of his range. Thompson averaged nine rebounds last season, and he has averaged 8.5 rebounds per game over the course of his career. He is back at it again this season, averaging 9.5 rebounds per game through the first four games of the season.

Thompson embraces this role and enjoys impacting games with his rebounding and hustle plays. “My job is pretty simple, just come out and play hard and be an energy guy,” Thompson told Brian Windhorst of ESPN during the Cavs’ 2014-15 playoff run.

Oh, and it’s worth noting that Thompson looks up to the previously mentioned Dennis Rodman, watching film of him to try to emulate his game. “I try to be the best I can be at what I can do, and that’s playing hard and rebounding; I watch a lot of Dennis Rodman film,” Thompson told Basketball Insiders last year. “[I] see how he impacted the game, see how he impacted his team when he was playing. Especially for this team, I feel like I can do that and bring it to the table. That’s what I try to do every night. I liked his energy and his passion. He didn’t let any possessions off, made it tough, and that’s what changes a game.”

LeBron James even compared Thompson to Rodman last May saying: “What Dennis did for the Bulls on the floor, Double T does for us – giving us extra possessions, defending guys who are sometimes bigger than him. We know that every night he’s going to give us everything he’s got. Sometimes it doesn’t show up in the box score, but what he does is huge for our team.” As the Cavs try to defend their title, Thompson and his terrific motor will be integral to the team’s success.

Matthew Dellavedova, Milwaukee Bucks – “Delly” is best known for his defensive energy, which helped the Cavs clinch their first championship last season. Dellavedova unleashed fierce ball pressure and a do-anything-it-takes-to-help-the-team-win mentality that endeared him to both his teammates and fans. However, like Beverley, the Aussie’s style of play has sometimes been considered too over the top. In a Los Angeles Times poll of players and coaches in 2016, Dellavedova was voted the NBA’s dirtiest player. That didn’t stop the Milwaukee Bucks from signing Delly to a four-year $38 million deal over the summer.

This season, expect Dellavedova to continue his “take no prisoners” style of play. With his sturdy frame and high basketball IQ, look for Dellavedova to aggressively attack opposing defenses via ball screen action. This should open up opportunities for himself and teammates now that he’s expected to become more of a scoring threat with the Bucks.

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs – It may seem strange to see Leonard on this list, given that he has emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and may even be a Most Valuable Player candidate this year. However, he’s one of the few superstars who is also an energy guy since he has an incredible motor and relentless defensive approach. He is one of the best shutdown defenders in the league, as evidenced by his back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. Leonard has built his game from the ground up, adding shooting and efficient offense to his defensive mastery. Before stepping up his scoring output last season, Leonard primarily affected the game with his athleticism, length and energy. During the 2015-16 season, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals, one block and 6.8 rebounds to go with his 21.2 points per game. During the 2014-15 season, Leonard registered 2.3 steals per game, which placed him tied for fifth-best in the league.

In recent years, players on opposing teams have dreaded facing Leonard. L.A. Clippers guard J.J. Redick raved about Leonard’s defensive prowess to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: “More than his length, his strength, his quickness, that mother‐‐‐‐‐‐ is So. Locked. In. I have no idea what scouting report they give him, but he knows every play, and he takes no breaks.” LeBron James has said that Leonard guards him better than any other player in the league, and there’s a great clip of James looking frustrated when Leonard checked back into the game when the two were facing off in the NBA Finals. During the first two games of this season Leonard has already tallied 10 steals, and looks to be picking up where he left off last season.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics – After being traded from from Phoenix to Boston on February 19, 2015, Thomas seemed to will his Celtics to the playoffs last season. Thomas went for 42 points versus the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the first round, and he averaged 24 points per game during the series. Generously listed at 5’8, Thomas overcomes his smaller frame and maximizes his potential by playing with outstanding energy night in and night out. Like Leonard, he’s an All-Star, but he had to make this list because he can be a pest for opposing guards on both ends of the floor. He uses his jaw-dropping speed in transition and in the halfcourt to get to certain spots so he can create plays for himself and teammates. Although he looks to score the ball often, Thomas does a great job of getting his team involved, as evidenced by his 6.7 assists per game. Thomas can also hound opposing guards with his quickness and tenacious defense. It’s not uncommon to see Thomas diving for loose balls as well.

Through three games, Thomas is averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals (while shooting 53.1 percent from the field). Expect Thomas to continue to fill the stat sheet as he becomes even more comfortable in Boston this season. That sound you just heard is an annoyed groan coming from rival point guards around the league.

Do you have a favorite energy guy? Leave a comment below or reach out to Jake on Twitter (@MindRightPro).

Jake Rauchbach is an Integrated Player Development Coach, specializing in High-Performance Mindfulness. He has coached professional and Division-1 basketball. He is the founder of The MindRight Pro® Program and consults on the Olympic, collegiate and professional levels. Follow him on Instagram @mindright_pro and twitter @mindrightpro

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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