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Cheap Seats: Defensive Player of the Year?

Who deserves the NBA’s 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year award? Basketball Insiders’ interns give their thoughts.

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the race for the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year award.

Roy Hibbert

Last year, Roy Hibbert finished 10th in Defensive Player of the Year voting and was not voted onto any of the All-Defensive teams. Hibbert was upset and said he was overlooked by media members who didn’t watch Indiana Pacers games. Fans and media members have been paying attention to Indiana throughout this season and have taken notice of Hibbert’s impact on the defensive end.

Last year, Hibbert averaged 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. This year, Hibbert is averaging 11.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. So how could a center who finished 10th last year suddenly be in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year while getting less rebounds and blocked shots per game? Gauging the defensive impact of a player based on traditional statistics alone has always been an imperfect measure.

However, this year the NBA started using SportVU cameras in each arena, which offer new insights into player productivity. NBA.com explains that the camera system “tracks the movements of every player on the court and the basketball 25 times per second. The data collected provides a plethora of innovative statistics based around speed, distance, player separation and ball possession.”

This new data shows that Hibbert is elite at anchoring the Pacers’ league-leading defense. Opponents attempt 10.3 shots at the rim per game with Hibbert defending. This is a high number of attempts, up there with players like DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers, who defends against 10.4 shots at the rim per game. But Hibbert allows opponents to shoot only 41.1 percent at the rim, whereas Jordan allows opponents to shoot 49.4 percent. Hibbert even matches up favorably to Joakim Noah, who allows opponents to shoot 45.7 percent at the rim on 7.5 attempts per game.

Defending the rim is not the only thing that should be considered in terms of defensive contributions, but it is very important. Teams like the Houston Rockets are emphasizing high efficiency shots, which includes three-pointers and shots at the rim. In fact. 52.27 percent of Houston’s overall field goal attempts have been at the rim this season. The Rockets may be an extreme example, but other top teams take a large percentage of shots at the rim as well, such as the San Antonio Spurs (43.64 percent) and Miami HEAT (42.68 percent). This means Hibbert is taking away the highest efficiency shot from some of the league’s best offenses, which is very significant.

In addition, wing defenders like Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill can play aggressive defense on the perimeter knowing that Hibbert is near the basket as backup. When opposing players manage to get past these defenders, Hibbert is often waiting on the backline to alter any shots within in his range. At 7’2, Hibbert is able to cover a lot of ground and affect opposing players as they attack the rim. When the attacking player is someone like LeBron James, the results can be violent.

Hibbert has also improved his footwork and lateral speed, which allows him to show harder on guards probing the paint from the perimeter. He also has improved his timing and awareness of when to rotate from the weak-side to help out on a player driving towards the basket. This improved defense at the rim, coupled with the strong perimeter defense from players like George, has Indiana firmly placed as the top defense in the league as the Pacers allow opponents to score only 96.1 points per 100 possessions.

The second-best defensive team is the Chicago Bulls, allowing 97.7 points per 100 possessions. It is not surprising that the Bulls are in the top-two since Noah anchors the defense in Chicago. His energy and defense at the rim are undeniably solid, and he has improved within Tom Thibodeau’s strong-side defensive system. Noah also posts better traditional stats, averaging 12.4 points, 11.1 rebound, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. While Noah has certainly upped his play lately, and stabilized the gritty Bulls after a rough start to the season, it would be a mistake to ignore what Hibbert and the Pacers were doing earlier in the season.

From early November until early January, the Pacers were holding teams to 93.7 points per 100 possessions. The second closest team at the time was the Oklahoma City Thunder, who allowed 97.6 points per 100 possessions. While the Pacers have fallen on hard times recently, going 7-11 in their last 18 games, it would be unfair to not remember that people were asking whether Indiana had put together the best defense in Pacers’ history and one of the best defenses in NBA history early in the season. Additionally, it has been Indiana’s offense that has hurt them lately more so than the defense.

Acknowledging Hibbert’s elite defense at the rim, it must also be stated that he needs to improve his rebounding. DeAndre Jordan gets 19.3 rebound chances per game – which is simply each time a player is within 3.5 feet of a rebound – and pulls in 71.6 percent of them, good for a league leading 13.8 rebounds per game. Hibbert gets 13.6 rebound chances per game, but only hauls in 50.5 percent of them, good for 6.9 rebounds per game. At 7’2, Hibbert should be grabbing more rebounds. However, the Pacers still bring in the seventh most rebounds per game as a team, so this area has not hurt the team significantly. Also, some of the top-10 rebounders include players like Kevin Love (12.6), DeMarcus Cousins (11.6), LaMarcus Aldridge (11.1) and Al Jefferson (10.5), none of whom are considered elite defensive anchors. So while rebounding is important and an indicator of a player’s defensive impact, it is not the best measure to rely on. Though it must be noted that other top defensive players are also in the top-10, including Jordan (13.8), Dwight Howard (12.3) and Noah (11.1).

