To say that things have changed somewhat drastically for the Brooklyn Nets over the past two seasons would be a bit of an understatement. Heading into their fifth season in Brooklyn, after seeing the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson change zip codes, newly installed general manager Sean Marks installed Kenny Atkinson as his head coach. Atkinson will assume the helm as the fourth head coach hired since the franchise’s move to Brooklyn, and together with Marks represents a major departure from the “get rich quick” schemes that the franchise famously employed.
With a few budding prospects and a willingness to embrace a slow and steady rebuilding process, fans of the Nets will enter the 2016-17 season with hopes that the roster assembled can find a way to outplay its perceived talent.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’s easy to beat up on the Brooklyn Nets for the mistakes they’ve made over the last few seasons. However, I actually liked the strategy rookie general manager Sean Marks took this offseason. With essentially no assets to work with to replenish the team’s young talent, Marks went out and attempted to acquire some youth by extending big offer sheets to Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson. Those offer sheets were ultimately matched by each player’s original teams, which meant Marks had to go to Plan B. Sure, the offer sheets were overpays, but the cap will continue to rise next season, so I understand trying to lock in young talent with cap space when there is essentially nothing else to work with. Unfortunately, the Nets only managed to bring together a mishmash of players that are neither competitive now nor the foundation for a youth movement moving forward. Marks and the Nets will continue to suffer for the mistakes made by the past regime for the foreseeable future.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
With newly installed general manager Sean Marks assuming the helm in Brooklyn and with head coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets hope to begin piecing together some sort of a franchise in the aftermath of Billy King’s ouster. Unfortunately, that rebuild is something that is going to take a bit longer than one offseason.
Make no mistake about it, the Nets came away from the summer of 2016 about as well as they could have hoped, realistically speaking. With most of the league’s teams boasting significant cap space, it was difficult to imagine impact free agents taking residence in Brooklyn. Losing out of Allen Crabbe will hurt in the short-term, but at the very least, it shines a light on the blueprint that Marks will attempt to follow in rebuilding the franchise. He will take risks on young players with promise and will likely take fliers on some overseas and D-League prospects.
In the end, I’m not sure that Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez will be able to get anything of substance accomplished in Brooklyn this season. They still seem a relatively safe bet to finish ahead of the Sixers, but I’m not expecting much more from them than that.
4th Place — Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
From the front office all the way down to the locker room, the Brooklyn Nets have plenty of work to do and a long way to go to before becoming relevant in the win column again. Brooklyn has new leadership at the executive level (Sean Marks) and roaming the sidelines (Kenny Atkinson), but the scars from the franchise mortgaging their future in a failed title run a couple years ago are evident. Marks attempted to infuse the team with much needed young talent this summer by signing guards Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe to offer sheets. But those deals were matched by Miami and Portland, respectively, and left Brooklyn scrambling. There isn’t a quick fix to get Brooklyn back in contention for the Atlantic Division crown. This is going to be a painstakingly long rebuilding effort, if it’s done right. Be prepared Nets fans – for plenty of losing until the ship is righted.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
The Brooklyn Nets are going to win a whole bunch of games this year; the only problem is that they’re going to win most of those games for the teams they’re playing against. Completely stripped of any real transcendent talent outside of Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin, the Nets are stuck in NBA purgatory for the next couple of seasons while they wait to regain control of their own first-round picks. The real bummer in all of this is that Sean Marks can’t even focus on the rebuilding process because his high draft selections the next two seasons are headed to Boston. While it may be fun to see how rookies Caris LaVert and Isaiah Whitehead come along, this team looks like one that spent as little as they did.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
There really wasn’t much Sean Marks and his staff could do this summer in Brooklyn, as my colleagues have pointed out. With future picks still owed to the Boston Celtics, it’s hard to imagine this being anything but a long rebuild for the Nets. Marks will have to get creative to bring in new, young talent (as he tried to do this summer), but there’s no easy way to climb out of this deep hole. This is a cautionary tale for any team thinking of mortgaging their future for a one- or two-year contention window.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez
Say what you want about Brook Lopez, but you cannot deny that he is a gifted offensive player. In an NBA that is dominated by stretch-fours and floor-spacing centers, Lopez is a throwback who is capable of scoring with his back to the basket and from mid-range. His offensive versatility is somewhat overshadowed by his slow and plodding nature, which puts his team and coaches in a bit of a Catch-22. A team that plays to Lopez’s strengths will naturally play at a slower pace, but teams that are at a talent deficit will stand a better chance of winning games with hard-nosed defense and capitalizing on easy offensive opportunities born from turnovers.
