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Changing of the Guard in New York

Kristaps Porzingis has surpassed Carmelo Anthony as the Knicks’ best player quicker than expected.

Tommy Beer

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Tuesday’s game between the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers at the Garden came down to the wire. There were over 20 lead changes, as momentum swung back and forth. The outcome wasn’t decided until the final possession, as the Knicks ended up pushing past and holding off Portland for a 107-103 victory.

One of the most interesting aspects related to the Knicks’ strong performance down the stretch on Tuesday was the lack of clutch contributions from Carmelo Anthony. In the second half, Anthony was just 2-of-12 from the floor and 0-of-5 from three-point territory. He didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter, as he missed all three of his field goal attempts.

In years past, there was very little likelihood that the Knicks would have been able to register wins in close games without Anthony taking and making the vast majority of clutch shots. However, if Tuesday night was any indication, we are currently witnessing a changing of the guard in New York City.

Anthony arrived in New York on February 22, 2011. He’s been the best player on the team since the moment he held up that Knicks jersey in his introductory press conference. In his first game, he sealed a Knicks victory over the Milwaukee Bucks with a driving dunk past Carlos Delfino and a short, corner jumper in the waning seconds. Right from the very start the Knicks franchise, which had been desperate for a true superstar since Patrick Ewing left town, was his. The city adored him. The future was bright.

There have been plenty of ups-and-downs during Anthony’s time in the Big Apple. There have been drastic shifts in the front office and multiple head coaching changes. The roster has been turned upside down, and then flipped over again for good measure.

There has been only one constant since that February day in 2011: Carmelo Anthony was the face of the franchise and the team’s best player. Point guards and general managers and coaches have come and gone, but ‘Melo remained.

When was the last time Anthony wasn’t the best player on his basketball team? He was one of the top talents in America and obviously the best player on his high school squad at Oak Hill Academy. In fact, the year prior to that, he was the Baltimore Catholic League Player of the Year at Towson Catholic before he transferred to Oak Hill for his senior season.

In his one season at Syracuse, he averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds while leading the Orangemen to their first ever NCAA tournament title. Anthony was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award.

He was Denver’s top gun from the moment he was drafted, leading the Nuggets in scoring his rookie season. Anthony averaged 21 points per game in 2003-04. No other Nugget averaged more than 14 points per contest. He continued to grow and improve as a player, and remained the alpha male in Denver until they dealt him to the Knicks.

******

Kristaps Porzingis was amazing once again in Tuesday night’s victory over the Blazers. He poured in a game-high 31 points, including a dizzying array of dunks and step-back three-pointers.

Porzingis has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations early in his career. After the first few weeks and months, it was clear that he was uniquely gifted. However, considering he was so slight of build and was still adjusting to living in America and playing in the NBA, most believed it would take him years before he grew into his game and his body.

It was assumed that Anthony would remain the team’s focal point and face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Eventually, as his career was winding down toward the back end of his contract, Porzingis would have hopefully improved enough by that point so that ‘Melo would feel content passing the torch to his young protege.

However, there is an uncomfortable truth that New Yorkers have to now confront: Carmelo Anthony is no longer the Knicks’ best player.

While Anthony has slowed a bit (Carmelo’s regression is most painfully obvious on the defensive end of the floor), Porzingis’ game has developed at warp speed.

Porzingis is clearly the best all-around player in New York right now. KP’s intoxicating blend of length, athleticism, confidence and incredible skill has him playing at a truly elite level, despite the fact that he’s only 21 years old.

It’s his ability to contribute, and at times dominate, at both ends of the floor that truly separates Porzingis from his peers. He is the currently the only player in the NBA leading his team in both made three-pointers and blocked shots. And consider this: Last season, Steph Curry became the first player in NBA history to shoot above 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point territory and 80 percent from the free throw line, while attempting more than five three-pointers per game. Porzingis is currently shooting 50.2 percent from the floor, 39 percent from downtown and 78 percent from the charity stripe, while averaging 5.5 three-point attempts per game.

Over the Knicks’ last 10 games, Porzingis is averaging 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 three-pointers, 0.9 blocks and 0.8 steals, while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor.

Over the Knicks’ last 10 games, Anthony is averaging 23.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 three-pointers, 0.4 blocks and 0.7 steals, while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor.

The advanced metrics show an even greater divide. Porzingis’ 2016-17 PER currently sits at 22.2. ‘Melo clocks in at 20.1. Porzingis’ Real Plus/Minus of 3.43 ranks 15th best in the NBA this season. ‘Melo is 35th at 2.03.

A couple of other stats to consider: Over the Knicks first nine games this season, Porzingis averaged 50.3 touches per game, which ranked fourth on the team. New York was 3-6 through their first nine contests. Over the Knicks last five games, KP is averaging 75.2 touches per game, which ranks first on the team. New York is 4-1 over those five contests.

