For most of the NBA’s history, talented centers have frequently been crucial centerpieces for championship teams. Having a top-tier center was all but essential for sustained success. This was especially true during the NBA’s formative years. For instance, from 1957 through 1980, 22 of the 23 players named MVP were centers. Yes, only once over the course of that 23-year period did a non-center (Oscar Robertson in 1964) take home MVP honors. And in the 1990s, big men were again front and center. For instance, in 1993-94 (following Michael Jordan’s first retirement) four centers finished in the top-five in MVP voting (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing).
However, today’s NBA is far different in many ways. Traditionally dominant back-to-the-basket centers are all but extinct. Guards and wings dominate the league. A center hasn’t taken home MVP honors since the early 2000s. In fact, over the last 10 years, only once has a center even cracked the top three in MVP voting.
Nonetheless, many bigs still play an undeniably important role on many great teams throughout the league. As Pat Riley was famously fond of saying: “No rebounds, no rings.” That old adage still holds true today. Furthermore, the best teams in the NBA consistently rank in the top-10 in defensive efficiency. Rim protectors and big men that patrol the paint are often the last line of defense.
Thus, centers and power forwards still hold plenty of value, especially for teams that have plenty of complimentary pieces but are missing a burly big man to help anchor the offense and defense.
Fortunately, for teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors who may need such a player to help push them over the top, there are number of quality centers that will likely be available (for the right price) on the open market in the coming months. The NBA’s trade deadline is now less than two months away and many offseason signings become eligible to be traded on December 15th, which increases the chances of deals being discussed and, eventually, consummated.
Here is a list of the most valued and desired big men that may potentially be on the block:
DeMarcus Cousins – Sacramento Kings:
It’s extremely rare that a player as talented as Cousins is available via trade. However, the clock is ticking on the Kings, who have some very difficult decisions to make in the very near future. DMC’s current contract expires at the end of next season, which means he will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2018 unless the Kings sign him to an extension prior to that date.
The relationship between Sacramento and Cousins has been rocky at times, to say the least. He has failed to co-exist with a number of different head coaches. Cousins’ inability to control his temper has also resulted in a league-leading nine technical fouls already this season. And looking at the big picture, the Kings have yet to qualify for the postseason even once in the six seasons he has spent in Sacramento.
On the flip side of the coin, it could easily be argued that Cousins has been a victim of the dysfunction in the Kings organization. More importantly, Cousins may be the most physically gifted center in the NBA today. There simply isn’t anything he can’t do on a basketball court. He is on pace to become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000-01 to average at least 28 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per game over the course of a full season. In fact, dating back to 1975, there have been only five players to average 28/10/3: Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Karl Malone and Shaq.
For obvious reasons, Cousins will be extremely costly for any team willing to engage the Kings in trade talks. Still, Sacramento is in a tough position. If they don’t trade him and then fail to re-sign him in 2018, it would be a crippling blow for the franchise, one from which it would extremely difficult to recover. If they are going to move him, it would behoove them to do so sooner rather than later. If they attempted to trade him in 2018, he would be viewed only as a rental. They would be able to ask for far more in return if they would be willing to trade him this season.
Greg Monroe – Milwaukee Bucks:
It has been a disappointing season for Monroe in Milwaukee. He hasn’t started a single game and was banished to coach Jason Kidd’s doghouse last month. For a while, he was the odd man out in the middle (behind John Henson and Miles Plumlee) and seeing very limited playing time. He was even surprisingly slapped with a DNP-CD on November 17th.
He has played a bit better of late and has earned more consistent playing time. Still, his numbers are well below his career averages. Over his last 15 games, Monroe is averaging just 8.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 0.3 blocks.
Monroe has a player option in his contract that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in July of 2017. Considering his reduced role in Milwaukee and the incredible contracts secured by even mediocre players this past summer as the salary cap continues to rise, it would be surprising if Monroe did not opt out in July. As a result, it is safe to assume the Bucks will be very motivated sellers at the deadline, hoping to move Monroe in exchange for assets that could advance their rebuilding efforts. Still just 26 years old, Monroe averaged over 15 points and nine rebounds per game in each of his final four seasons in Detroit. There will likely be plenty of interested suitors if the Bucks’ asking price is reasonable.