There is tight competition for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award. However, Hibbert stands apart by protecting against the most efficient shot in the NBA, shots at the rim, better than anyone else. His size alone deters opponents from going straight to the rim, even when he is on the weak-side. His teammates are able to stay close to wing players on the perimeter, and hold opposing teams to just 37.3 percent shooting from 20-24 feet, good for seventh best in the league.

Hibbert will not win Defensive Player of the Year based on a traditional stat sheet. Fortunately for him, fans and members of the media have paid attention to the Pacers this year and his overall impact on their defense. It would be unfair to overlook his defensive impact from earlier this season because of Indiana’s recent struggles. Adding these new cameras only confirms what we see on the court, that Hibbert is a towering presence on defense and his overall effect on opposing teams goes beyond blocks and rebounds. He fundamentally changes the way in which opposing teams play against the Pacers, and it has resulted in the best defense in the league. Hibbert was overlooked last year. Let’s not make the same mistake this year.

– Jesse Blancarte

Paul George

In a category traditionally dominated by big men, it’s easy to overlook guards and small forwards when thinking about the top defensive players. The last time a guard or small forward won the Defensive Player of the Year award was Ron Artest in the 2003-04 season. Before Artest, it was Gary Payton in the 1995-96 season. This season, the award should go back to a small forward in Paul George.

Forget the idea that George is also in the race for Most Valuable Player, he should be considered as a serious contender for Defensive Player of the Year. George is currently fifth in the league in total steals with 143 (or 1.9 per game) and fourth among small forwards in rebounding with 459 (or 6.7 per game). One aspect of George’s game that allows him to pressure ball handlers is his 7’0 wingspan and quick foot work. In three games against LeBron James and the Miami HEAT, James shot 51 percent from the field, down from his 57 percent overall percentage, and his three-point percentage was down seven points from his season average.

Perhaps the biggest stat that helps George’s chances at winning the award is defensive win shares. A defensive win share is defined as a metric that estimates the number of wins a player produces for his team due to his defensive ability. George leads the league in defensive win shares at 6.2, ahead of Joakim Noah, DeAndre Jordan and teammates David West, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson. Currently George’s 6.2 defensive win shares is broken down to .081 per game, a number that would put him in a group among the league’s all-time best for guards and forwards. George’s .081 is higher than Michael Jordan’s win share per game of .0744 when he won the award in 1987-88 and higher than Payton’s .069. The all-time high for defensive win shares per game is .0854 by Scottie Pippen in 1994-95.

As far as defensive rating goes, George is third in the league at 96.6 behind only Noah and Andrew Bogut. The Pacers as a team have four total players in the top 20, which is a nod to Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s league-leading defensive efficiency. While the Pacers’ defense remains intact, the team’s offense has struggled to find ways to put points on the board, averaging 93 points per game since the All-Star break versus 98 points per game prior to the break. The team has gone 13-12 since the break, but George continues to provide the team with a bright spot on the defensive end, improving his rebounds per game from 6.4 before the break to 7.5 per game since the break.

George’s tear on defense isn’t new; he also led the league last season in defensive win shares with 6.3 or .08 per game. George’s numbers last season were greater than those of Marc Gasol, who won the award. While George’s outstanding year on the defensive side of the ball may go unrecognized again, leading the league in defensive win shares in back-to-back seasons must count for something.

– Cody Taylor

Joakim Noah

The Chicago Bulls’ season has been a grind from the beginning. The team has had every reason pack it in, but somehow seems to be playing their best basketball of the year heading into the postseason. The key to their success is obvious – defense. The team has struggled scoring all season, averaging only 93.3 points per game, but they have managed to make it even more difficult for their opponent to score, giving up just 91.8 points per game. The anchor of this stingy group is, of course, center Joakim Noah. Noah, who has always been considered a very solid player on the defensive end, has really come into his own this year and is now right in the thick of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.

The Bulls’ success on the defensive side relies heavily on their active center being able to control the paint and contain in pick-and-roll situations. Noah has done and exceptional job at both.