To that end, it’s the job of Kenny Atkinson to figure out how to marry Lopez’s skill set with the rest of the talent at his disposal, but with a career average of 18.3 points and shooting percentages of 51.1 and 79.1 percent from the field and the free-throw line, respectively, there’s no question that the 28-year-old Lopez is the most gifted offensive talent in Brooklyn.
Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Anyone who paid even a tiny bit of attention to the Nets last season came away impressed with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite the fact that his work came in a very small sample size. Ankle surgery caused him to sit from early December through late March and resulted in him playing in just 29 games last season, but his defensive instincts were impressive. Hollis-Jefferson did a fair job of staying in front of his opponents and has a rangy frame that lends itself to peskiness both on the ball and in passing lanes. The Nets’ roster isn’t exactly full of defensive stalwarts, but among those that are there, it is safe to call Hollis-Jefferson the most complete and versatile defender of the pack.
Top Playmaker: Greivis Vasquez
One could make an argument that Jeremy Lin is a superior playmaker over Greivis Vasquez, but Vasquez has always been a player who has made the most of his opportunities and created for his teammates. Over the course of his career, his 7.3 assists per 36 minutes are a long way from Lin’s 5.9. Additionally, Vasquez could be fairly deemed a “pass-first” point guard, while many would argue the opposite of Lin. In all likelihood, the two will share the backcourt during the game’s key moments. In Charlotte, Lin had his fair share of moments playing alongside Kemba Walker, and that is something that was both a result of head coach Steve Clifford seeing limitations in Lin’s playmaking abilities as well as his belief that Lin could pay major dividends playing off of the ball and being featured as more of a finisher.
Top Clutch Player: Jeremy Lin
“Linsanity” may have been a long time ago, but Jeremy Lin has had some big moments since then as well. During last season’s playoff run with the Charlotte Hornets, Lin averaged 12.4 points per game in just 27 minutes off of the bench. On a roster with a number of players who haven’t been battle-tested, if the game comes down to one shot, in all likelihood head coach Kenny Atkinson will put the ball in Lin’s hands. It’s difficult to quantify which player is most clutch, but as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks during “Linsanity,” Atkinson had a front row seat to the magic that Lin was capable of producing. He probably still has some left in the tank, and we’re simply not sure if the same can be said of Brook Lopez.
The Unheralded Player: Trevor Booker
Trevor Booker is exactly the type of player that Sean Marks will have success with signing. After six years in the league, Booker has become renowned as a plus rebounder who is correctly served as a bench player who will warrant 15 to 20 minutes of playing time per night. Last season, Booker averaged 10 rebounds per 36 minutes, and that type of rebounding productivity is something that the Nets will need this season. With five of their top seven rebounders from last season now in new homes, Booker will have an opportunity to make an impact.
Best New Addition: Jeremy Lin
Of all the players acquired by general manager Sean Marks this offseason, Lin is most likely to pay the biggest immediate dividends. At the very least, Lin can create scoring opportunities for himself and help to open up the game for his teammates. Both Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert could end up being difference makers for the Nets, but as of right now, it’s safe to assume that their chances of escaping the cellar of the Atlantic rest on the extent to which Lin can lead them. LeVert gets an honorable mention for his appreciable upside, while Whitehead tugs at the heartstrings for being the first Brooklyn-born player selected by the franchise since its relocation.
– Moke Hamilton
WHO WE LIKE
1. Bojan Bogdanovic
Completely lost in the circus around him, Bojan Bogdanovic has proven to be a very capable NBA player. Entering his third season, he has averaged a very quiet 14.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game over the course of his career. He also happens to be a 37 percent shooter from downtown. As the 26-year-old continues to grow and adapt to the NBA game, he will only improve.
2. Kenny Atkinson
For those who aren’t familiar, Kenny Atkinson has long been highly regarded around NBA circles. Atkinson spent four years as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks before heading to Atlanta for another four-year stint. Atkinson has become renowned as a head coach who loves nothing more than to teach, and a fair number of young players that have come of age in New York and Atlanta -most notably Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore – would credit Atkinson for helping them develop. The Nets will need similar returns from their young players, but the data suggests they have found the right man.