Nerlens Noel / Jahlil Okafor – Philadelphia 76ers:
The Sixers have four young centers on their roster: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Richaun Holmes. Three of them (Noel, Okafor and Embiid) were drafted in the top half of the lottery. Now that all three are (almost) finally healthy, coach Brett Brown is tasked with the very difficult job of figuring out how to distribute minutes in an attempt to keep them all happy. Noel let his feeling be known on the eve of training camp back in October.
“I don’t see a way of it working. It’s just a logjam,” Noel said. “You’ve got three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night and three centers can’t play 30 minutes a night. That’s that. Things need to be situated. Obviously, somebody’s got to be moved around. It’s a tough situation, but I can only say so much because I have no say and no power.”
Noel said this before Embiid started playing incredibly well once the regular season commenced. Embiid is the run-away favorite to take home the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award. His per-36 minute averages are mind-boggling: 27.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.9 blocks. It is safe to assume that Embiid is now untouchable. Consequently, the Sixers will likely focus on attempting to move Noel or Okafor. Okafor is under team control on his rookie contract for at least two more seasons, whereas Noel will be a restricted free agent this summer.
Okafor had a roller-coaster rookie campaign. He had a number of issues off the court and struggled mightily on the defensive end of the floor. However, Okafor was arguably even better than advertised offensively. In fact, Okafor became just the sixth player in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the floor, all before turning 21. Per Basketball-reference.com, the other five members of that exclusive club are Magic Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Chris Weber, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl-Anthony Towns. This season, Okafor has been hampered by his own injury issues and has struggled as a sophomore. However, he still possesses the potential to develop into one of the NBA’s truly elite low-post scorers.
When healthy, Noel is one of the more versatile and athletic defensive-minded big men in the NBA. In 2014-15, he became the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. Noel was back at it again last season, patrolling the paint in Philadelphia, leading the 76ers in defensive rebounds and steals and was second on the team in blocks. His offensive game is limited, but he could flourish in the right situation.
Kenneth Faried – Denver Nuggets:
Like the Sixers, the Nuggets simply have too many bigs crowded in their frontcourt. Faried, Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic are all averaging between 21 and 24 minutes per game. They also have Danilo Gallinari playing 35 minutes a night and Wilson Chandler at 30.8, in addition to Darrell Arthur and Juan Hernangomez seeing 12-plus minutes per game off the bench.
Faried is the player most likely to be dealt in order to alleviate the logjam. Both Jokic and Nurkic on are making less than $3 million this season and next. Faried is set to make $12.9 million in 2017-18 and $13.8 million in 2018-19. He’s averaging career-lows in points (nine) and minutes (22.4), while also averaging fewer than five defensive rebounds per game for the first time since his rookie campaign. Nonetheless, he has shown intermittent flashes of excellence, specifically the energy and tenacity that earned him his large contract. He’s played over 22 minutes in 15 games this season and posted a double-double in five of those contests.
Brook Lopez – Brooklyn Nets:
It seems as though Lopez’s name has been bandied about in the rumor mill going on three years straight. In some respects, it seems logical for the Nets to trade away their best player for a package that facilitates their ongoing rebuild. However, the Celtics own Brooklyn’s first-round pick each of the next two years, so the Nets don’t have the same motivation to strip down their roster and bottom out as do many of the other teams near the bottom of the NBA barrel.
Lopez was already one the most dangerous offensive centers in the league, and this season he has added the three-point shot to his arsenal. Coming into this year, Lopez had made a total of three three-pointers over the first eight seasons of his career (487 games). This season, through just 21 games, Lopez has knocked down 42 triples. He is one of just four players with at least 40 three-pointers and 30 blocks this season, joining DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Kristaps Porzingis.
Tyson Chandler – Phoenix Suns:
Chandler has been a rebounding machine this season, especially of late. He averaged 11.3 rebounds per game in October, then 12 in November. For December, he’s up to 13 boards per contest. In fact, Chandler has pulled down 44 rebounds in the Suns’ last two games alone. His contract isn’t appealing (he’ll make an average of $13 million per year over the next two seasons) but that is a bit easier to swallow with the cap increasing.
Andrew Bogut – Dallas Mavericks:
Bogut is on the shelf at the moment, dealing with a bone bruise in his right knee which could keep him sidelined through the end of the month. Staying healthy is obviously a major issue, but he is a force, especially on the defensive end, whenever he is even remotely close to 100 percent. He’s playing out the last year of his contract, so if he is back on the court and playing well in February, he could be intriguing to a team that is looking to rent an elite rim protector for the final few months of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Nikola Vucevic – Orlando Magic:
Over the past two seasons (2014-15 and 2015-16), Vucevic averaged 18.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.3 assists. It certainly seemed he was viewed as a franchise cornerstone and the Magic’s center of the present and the future. Then, on draft day this past summer, the Magic traded for Serge Ibaka. But Ibaka can play power forward, so that wasn’t a huge deal, right?