Rebounding has always been a strength for Noah and this season has been no different; he is cleaning the glass to the tune of 11.1 boards a night. Noah, a good athlete but different from a guy like DeAndre Jordan, excels at getting great position under the rim. His constant activity can cause problems and make it very difficult for some of the slower, less nimble big guys to stay in front of Noah and keep him off the backboard. He has one of the best motors in the league and is able to wear down his man by constantly working to rebound the ball.

Roy Hibbert is the standard right now when it comes to defending at the rim with opponents only scoring on 41 percent of their attempts against him this season. Noah, however, isn’t far behind. Opponents are only scoring on 46 percent of their attempts at the rim when he is down low patrolling the paint. Noah is not an elite shot blocker, but is able to deter shots around the rim by using his quick feet to stay in front of his man and by being active with his hands. He is adept at drawing charges and will almost certainly make opposing players pay if they go to the rim out of control. Also, Noah’s quickness is a great asset when it comes to help defense, as it allows him to effortlessly rotate and cover when his team is scrambling and caught out of position.

While he is a very good interior defender and rebounder, the most impressive aspect of Noah’s defensive performance this year may be his work in pick-and roll-situations. Again, his quickness really benefits him when attempting to contain an attacking guard. His ability to move in space at his size is what really separates Noah from other centers in the NBA. He has great feet, and it’s always entertaining to see Noah get switched up on a guard. The guard thinks they have a big advantage in quickness and can blow right past Noah, but more times than not Noah is able to contain penetration and force a tough shot. The stats just illustrate this point even more. In pick-and-roll situations with Noah defending, opponents are shooting only 34 percent from the field. It’s even more impressive when you compare Noah’s work in pick-and-roll situations with other top big men. Opponents in pick-and-roll situations with Dwight Howard defending are shooting 41 percent from the field and even worse for DeAndre Jordan, allowing opposing players to shoot 47 percent from the field. Noah’s lateral quickness pays huge dividends in these situations and it allows him to aggressively hedge on screens and suffocate the ball handler knowing he has the foot speed to recover back to his man in time. His versatility makes him so unique and will be very valuable in the playoffs as it may create a number of matchup issues.

Noah has been fantastic all season long defensively. His consistent minutes and steady play have been integral in the Bulls’ late season surge. When you couple the fact that the Bulls are at the top or near the top of the league in almost every team defensive category with Noah’s strong individual numbers defensively, it would blasphemous if he wasn’t given serious consideration in the Defensive Player of the Year race. He has been the glue to the toughest unit in the league and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Of course, credit must be given to head coach Tom Thibodeau as he is the mastermind behind the defense, but without Noah it’s hard to imagine this Bulls unit being as nearly as stingy as it has been.

– John Zitzler

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Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers could end up almost anywhere in the West – their outlook is that unclear. If they can’t be elite, could this be the end of the road for this roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Trail Blazers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many last season when they ended up with the third best record in the Western Conference behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a New Orleans Pelicans team that was probably a bit better than their record and sixth place finish indicated.

Despite that, the Blazers should feel good about themselves. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Sure they may not be on the same level as the Rockets or Warriors, but after that, the West is seemingly wide open. And with a little luck, maybe an injury here or there, anything can happen once the postseason rolls around.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Portland Trail Blazers are a really good team. But being really good in the Western Conference just doesn’t get you very far, unfortunately. Like the Utah Jazz, Portland is a dangerous team that could beat just about anyone on any given night. But I don’t see this year’s team being able to push the elite Western Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are explosive and continue to improve. The Blazers’ role players, like Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, are solid. The team even has some interesting prospects, such as Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Having said that, I think the front office needs to try and make an honest assessment about this team’s ceiling and decide whether it’s time to be aggressive and start making some serious changes to the roster. It’s odd saying that since this is a really good team. However, the goal for Portland is a championship, but I just don’t see this roster having a real shot at that.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Blazers won 49 games last year and return a very similar roster, yet many are picking them to finish outside the playoff picture in the West – and it’s not that crazy to imagine. The conference is just that tough. Last year’s team was pretty similar to the year before: They had one remarkable run in the mid-spring period (a 13-game winning streak from just before the All-Star break through the middle of March), then were roughly .500 the rest of the year. They’re always a threat to explode offensively with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, but it seems pretty clear this group has a limited ceiling that falls well below championship level. It’s also one Portland has a lot of money committed to even beyond this season. Is this the year the Blazers seriously consider making some big moves and resetting things if they aren’t in the hunt among legitimate contenders?

