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Basketball Insiders Week in Review 12/11

Basketball Insiders looks at some articles from last week in case you missed any the first time around.

Kyle Cape-Lindelin

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Blazers’ Meyers Leonard Talks Expectations

By Oliver Maroney

Realizing your true potential in the NBA is an extremely difficult task. Nowadays, players are drafted at 19 or 20 years old and oftentimes are expected to perform at a high level right away. Even so, the pressure from fans, media and others can be overwhelming at a young age, especially when you are falling short of expectations. Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard has realized this and is starting to focus on what’s really important.

“I’ve realized I can’t try to please everyone anymore,” Leonard told Basketball Insiders. “For whatever reason, I’m very polarizing. A lot of times, people either really like me or they really don’t. I can say true down to my roots that it’s frustrating for me because I want everyone to like me, that’s just the guy I am. I’m a people-pleaser and it’s frustrating.”

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Mirotic “Frustrated” Through Struggles

By Joel Brigham

It’s easy to forget, but just two seasons ago, Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He was every bit as impressive as the Chicago front office hoped he would be when they paid to bring him over from Spain in the summer of 2014. Scoring 10.2 points per game in just over 20 minutes a night, Mirotic looked well on his way to being the franchise cornerstone he was drafted to be.

His sophomore season was at times disappointing, but he still saw some growth – playing a little more, scoring a little more and knocking down a higher percentage of his three-point shots. However, something about the 2016-17 NBA season so far has been frustrating for Mirotic. His scoring has dropped from 11.8 PPG to 8.5 PPG this season, his three-point shooting has dropped all the way to 28.1 percent and his timidity offensively has been frustrating to watch as he’s moved beyond excessive pump fakes to weird double-clutch shots and reticent dishes when he’s anywhere near the bucket.

In short, the shots just aren’t falling for Mirotic this year, and he knows it.

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Paul Pierce Believes the Clippers Can Win it All

By Moke Hamilton

Six games, 10 days and 5,160 miles.

Three wins and three losses.

For the gross majority of NBA teams, going 3-3 on a six-game road trip would be considered a rather decent showing. But for the Los Angeles Clippers, there’s a different standard.

Most believe that the Clippers are whiners and babies. To a man, the club has never met an adverse officiating decision it liked, and to many, they are nothing more than a gang of underachievers that don’t have what it takes to come out on top.

To first ballot Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce, though, they’re something much more—they’re diamonds in the rough. And he feels that way despite the fact that many consider them to be the most hated squad in the NBA.

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Magic Turning It Around?

By Cody Taylor

Much of the talk entering the season for the Orlando Magic centered around building one of the best defenses in the league. Now that a quarter of this NBA campaign is gone, it looks as though the team is finally holding true to the identity new head coach Frank Vogel envisioned.

While it took the bulk of the team’s 21 games to reach that point, the Magic’s defense is now among the best in the league. Over the course of the first three weeks of the season, the Magic’s defense was still in the bottom third of the league but it has improved drastically since that time.

The Magic were ranked 24th in defensive efficiency on November 15, but have put together the league’s best defense since that date. Playing such effective defense over the past three weeks has improved the team’s overall defense to third-best in the league. On the season, the Magic are allowing 100.8 points per 100 possessions. In addition, they have held 10 out of their last 11 opponents to under 100 points.

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With Reggie Jackson Back, Pistons Are at Full Strength

By Alex Kennedy

When it was announced that Reggie Jackson would miss over a month to start the 2016-17 season after undergoing plasma injection therapy to treat tendinitis in his left knee, some people wondered if the Detroit Pistons could stay afloat without their floor general.

After all, Jackson was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 18.8 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting from the field. He also led the Pistons in assists per game (6.6) and three-point shooting (118 total threes).

Few teams relied on their go-to option as much as Detroit did last year; not only did Jackson’s 29.1 percent usage rating easily lead the Pistons, it was actually the 16th-highest percentage in the NBA. The only players with a higher usage rating than Jackson last year were All-Stars.

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Jamal Crawford’s Historic Sixth Man Transformation

By Michael Scotto

Jamal Crawford changed the narrative of his career: From a starter on bad teams to arguably the league’s best sixth man ever on good teams.

Crawford spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors while accumulating a 226-485 (.318) overall record.

The Bulls were in a rebuilding phase at the time. Phil Jackson was out as coach and stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman left following three consecutive championship seasons from 1996-98.

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Joel Embiid Has Been Better Than Advertised

By Jesse Blancarte

The NBA has shifted toward a smaller and faster style of play over the last decade. An inherent and obvious result of that shift is the apparent marginalization of the center position. That’s not to say that there haven’t been star-quality centers in the NBA over the last decade. However, it’s hard to deny that centers are, for the most part, no longer focal points on offense, nor are they usually the most important player on any given team.

There are a few exceptions of course – DeMarcus Cousins is far and away the best and most important player for the Sacramento Kings and Marc Gasol has been a focal point on both offense and defense for the Memphis Grizzlies for years. But in today’s NBA, teams generally need a top-tier point guard, a star-quality wing player, a power forward who can space the floor reasonably well and a center who can protect the rim and ideally switch out onto the perimeter when necessary.

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Analyzing Prospects in 2017 Draft

By Jake Rauchbach

The NBA season is underway, and rookies around the league are looking to live up to lofty expectations. As they get adjusted to the league, there is another crop of very talented youngsters with their eye on making the leap to the NBA. The 2017 draft class has several players who seem poised to eventually make a huge impact after their names are called in the draft.

The 2017 class is full of talent so let’s take a look at some of these players and how their skill sets cmight transition to the next level.

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Kent Bazemore’s Story Of Perseverance

By Lang Greene

There are some old-school observers of the game who believe that a player’s ultimate destiny in the league is clearly visible after their first three seasons. However, if you tried to apply this line of thinking to Atlanta Hawks forward Kent Bazemore, the assessment wouldn’t be accurate.

As a rookie during the 2012-13 campaign, Bazemore logged just 267 total minutes in 61 appearances for the Golden State Warriors. After his rookie campaign, Bazemore was more known for his end of the bench celebrations than his contributions on the floor, which culminated in the forward being motion captured for the NBA 2K14 video game.

During his second season, Bazemore saw even less run with the Warriors and was subsequently shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline in exchange for Steve Blake and MarShon Brooks. In 23 games with the Lakers, the signs of potential started to emerge as he averaged 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists. In free agency that summer, Bazemore inked a modest two-year, $4 million deal to join the Atlanta Hawks.

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New York Knicks’ Early Season Progress Report

By Tommy Beer

Having played 21 games, the New York Knicks have now passed the quarter pole of the 2016-17 campaign.

A 12-9 record may not be much to celebrate in some cities, but for New Yorkers thirsty for just a taste of success, it’s viewed as an important step in the right direction.

The Knicks are over .500 through first 20 games of a season for just the third time this century. And New York is currently three games over .500 for the first time since April 17, 2013.

Thus, with 20-plus games in the rear-view mirror, let’s look back and hand out grades to each player.

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Kyle Cape-Lindelin is based out of Portland, OR covering the NBA while being one of the newsline editors and contributor to “Out of Bounds.”

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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