Well, in July, Orlando signed Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72 million contract.
Vucevic has now been coming off the bench consistently for the first time since his rookie season. As a result, his scoring average has plummeted (12.2 points per game) and he hasn’t been able to find his groove this season. He’s locked into a relatively cap-friendly contract, making less than $13 million per year through 2018-19. If the Magic would be willing to listen to offers, there would be plenty of teams willing to take Vooch off their hands.
Timofey Mozgov – Los Angeles Lakers:
Many pundits panned L.A.’s signing of Mozgov as soon as it was announced and, unfortunately for the Lakers, the early returns have not been overly encouraging. Mozgov, at 4.7 rebounds per game, is currently fifth on the Lakers in rebounding, behind Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Tarik Black and Luol Deng.
Joakim Noah / Willy Hernangomez / Kyle O’Quinn – New York Knicks:
Depth is a good problem to have, but it’s an issue nonetheless. Noah is signed to a massive contract and it was assumed he would handle the bulk of minutes at the five and do most of the heavy lifting down low. However, Kyle O’Quinn is playing some of the best basketball of his career and has earned the right to increased playing time. Over his last six games, O’Quinn’s per-36 minute averages are undeniably impressive: 16.3 points, 16 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, while shooting 64.8 percent from the floor. In addition, he now leads the team in PER (21.5) this season.
Hernangomez has been also been a pleasant surprise for the Knicks. He currently leads the team in both True Shooting percentage (60.6) and Effective Field Goal percentage (57.9) and ranks first on the Knicks in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions (11.6).
Add to the equation that the team’s best player, Kristaps Porzingis, is at his best when playing at the five, and the situation only gets murkier.
If Derrick Rose’s injury is in any way serious, might the Knicks consider trading from their surplus of bigs to add depth in the backcourt?
The Curious Case Of Andrew Wiggins
The path to becoming a superstar took a wrong turn two years ago for top pick Andrew Wiggins. With stability and a new regime in Minnesota, it will be up to him to get the train back on the tracks this season. Chad Smith writes.
Being a number one overall draft pick in the NBA instantly puts a target on your back. Expectations come with that as well, fair or not. Andrew Wiggins has had a roller coaster ride since being taken with the top pick in the 2014 draft. After three years of promise, he has tapered off in each of the last two seasons. The make or break cliché is used too often, but this will definitely be a defining season for the Canadian.
Wiggins has played exactly 400 games in his NBA career. He has played all of them with the Timberwolves, who traded the face of their franchise to acquire the promising young talent. Wiggins has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. Through his first four seasons, he only missed one game. Last year he played 73 for Minnesota, who failed to reach the playoffs after a disastrous season that included trading Jimmy Butler.
Butler left a lot of money on the table to leave Minnesota – largely due to the lack of improvement from Wiggins.
For all of his physical tools and salivating upside, Wiggins has failed to significantly improve as a player. His scoring averages did improve in his first three seasons, going from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 points per game. The following year it dipped to 17.7 and 18.1 per contest. His per-game averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all plateaued.
From the foul line, Wiggins shot 76 percent in each of his first three seasons, but dropped to 64.3 and 69.9 percent in the last two years. His shooting efficiency numbers across the board have been declining as well. The progression clearly has not been there, and you don’t even need the actual numbers to see it.
If you do need the numbers, they are not flattering. His 0.6 win shares last season ranked him 350th among 530 eligible players. Per 48 numbers were even worse as his 0.005 win shares were the third-worst in the league (minimum 2,000 minutes played). The Wolves finished 11th in the conference last season. Improving upon that will prove to be difficult given the stiff competition in the Western Conference.
The five-year, $147 million maximum extension that Wiggins signed two years ago was questionable at the time and appears even more detrimental now. Gersson Rosas is the new president of basketball operations in Minnesota, and it is not clear what his intentions with Wiggins are. Trading the former Rookie of the Year is one option, but it will not be an easy one. If he can show some true progression in his game, Wiggins could fit nicely alongside superstar Karl-Anthony Towns.