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Blazers have to do something. They may have a fine roster. They may have some excellent players. They may be well-coached. Unfortunately, they just don’t have enough. After suffering that embarrassing postseason defeat, the Blazers didn’t really do anything to improve their team. They are capable of making the playoffs and maybe could win a playoff round if everything goes their way. However, that’s as high at their ceiling gets and that’s if everything goes their way. Seriously, does anyone think they can actually compete with the Warriors or the Rockets? Are they even better than the new-look Lakers? If they don’t change things for the better, then the Blazers may approach the dreaded “treadmill team” label.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

It was a quiet offseason for the Blazers, who are coming off a solid season that abruptly ended in the playoffs against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. The tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is still one of the best one-two punches in the league today. Jusuf Nurkic is continuing to grow and build chemistry with his teammates going into year three with Portland. The loss of Ed Davis will impact the bench unit, but Zach Collins will have an opportunity to expand his role. Guys like Wade Baldwin and Jake Layman could see more floor time as well. While there won’t be a regression, Terry Stotts and company will need to fight tooth and nail in a tough Northwest Division to secure a postseason berth in the Western Conference.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

This has to be the year, right? It has to be the year the Blazers break through and become an elite team or management and ownership has to break it up, right? The Blazers have two elite level guards and a gob of money tied up into the rest of the roster. They have a good but not great head coach, so it either has to click and start to happen or leadership has to make bold changes. Let’s be real, the Blazers have tried to be aggressive, not only in trades but in free agency, so this team isn’t a product of sitting on their hands. But as West has gotten tougher and more developed, the Blazers haven’t necessarily kept up, so it has to happen now and there is a sense the Blazers get that. On paper, this arguably should be the best team in the Northwest Division, it’s just not assured they will be.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

To this point, Damian Lillard has blossomed into arguably a top-ten player in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He’s got unlimited range and is very difficult to stop when he’s attacking the rim. Last season, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game which he converted at a 91.6 percent clip, both career-highs.

The 26.9 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting were both the second-highest marks of his career. At 28 years old, Lillard is right in the prime of his career and a true star. He’s capable of exploding and having a huge scoring game on any given night. Many other teams in the NBA would love to have a player of that caliber. As long as Lillard is in Portland and producing at this level, the Blazers should remain competitive.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu has quietly become the best defensive player on the Blazers roster. He’s a long and athletic wing who can slide between forward positions defensively as well as take on the challenge of staying with some guards. Aminu was a big part of Portland’s strong defense last season. He’s good at transition defense, and he’s good at recovering and helping out when the guards get beat off the dribble. As the season went on, Portland had one of the better defenses in the league and Aminu was a major part of that.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

There isn’t much that Lillard can’t do on the court, and as it stands, he’s their best when it comes to running the offense. As explosive as he is at scoring the basketball, he can be just as deadly carving up a defense and creating opportunities for his teammates.

The 6.6 assists per game that Lillard dished out last season were the second-highest in his career. This was with not having too many offensive options to work with outside of McCollum. The Blazers were last in the NBA in assists per game, largely due to that fact, but Lillard made do with what he was given. He still managed to turn other guys into offensive threats. The Blazers are going to need much more of that this upcoming season.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

With the game on the line and a big shot needed, one could argue that you’d be comfortable with the ball in McCollum’s hands. He can create his own offense and is also a dead-eye shooter from anywhere on the floor. But overall, when a big play is needed for the Blazers, you’d still want the ball to be in the hands of Lillard.

Lillard’s ability to score is unparalleled on the team. He’s more adept than McCollum at getting to the rim in crunch time situations and thus, able to get a better look at the basket or draw contact and get a couple freebies. And when he inevitably draws the defense, his playmaking enables him to set someone else up for a big play.

The Unheralded Player: Al Farouq-Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu may have emerged as the Blazers best defensive player, but he also might have just become their third best player behind Lillard and McCollum. He doesn’t draw much media and national attention, but he contributes in many different ways that help the Blazers win games.

Since entering the league, he’s improved his offense tremendously. He was always a solid defender, but his offense, in particular his shooting, was a weakness of his. This past season, he knocked down a career-high 36.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range. He also took a career-high 4.9 attempts per game. He’s their perfect 3&D guy. He’s also one of the best rebounders on the team, especially on the defensive glass. He can guard multiple positions. For the Blazers to continue to take leaps in the West, they’ll most certainly need Aminu.

Best New Addition: Seth Curry

The Blazers had a couple of weaknesses last season, bench depth and outside shooting. They’re hoping that Seth Curry can address both of those issues. Sure he owns the distinction of being Steph Curry’s brother, but he’s become a solid NBA player in his own right. He missed all of last season due to injury, but if he’s healthy, he’ll provide Portland with exactly what they need.