3. Sean Marks
Marks has spent the past few years with the San Antonio Spurs with a front row seat to the operations of the franchise that has become regarded as the gold standard of the NBA. The Spurs have excelled in finding talent and either cultivating it or flipping it into better pieces. Case in point: the Spurs selected George Hill with the 26th overall pick of the 2008 draft and ended up trading him for Kawhi Leonard. Although Marks shouldn’t get all of the credit for that, it stands to reason that he understands the concept of finding a diamond in the rough and maximizing the return on investment. In Brooklyn, those skills are sorely needed.
4. Caris LeVert
Trading Thaddeus Young for the pick that ended up yielding Caris LeVert was a bold move made by Sean Marks and his staff. Standing at 6’7, though, LeVert is a knockdown shooter whose size should help his game translate to the NBA. Whether he can remain healthy is a bigger question (and concern), but oozing with potential until he proves it is unfounded, there should be some excitement to see that LeVert is capable of at the NBA level.
5. Isaiah Whitehead
The Brooklyn-born guard will have the opportunity to suit up for his hometown team. He called it a dream come true and, odds are, he will be motivated to prove that he not only belongs in the league, but that he is capable of carrying Brooklyn on his back.
– Moke Hamilton
SALARY CAP 101
The Nets are significantly under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with 15 guaranteed players and a $75.6 million commitment in payroll. With up to $18.6 million in cap room, Brooklyn will be able to absorb players via trade throughout the season, although they’ll need roster space to do so. Additionally, if the team decides to keep partially-guaranteed players Beau Beech, Egidijus Mockevicius and Yogi Ferrell, they’ll need to cut or move a player with guaranteed salary.
Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season. If Brooklyn doesn’t add salary before the end of the year, they’ll need to cut a check for $9.2 million to their rostered players. Looking ahead, the Nets project to have as much as $41 million in salary cap space next summer. They’ll also need to decide on rookie-scale options for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough before November – both likely to be picked up.
– Eric Pincus
Since being purchased by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets have consistently found themselves stuck in a pattern of swinging for the fences and gambling their future away for the sake of short-term gains. From Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Nets traded away Derrick Favors and gave up the draft picks that ended up yielding Enes Kanter, Gorgui Dieng and Damian Lillard among others. In a way, Prokhorov and former general manager Billy King should be commended for having the guts to take huge risks, but in sports, when they don’t pay off, the repercussions can be felt for a decade.
As a result of their acquisitional tactics, since moving to Brooklyn the Nets always felt like a team full of mercenaries who were brought together (often against their own free will) and were asked to deliver on lofty promises made by Prokhorov. Now, the opposite is true. The Nets will head into the 2016-17 season with no expectations but with a roster featuring players who may amount to something—Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough and Isaiah Whitehead. The best part of all? So long as they remain together, these players will have an opportunity to grow and learn without any pressure.
– Moke Hamilton
It’s no secret that the teams that fare better in the NBA are the teams that have had an opportunity to play together for a while. Chemistry is real. Continuity is necessary. In some instances, however, talent and continuity can make up for one another. In other words, a less talented team that has played together for several years can eventually become a sum that is greater than its individual parts. On the other hand, a team that has a superior talent base can often find success even if the pieces haven’t fully gelled.
Unfortunately for the Nets, they are at a deficit in both departments. In terms of the proven talent that is already on the roster in Brooklyn, the Nets appear to be much closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference than anywhere near its top. And aside from having a new head coach, six of the top rotation pieces in Brooklyn are new to the team. In the NBA, that isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
– Moke Hamilton
THE BURNING QUESTION
How long will the Nets’ rebuild take?
The Nets have been the butt of many jokes over the past few seasons. From the ill-fated trade with the Boston Celtics that yield Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the messy divorce between Jason Kidd and the franchise, Billy King’s regime is not one that will be remembered for prudence or predictability.
In his departure, King left a franchise that seemed to be lacking direction and one whose future seemed bleak, at best. The Nets do not own their own first-round pick until 2019. In 2017, they will have the right to exercise the less favorable pick between theirs and the Boston Celtics. In other words, there is a dearth of available draft picks in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future. The bright side? The Nets were one of the most heavily represented teams in Chicago during last May’s draft combine, and scouts within the organization have raved at the resources that newly installed general manager Sean Marks is putting into finding players who can play. In his introductory press conference, Marks said he knew he would have to be resourceful, and indications are that is exactly what’s happening.
Until the Nets find a few players that have game-changing potential, though, they will be battling with the Sixers to avoid the dubious distinction of being the worst team in what has recently been the league’s worst division.
How long, you ask? Let’s just say that 2019 can’t come quickly enough.
– Moke Hamilton
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
* * * * * *
With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”