Under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves appeared to underutilize the services of Towns. He also tended to play his starters heavy minutes. Wiggins averaged nearly 37 minutes per game under his system. Those numbers came down dramatically towards the tail end of last season under new head coach Ryan Saunders. His career average still sits at 36 minutes per contest. The only other active players with a higher minute per game average are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.
During Media Day, Andrew said that he felt as though he was on the rise three years into his career, before “some changes were made” that seemed to derail his trajectory. Wiggins went on to talk about Thib’s coaching style, and how the yelling didn’t change anything for him. He stated that he prefers a player’s coach that is “real” with him, like Saunders, the youngest coach in the league.
With Saunders cemented in place, the Wolves could find new and better ways to get the most out of Towns and Wiggins. Using more screening action, it could allow smaller defenders to switch onto Karl, or get a bigger defender on Andrew, allowing him to drive to the basket. That could open up opportunities on the wing for their solid group of role players.
A healthy Robert Covington and Josh Okogie will provide Minnesota with hope from the outside, an area where they have struggled heavily. New additions such as Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh should fit right in as well. All eyes will be on rookie Jarrett Culver, whom the Wolves gave up assets (Dario Saric and the 11th pick) to acquire with the sixth pick in the draft.
Saunders will likely want to push the pace and score in transition this season. Minnesota was 14th in pace last season and had the 13th-ranked scoring offense. They have the players needed for that style of play and will now be able to play both small-ball and match up against bigger lineups.
Versatility will be a strength for them this season, but they must improve on their biggest weakness – defense.
The Wolves ranked 23rd in scoring defense last year, and 24th in overall defensive rating. Having Covington back will help in that area, but it needs to start with Towns and Wiggins. As leaders, both must show improvement on that end of the floor in order for the other guys to buy-in.
With a year of continuity and a more stable environment, Minnesota should still be an improved team from last season. Whether or not they are able to challenge for a playoff spot will likely be determined by the play of Wiggins. Andrew has the skillset to become a very good player, even if his ceiling is not as high as Karl’s. That being said, Andrew will turn 25 in February. The time is now for him to show improvement.
Aside from Jeff Teague’s 10 years of experience, only Covington and Gorgui Dieng have more experience than Wiggins. They each have just one more year than he does. So where exactly does he need to improve his game?
Shot selection and defense should be at the top of the list. Despite the decent scoring average, the more minutes he plays, the more shots he misses. In theory that makes sense, but there are a number of players (even his own teammates) that played more minutes and missed fewer shots. In all five seasons, Wiggins has ranked inside the top 20 in the league in missed field goals.
The defense is fairly straight forward. He has the ability to defend on the perimeter and even inside, but his desire and effort are not always there. Playing passing lanes more aggressively and being able to anticipate what comes next on a given play are two key areas to focus on.
Rebounding is another area that would really benefit the team if he is able to improve. His size and athleticism afford him great opportunities to crash the boards, especially when Towns is not on the floor. Obviously, everyone can improve their shooting, and while his three-point shot isn’t horrid, there is no excuse for him to shoot below 70 percent from the foul line. These are things that should have progressed much better entering your sixth year in the league.
Rosas has stated publicly that continuity and playing style under Saunders should make Wiggins one of the biggest beneficiaries this season.
For their sake and his own, here is to hoping he is right.
NBA Daily: Mavericks Reacclimating Kristaps Porzingis From The Outside In
Kristaps Porzingis has been away from the game for nearly two years. In his first exhibition games with his new team, the Mavericks are reacclimating him from the outside in. Jack Winter writes.
Any doubt surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ blockbuster trade for Kristaps Porzingis had nothing to do with his play.
The No. 4 overall pick in 2015 proved draft-night boos foolish during an eye-popping rookie season that seemed to establish him as the New York Knicks’ long-awaited, homegrown franchise player. Porzingis made subtle strides as a sophomore, adjusting his shot chart to include more three-pointers and attempts at the rim, before accelerating his developmental timeline and suddenly living up to his All-NBA potential over the first half of the 2017-18 season. He couldn’t sustain a blistering start that was so good it prompted early-season MVP talk, but averages of 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game nevertheless made it clear Porzingis was bound for true stardom – if he wasn’t there already.