During the 2016-17 season, the last in which Curry played, he averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent shooting from the three-point line. The Blazers guard off the bench role was filled by Shabazz Napier last season. Napier did an admirable job but he’s now off to Brooklyn. Curry can help fill that void with a capable ball-handler off the bench. He may even see time in the lineup with either one or both of Lillard and McCollum.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

Portland’s lottery pick from a year ago, Zach Collins was thrown into the lineup as the season went on, and he showed vast improvements. He and Ed Davis became an effective big man tandem off the bench. He’s got range out to the three-point line and he is an effective defensive player. It got to the point where he was sometimes finishing games over starting center Jusuf Nurkic. He allowed Portland to feel comfortable letting Davis walk and allowing Collins to be the primary big man off the bench.

2. Anfernee Simons

It’s tough to envision Anfernee Simons getting minutes right away this season, but there’s no denying the oozing potential he has. For a playoff contender like the Blazers, a draft pick like Simons is a huge gamble. Portland has major playoff aspirations and someone like Simons isn’t going to be ready to contribute now. But his long-term outlook is what intrigues Portland. He is very gifted athletically and he’s already a good shooter. In Summer League, he showed off an ability to create his own shot. If his development goes well, Portland could end up with one of the best players of the 2018 draft.

3. Gary Trent Jr.

His fellow rookie Anfernee Simons might not be able to contribute right away, but Gary Trent Jr is a little more NBA ready. For a team that often lacked bench production, Trent can definitely help in that regard, even as a rookie. Physically, Trent is better adapted to the NBA grind than the slight Simons. He also gives the Blazers some much-needed perimeter shooting. In a recent survey of NBA rookies, Trent was voted by his peers as one of this rookie classes best shooters and most likely to be a draft steal. If he can come in and contribute, the Blazers bench might be very much improved.

4. Caleb Swanigan

A year ago, Caleb Swanigan had a very impressive summer league. He played sparingly for the Blazers this past season, but due to some roster departures, he’s going to be counted on to provide production off the bench. He’s a decent passer for a big man and he can score in the paint. He’s more of a traditional big man, which seem to be a dying breed in today’s NBA, but perhaps with his passing, he can make an impact on the court. With Davis gone, the other bigs on the bench such as Collins, Jake Layman and Myers Leonard, are all better suited to the changing game. But this is going to be an important training camp for Swanigan to prove that he should get a chance to help the team.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense. The Blazers turned into one of the better defensive teams in the league last season. Sure neither Lillard nor McCollum would be confused for All-Defensive players, but even that didn’t matter too much. Jusuf Nurkic is a decent shot blocker, and Collins showed great defensive potential. Aminu is an incredibly underrated defender. And then there’s the enigma known as Moe Harkless. He can either be very good, or non-existent. He’s got the tools to be a superb wing defender. If they want to continue their ascent in the West, they’re going to need to continue to be a good defensive team.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Outside shooting and reliable bench production were two of the Blazers main weaknesses last season. Three of their main contributors from last season’s second unit, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis all signed elsewhere. They’re hoping that a few new roster additions, as well as some internal development, can help alleviate that. Based on the development he showed throughout the season, Collins appears ready to take another step forward. Trent and Curry will help with outside shooting. They’re going to need a couple of these guys to really step up and contribute if they hope to keep afloat in the West.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Blazers continue to take a step forward and become an elite Western Conference team?

Sure the Blazers grabbed a top-four seed in the West last season, but they might be skirting around dangerous territory. Looking at their roster, they might be floating around the NBA’s dreaded no man’s land. That is, a team not bad enough to benefit from a lottery pick in the draft, but not good enough to make any serious noise in the playoffs. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt, and that definitely counts for something. But after that, it can get a bit murky. Their depth isn’t on par with some of the other elite West teams. They’ve got some guys capable of filling those roles, but it’s still a question mark. They’re probably good enough to keep their hold on a playoff spot, but it most likely will be a lower one than where they finished last season.

– David Yapkowitz

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Report: Jimmy Butler Asks For A Trade

According to Shams Charania, Wolves forward Jimmy Butler has asked to be traded.

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Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, league sources tell me and @JonKrawczynski. Butler has given Minnesota a list of one-to-three teams with whom he’s open to signing extension, in anticipation of trade.

Source: Shams Charania, via Twitter

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New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.

Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.

Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.

Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.

Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson

Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.

Best New Addition: Julius Randle

Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.

Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jahlil Okafor

The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.

2. E’Twaun Moore

Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.

3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo

Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?

4. The Front Office

The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.

The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.

Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.

Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard and small forward.

As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.

While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?

Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.

– James Blancarte

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