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Cheap Seats: The NBA Player You’d Pay to See

Which NBA player would you pay to see? In this week’s Cheap Seats, the Basketball Insiders’ interns debate.

Basketball Insiders

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done 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 which NBA player they’d pay money to see:

Paul George

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – these are some of the players NBA fans would definitely pay to see play. James is the NBA’s all-around best player, Durant and Anthony are two of the best scorers, Paul is the best point guard and Griffin is the most exciting dunker. But I’ll pass on these great players, and pay to see Paul George play.

George came out of college without much hype or fanfare surrounding him. In fact, George’s name was lost in a list of names that included Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, Gordon Hayward, Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry. Four years later, Turner, the No. 2 pick, is on the trade block for the tanking 76ers, Johnson and Henry are on veteran minimum deals with the Lakers, Hayward is a solid piece in Utah and Aminu still cannot shoot consistently. George, however, has improved elements of his game each season, committed himself to being a defensive stopper and is now one of the 10 best players in the league.

George really made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs against the Miami HEAT. He was asked to slow down LeBron James; no big deal for the 23-year-old out of Fresno State, right? In Game One, after hitting an incredibly difficult three-pointer to tie the game, George let James blow by him for the game-winning layup. George did not go away quietly though. In Game Two, at the end of the third quarter, George managed to drive past James and throw down a monster dunk on Chris Anderson, who fouled him. George made his free throw and completed the three-point play. In response, James ran the ball down the court with five seconds to go and hit a long pull-up three pointer over George. LeBron said a few words to George, and the two exchanged a high five as they returned to their benches.

It was clear that George had earned the respect of the best player in the world. James would later say, “We’re just two guys trying to do what it takes to help our team win. He’s really good. He’s going to be a great one.” George would lead the Pacers to a win in Game Two, but the HEAT would win the series in seven games. Though the Pacers lost, it was a major step for the gritty team, and established George as their franchise player.

This season, George has cemented his status as an elite two-way player, a rare type of superstar in this league. He is the go-to player on offense, and is usually asked to guard the best wing player on opposing teams. Other players in the league who do this include James and… well, that is pretty much it. But remember, James was a high school phenom, he was always supposed to be one of the best players in the league. George was supposed to be solid, but never pegged as a potential superstar.

However, through hard work, and self-confidence, George has increased his scoring each year from 7.8 points per game, to 12.1, to 17.4, to 22.6 this year. After losing to the Pacers on November 20, 2013, Carmelo Anthony said, “He’s [gotten] a lot better offensively. All it takes is confidence in this league. I think George, that’s what he has right now, and it’s growing day by day, game by game, and you can see that when he’s out there on the court.” Anthony scored 30 points, but George held him to shooting just 10-28 from the floor. George managed to score 35, including nine of Indiana’s 14 points in overtime.

In his fourth year, George has taken the leap that other great players have taken. Compare the stat lines of these three players in their fourth year in the league:

Player A (PER 36): .457 FG%, .355 3PT%, .733 FT%, 6.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, 24.1 points.

Player B (PER 36): .440 FG%, .365 3PT%, .852 FT%, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 22.3 points.

Player C (PER 36): .476 FG%, .319 3PT%, .698 FT%, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.1 points.

These players are Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Paul George. Try to match these players with their stat line. You may get it right, but you may not, and that is what is amazing about George. In four years, he has managed to achieve similar levels of play to two of the best small forwards in the last two decades.

Player A is McGrady, who was an amazing player and could score the ball effortlessly. In McGrady’s fifth-year, he increased his scoring average to 29.3 points per 36 minutes. It is scary to think that George may be primed to make another leap in scoring similar to McGrady. What distinguishes George from McGrady, however, is that George is asked to be a lockdown defender in Indiana. In fact, many fans might think of George as a defender rather than an elite scorer. While George can score in a variety of ways, he commits himself to a team philosophy centered on defense. And it’s working. At 39-10, the Pacers have the best record in the league with George as their leader.

Player C is James. LeBron is an unbelievable talent, who may go down as the greatest player of all time. Similar to McGrady, LeBron was so highly regarded as a prospect that he skipped college and entered the draft straight out of high school. NBA rules now require players to spend one year in college before entering the draft. George spent two years at Fresno State, and was not the sort of prospect that would enter the NBA straight from high school anyway. Yet George can hold his own against LeBron statistically, and in a playoff series. With the Pacers and HEAT currently ranked atop the Eastern Conference, it is likely that George will get a second shot to out duel the best player in the league, which all NBA fans should look forward to.

Yes, George has struggled in early 2014 and shot 5-22 against the Portland Trail Blazers last night. It doesn’t matter. With roughly four minutes to go in overtime against the Blazers, George fought for an offensive rebound off a Danny Granger miss, and stole the ball from Robin Lopez, who had secured the rebound. George then missed an open three pointer, but got the offensive rebound and eventually would run baseline to get open for a dunk off a George Hill assist. Then, while up three, Indiana turned to George to seal the game. George smoothly took a step back jumper with 20 seconds to go and buried it.

This is why George is such a great player. Even when he isn’t scoring efficiently, he is still making plays defensively. This is not a criticism of players such as Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. They are almost unstoppable on offense. But neither player is considered a lockdown defender, and neither commits themselves to the defensive side of the ball like George does. George is not a better player than Durant, though he is arguably better than Carmelo. But this is not about paying to see the best player in the league. That title is held by LeBron James. This is recognizing the all-around elite play and commitment to defense that George displays, which many of the best players in the league never do. James is one of those few players, but he was expected to do that. George was not, and it makes him that much easier to appreciate as a player. As proof, George earned the Most Improved Player award last year, and could potentially win it again this season, which is a testament to his commitment towards improving his game.