All that progress came to a crushing halt on Feb. 6, 2018, when Porzingis cut backdoor for a powerful dunk on a trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo that caused him to land awkwardly and clutch his left knee as he writhed in pain on the Madison Square Garden floor. The worst fears of the Knicks and their success-starved fan base were confirmed shortly thereafter, when it was announced that Porzingis had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season and putting his future in jeopardy.
Porzingis’ injury would have been considered a blip for almost any young player. A torn ACL isn’t anything close to the career-threatening injury it was even just a decade ago. Most players return to the floor well within a year of suffering the injury, and all are expected to eventually regain their initial level of athleticism.
Porzingis was the exception to those updated rules. Especially tall players have a long history of reacting poorly to serious lower-body injuries, and Porzingis is a physical anomaly at 7-foot-3 with rare mobility and overall coordination. If his all-around athleticism was even marginally affected by invasive knee surgery, just how good could Porzingis be?
The height of Porzingis’ readjusted ceiling remains a question mark two exhibition games into his playing career with the Mavericks. He’s struggled to shoot the ball from deep after 20 months removed from the NBA game, and it stands to reason he’s more likely to re-injure his knee after going under the knife. But concerns that Porzingis has lost explosiveness as a result of his torn ACL are almost long gone, and more importantly, those about his ability to hold up physically have been lessened by how Dallas has used him.
It would be remiss to submit that Porzingis is all the way back athletically, even though he insisted on Media Day he’s “110 percent.” The Mavericks are planning to load manage Porzingis in 2019-20, perhaps sitting him for either end of all back-to-backs, for a reason.
Still, it’s wildly encouraging to see Porzingis, in his exhibition debut against the Detroit Pistons, throwing down the type of from-nowhere tip dunk he made seem routine during his ill-fated time in New York. A few minutes later, he withstood a reckless shove to finish a lob from Luka Doncic, even landing hard on his left leg no worse for wear.
But just because Porzingis avoided re-injury on that dangerous play hardly means Dallas should be more comfortable putting him at risk. In fact, it provides further justification for Rick Carlisle’s apparent plan of easing him back into NBA action from the outside in.
Comparing young players to all-time greats is an exercise in disappointment. Porzingis isn’t Dirk Nowitzki, and never will be. The Mavericks would be absolutely thrilled if he enjoyed half the extent of individual success that propelled Nowitzki to 12 All-NBA selections and 14 All-Star Games. But just because Porzingis isn’t Nowitzki hardly means Carlisle won’t use him in much the same way he did the greatest player in team history.
For now, that means taking advantage of Porzingis’ deep shooting range from the frontcourt by spacing the floor across four and sometimes five positions. Porzingis has spent most of his time beyond the arc through his first two exhibition games, running high and side ball screens with Doncic, popping back on off-ball screens he sets for catch-and-shoot chances and lagging behind in transition for trail threes.
The numbers, as could be expected from a player who last played competitive NBA basketball nearly two years ago, aren’t great. In 43 total minutes so far, Porzingis has scored only 29 points on 31 shots, including 4-of-16 shooting from deep. But the result doesn’t matter nearly as much as the process for Porzingis, a reality that should extend into the regular season, and there’s ample reason to believe he’ll thrive offensively once he re-acclimates to basketball being played at its highest level.
It’s not Porzingis’ physical tools nor package of offensive skills that makes him special, but the layered scoring opportunities that blend of attributes presents. Leave him free, and Porzingis is the type of shooter who can get hot from three in a hurry. Close-out too aggressively, and he’ll put the ball on the floor to create a cleaner look.
Porzingis started at center on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, and opened next to Maxi Kleber up front two days earlier versus the Pistons. Regardless of what position he’s played, Dallas has mostly used Porzingis as a screener and weak-side spacer, letting him finish plays rather than start them.
Putting a player like Porzingis in a box, though, ignores the versatility that led Kevin Durant to famously dub him “Unicorn.” When he’s been on the floor with another big, the Mavericks have occasionally treated Porzingis like a wing or guard, running him off screens away from the ball.
Purists need not worry: Porzingis hasn’t completely abandoned the post. His touches on the block have been few and far between through his first two exhibition games, and have shrewdly come after he sets screens on the perimeter, allowing him to roll into post position instead of fighting hard to establish it. Porzingis’ right-shoulder turnaround jumper is nearly as unblockable as Nowitzki’s iconic one-footed fadeaway. It’s not going anywhere.