In 12 minutes of “clutch time” (which the NBA defines as the final five minutes of a game in which the point differential is five points or less) this season, Porzingis has attempted just one shot. He made it. He also has no turnovers and no free-throw attempts. Cumulatively, he has a 4.7 percent usage rate and 100 percent True Shooting Percentage in the clutch.  In contrast, Carmelo Anthony has attempted six shots in clutch situations this season and, according to NBA.com, he has missed them all (0-for-6). Melo’s usage rate in the clutch is 30.6 percent, or roughly five times greater than Porzingis.

Everyone from fans to the front office to the coaches and the players knew that Porzingis passing Anthony in the pecking order would occur at some point down the road. It was widely acknowledged that ‘Melo was the present and KP was the future.

Only that’s no longer true. Porzingis is both. It’s all happened sooner than we expected.

Now, it will be fascinating to see how this all plays out. If the Knicks goal is to win games this season, do they need to make more of a concerted effort to get the ball to their most efficient scorer more frequently, especially late in the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance?

With that said, don’t expect any fireworks. One of the reasons New Yorkers have fallen head over heals in love with Porzingis is his unselfish attitude and modest, self-effacing personality. Porzingis has almost always said the right thing since responding to draft days boos with a smile and an innocuous quip about being happy to have the opportunity to win over New Yorkers. For a kid that could now easily view himself as the new ‘King of New York,’ he’s bashful even being mentioned as a potential prince.

Porzingis has also unfailingly deferred to Anthony, both on and off the court.

After Sunday’s win over the Hawks, Porzingis was quick to correctly credit ‘Melo as a crucial component to his own individual success.

“Without Melo, it would be much more difficult for me to get those 30 points, or 28,” Porzingis said. “People don’t realize that. But that’s how it is. He draws a lot of attention, and he’s the main focus for the other team. That opens up stuff for me. So without him, it would be much more difficult.

“I’m happy to have him and D-Rose and guys who are really aggressive driving to the basket, who draw so much attention for me to be able to get those wide-open looks and then attack. It’s good sometimes that we have that. Without them, it would be much more difficult.”

And he is 100 percent right. In many respects, Porzingis is blessed to not only play alongside a terrifically talented player in Anthony, but also a person who is comfortable in the bright lights of the big city. Anthony is the player whom reporters will run to for a quote when Phil Jackson says or does something that draws negative attention to the team. Anthony will be the one forced to face the music and will be asked the tough questions about unmet expectations if the Knicks fail to advance to the playoffs. Porzingis will eventually have to shoulder the responsibility that comes along with being the face of the franchise, but delaying this inevitability for as long as possible likely only benefits him and the Knicks long-term.

And to his credit, Anthony, by all accounts, has been a trusted and respected mentor to Porzingis. He’s taken the young Latvian under his wing since inviting Porzingis to his personal gym for workouts last summer. Recently, ‘Melo has been effusive in his praise of Porzingis. Earlier this week, Anthony acknowledged Porzingis turns him into a fan on a nearly nightly basis.

“I’m still in awe of kind of some of the things he does on the court. Like yesterday, he made a move and I’m like, ‘Damn.’ You know what I mean? I’m still like a fan of kind of his talent and his skill level,” Anthony said. “I always thought it would kind of take longer to get acclimated. He’s doing a great job with just kind of taking it day by day, still getting a feel for the game and figuring it out on the fly.”

Nonetheless, as Porzingis’ game continues to grow, so will his fame. How will Anthony handle the attention slowly shifting away from his side of the locker room? When the NBA universe starts recognizing Kristaps as the Knicks’ top talent, how will it impact Anthony? At some point, the Knicks will have to seriously consider running plays for KP on the final possessions of close games. Will it be a tough pill for the prideful Carmelo to swallow? It would be only natural for him to have a tough time adjusting to a new role, and a lower ranking in the team hierarchy.

Still, there are obvious advantages for Anthony and reasons he should embrace KP’s accession. ‘Melo is the most efficient and effective version of himself when is set up as a catch-and-shoot scorer. The offense tends to grind to a halt when he dribbles seconds off the shot clock in isolation attempts. He should embrace the space-and-pace brand of basketball espoused by Jeff Hornacek and powered by point guards Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings, as well as Porzingis. As we have seen in summer’s past, “Olympic ‘Melo” is a force to be reckoned with.

There is no denying that ‘Melo remains an incredibly skilled player – one of the best offensive players on the planet. Still, playing alongside an emerging superstar in Porzingis will require a recalibration on his part.

After all, it’s been a very, very long time since Carmelo Anthony wasn’t the best player on his own basketball team.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC

Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.

The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.

For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.

Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.

“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”

Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.

This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.

“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”

This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.

But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.

“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”

In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.

However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.

They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.

“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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