But Dallas clearly plans to utilize Porzingis from the perimeter first and foremost, a development that doesn’t just mitigate the physical toll he’s bound to take, but also leverages his unique abilities as a shooter and driver to make the game easier for Doncic and his teammates. No team in the league will benefit more from pitch-perfect spacing this season than the Mavericks. Porzingis, obviously, is much more than a floor-stretcher, but he can get his own playing mostly from the outside while teammates – including likely starter Dwight Powell, one of the best roll men in basketball – reap the rewards of him being on the court.
In time, Dallas will ask more of Porzingis offensively. He’s too gifted an individual scorer for that not to happen. But as he gets his feet under him in the season’s early going and perhaps for its duration, Porzingis will offer more than enough by his presence alone to make the Mavericks dangerous. And if he grows comfortable quickly, don’t be surprised if Carlisle affords Porzingis more responsibility, perhaps lifting his team to legitimate playoff contention in the process.
NBA MIP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition
While the Most Improved Player Award is the hardest to forecast, there are certain signs that a player may be poised for a season worthy of this honor. Quinn Davis names five that could be in the running come season’s end.
Forecasting the Most Improved Player award is not an easy undertaking. Unlike other awards, the field for Most Improved cannot be narrowed down to a select few that usually are in consideration. Theoretically, any player in the NBA could make a significant enough improvement to win this award.
Rookies heading into their second year could be an easy choice, as a year of NBA experience usually translates to improvement on the court. The issue here is that the voters think it’s too easy, and second-year players who were high draft picks are rarely considered for this award.
De’Aaron Fox bucked this trend last year, finishing third in voting. Using that as a guide, it would be fair to say that it will take a Fox-like improvement for a second-year lottery pick to be considered for Most Improved.
The task becomes much more fun, and much more difficult, when looking beyond that batch of players. There are certain things to look for, such as an increased role or a player who has received praise for their work over the summer. In the end, it may just come down to a gut feeling.
Here are five players that check one or multiple of those boxes.
The third-year big man enters this season primed for improvement after a summer spent training with the USA Select team. Isaac has particularly shown flashes of defensive ability in his two seasons and could blossom into a disruptor on that end in this upcoming campaign.
Isaac’s coach, Steve Clifford, made it clear that he has high hopes for the Flordia State product this season in an interview he gave before training camp.
“He’s had a terrific summer. He looks good physically. He’s worked really hard with (assistant coach) Bruce (Kreutzer) and with (assistant coach) Pat (Delany) on his shooting, his range, his mechanics, his ISOs, his post-ups, his shot-making,” Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “I think he’s in a really good place. Last year from Game 1 to Game 82 he made great strides. He was a big reason why our team improved so much. I think people will see he put a lot of hard work in. I think it’ll pay off.”
Clifford mentioned the improvements across last season, which were particularly seen in Isaac’s shooting. The versatile forward shot a dreadful 28.7 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break last season, but improved to 38.2 percent following that time off, per Basketball Reference.
Isaac is armed with a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, giving him the ability to contest shots and take away passing lanes. One of his biggest weaknesses on the defensive end has been his skinny build, which makes it difficult for him to body up against some of the league’s brutes.
Isaac is reportedly up to 230 pounds, after ending last season at 209. This weight could not only help him guard in the post, but also score in the post on the other end. Isaac will likely be guarded by opposing fours starting next to Vucevic, and his length could give him a significant advantage over opponents at that position.
Last season, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. If those numbers jump up to 15 points and eight rebounds with strong defense for a playoff-bound Magic team, he could be in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player.
Another third-year big who teems with potential resides in Portland. Collins, who will likely start at power forward this season for the Trail Blazers, should see a large minute increase and has many excited for the possible leap he could take this season.
A lot of this excitement was brought about by Collins’ performance in the playoffs last season when he played a pivotal role in Portland’s series win over the Nuggets. Collins flashed his defensive potential late in that series, recording five blocks in Game 6 and four blocks in Game 7 – both Blazers wins.
Portland will ask Collins to stretch the floor this season next to the paint-bound Hassan Whiteside. Collins has shot 30 percent from deep in each of the last two regular seasons and will need to climb towards league average to give his team’s star backcourt requisite room to operate.
If Collins can better space the floor while being an impactful defender, he may emerge as Portland’s third-best player this season. With increased minutes and a more defined role, the stage is set for Collins to build on his playoff performance and put himself into contention for Most Improved.
As mentioned, it is very hard for second-year players to make a case for this award. Since the expectation for these players is to improve, they need to make a very significant leap to stand out for the voters. De’Aaron Fox did this last season, going from lost rookie to stud point guard that helped the Kings chase a playoff seed. Shai will need to do something similar on his new team in Oklahoma City if he is to make an impression.
Last season, the Kentucky product showed an ability to get into the paint and finish around the rim. He attempted 39 percent of his shots at the rim and finished 61 percent of those attempts. Those numbers ranked in the 78th and 72nd percentiles for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.
SGA also shot a serviceable 37 percent from beyond the arc and a very impressive 48 percent on long mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
Now under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Shai may be able to take his all-around efficiency to the next level and learn how to get to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. The future Hall-of-Famer could also school SGA on the art of the pass, which is an area the second-year guard may have the most room to improve on.
While Shai had a very low assist rate for a point guard, he did show the ability to scan defenses and make the right play. With further experience and more teaching from Paul, he could make great strides in that department.
The second-year guard also has defensive potential thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan. He already showed an ability to block shots and swipe passes as a guard last season and could immediately become a strong defender if he reduces his foul rate and stays focused off of the ball.
While he is poised to build off a strong rookie year, Shai’s candidacy may come down to the construction of the Thunder roster as the season goes along. It may be difficult to stand out while playing next to a ball-dominant point guard like Chris Paul.
If Paul is traded, SGA may have the opportunity he needs to control the offense and make a large enough leap to vault into the Most Improved conversation.
There have been few players that have had as tumultuous first two seasons as Ball. Coming out of UCLA with his father as a hype man, Lonzo was drafted by the Lakers and asked to turn the franchise around.
After two seasons that featured a LeBron free-agent signing sandwiched between them, Ball was sent to New Orleans this summer as part of the Anthony Davis trade. He will now have the luxury of being away from the spotlight and could put more focus on his game. The early returns on this focus have been encouraging.
Multiple videos have come out of the Pelicans training camp showing an improved jump shot form from Ball, and he’s looked confident putting it up in the preseason. If the confidence translates to the real games, Ball could truly take his game to the next level. Already a brilliant passer and strong defender, Ball could go from an internet punching bag to an above-average NBA player this season with improved scoring ability.
The threat to shoot off the dribble would instantly improve his pick-and-roll game, which has been a weakness thus far in his career. This improvement could be amplified with the presence of Zion Williamson, who could make for a great partner in those plays.
Maybe more important than his on the court improvements are his lack off the court distractions. Without the constant attention of the Los Angeles media, Ball could quietly make a case for Most Improved if his jumper is indeed improved this season.
Yes, it would be quite an achievement for a player to win Most Improved after already being an All-Star the year before; but Ben Simmons has the room to improve, specifically in one area, and could take a leap this season that warrants consideration for the award.
Simmons authored maybe the biggest moment in a preseason game thus far when he drilled a 27-foot three-pointer off the dribble in a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The shot sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave many Sixers fans hope for a new Ben this season, one that isn’t afraid to launch from deep.
While it is unclear whether this newfound brashness from beyond the arc will translate to games against actual NBA teams, the fact that he took the shot in any game is encouraging. If the shot attempts keep coming and a few makes come along with them, Simmons could go from All-Star to All-NBA this season.
The best comparison for Simmons’ Most Improved campaign would be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2016-2017 season. In 2015-16 Giannis averaged about 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 50 percent shooting. The next season, he averaged about 23 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 52 percent shooting on his way to being named Most Improved Player.
Last season, Simmons averaged about 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, on 56 percent shooting. It’s plausible that an improved jumper and increased confidence could give Simmons the push he needs to make a similar jump that Giannis did.
Both players have proven to be impactful defenders. Giannis has longer arms and is a better rim protector, but Simmons can lock down perimeter players when he needs to, as seen in his total erasing of D’Angelo Russell in the Sixers’ playoff series against the Nets. If Simmons further engages on that end he could make himself an even more viable candidate.
Simmons making this leap would be a surprise and a fun story, but it would not be unprecedented. If the jump shot proves viable, he will certainly garner some consideration for Most Improved.
All of these players share the ability and the opportunity to make a run at Most Improved this season, but that is not to say that they will be the only candidates. It is likely that multiple players will surprise us with a breakout season and throw their hat into the ring for this award.
Be sure to stay up to date and check out Basketball Insiders’ postseason award watch, for all of the awards, this season.