Still need convincing that George is worth the price of admission? Then check out this dunk he threw down against the Clippers on January 18.

In a league that focuses mainly on scoring, Paul George commits himself to defense like only a handful of players have in recent memory. He is the number one scoring option, and the lockdown defender on the team with the best record in the league. George works harder on defense than he does offense, and that is what places him among the NBA elite.

That is why I would pay to see Paul George play.

– Jesse Blancarte

Stephen Curry

There are two players in NBA that are going to put fans in the stands no matter when or where they play, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is ascending in that direction and may very soon have to be included in the must see category with James and Durant.

Curry doesn’t possess the size or athleticism of James or Durant, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA today. The strongest attribute in Curry’s game is his lethal jump shot. He can be absolutely deadly from beyond the arc.  As a catch and shoot player he is nearly unstoppable. What makes Curry’s’ shot so difficult to guard and so entertaining to watch is his lightning quick release. He needs only the slightest bit of room from his defender to have enough space to get his shot off.

What separates Curry from other great outside shooters, is his ability to create his own shot. Curry isn’t one of those shooters that can only score by running off screens to shake his defender or spotting up and waiting for his teammates to penetrate the defense and find him.

His jump shot may be his greatest strength, but it is certainly not his only strength. Curry’s ball handling is brilliant to watch, he is able to create space and find open shots off the dribble at will.  The Warriors also run a lot of high pick-and-roll sets with Curry at the top of the key, which leaves his defender in a very adverse position; if the defender decides to go over the screen to prevent the three Curry will dribble to the elbow and knock down a mid-range jumper, but if the defender cuts off the dribble Curry will step back and drill a three-pointer.  Once Curry finds a rhythm and has a feel for how he is going to be defended, he can start to fill it up quickly.  He is the type of player that can put up 10-15 points in a quarter without even breaking a sweat.  Curry this year has had games scoring 44, 43 and 38 points, and last season dropped 54 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Maybe the most impressive way that Curry scores the ball is at the rim. He has an array of moves inside the paint and deft touch off the backboard. His ability to score at the rim is what makes him nearly impossible to defend.  There are not many players, if any, who at Curry’s size, have his ability to shoot from the outside and can drive down the lane and score over seven-footers.  He can finish with either hand in the paint and has mastered the floater.  Some of his finishes are awe-inspiring, and Curry is somehow able to consistently navigate through opposing big men and finish at the rim even when it seems he may be taking a very difficult shot.

As if Curry’s ability to score and handle the ball weren’t enough, he is becoming one of the better passers in the NBA. This season Curry is averaging 9.1 assists per game, which is good for second best in the league behind only Chris Paul. Curry draws a significant amount of attention from opposing defenses night in and night out, as he should, with much of the opposition’s defensive attention focused on Curry it allows him to find open looks for his teammates.  Being the deadly outside shooter that Curry is, oftentimes more than one player will come to contest his shot and similarly when he drives the defense knowing that he can score in the paint in a variety of ways will collapse. When either happens, it allows Curry to locate an open teammate for an easy look.

Curry is a supremely talented player; he can singlehandedly lead the Warriors to victory every night.  Any given game he can score 40 plus points and knock down three after three.  At the same time, he doesn’t force his shot. If the defense commits to stopping him, Curry will go out and drop 13 or 14 assists.  His combination of shooting, ball handling and passing is unmatched in the league today.  He uses all three of these strengths to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.  Curry has become one of the most entertaining players in the league, edging closer and closer to being included with Durant and James in the NBA’s can’t miss category when you have the chance to go see them play.

– John Zitzler

Anthony Davis

In just his second season in the league, Anthony Davis has made huge improvements in several statistical categories, and if he continues this pace, he’ll be on track to join elite company.

Davis already has more double-doubles in 41 games this season (23) than he did in 64 games last season (20). A big contributing factor to that is the Pelicans are relying on him more this season, as his minutes have jumped from 28.8 minutes per game last season to 36 minutes per game this season. The Pelicans are simply relying on Davis more this season due to the injuries that have plagued them. Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith have all missed games this season due to various injuries; there is no timetable for Anderson to come back, and Smith will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery.

Through Davis’ first 41 games, he is averaging 20.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, and should he continue that pace, he’ll be the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-00 season to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game for an entire season.

Despite all of Davis’ improvements this season, he still wasn’t voted into the All-Star game during the original ballots, but given the injury to Kobe Bryant, Davis was announced as Bryant’s replacement in the game.

Part of what makes Davis so fun to watch is his 7’4 wingspan and ability to block shots. Davis currently leads the league in blocks with 3.24 per game, which is miles ahead of Serge Ibaka, the next closest player with 2.55 blocks per game. Davis has had 10 games with at least five blocks, including seven during his 22-point, 19-rebound effort against the Orlando Magic on Jan. 26.

Davis’ performance against the Magic is a perfect example of the challenge teams face when trying to plan against playing him. Davis used his superb athletic ability against the slower Magic bigs, a skill that is often only matched by a handful of bigs in the league. On one play in particular, Davis spent most of one possession guarding the basket, then E’Twaun Moore got the ball in the corner and attempted a shot, but Davis used his athletic ability to race out to the three-point line to block Moore’s shot and force the Magic into a shot clock violation.

“It’s hard to imagine getting much better than 20 and 10, but I think he can do it,” teammate Ryan Anderson told SiriusXM Radio.

The way Davis can run both sides of the floor is exactly why he is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Davis’ defensive play is almost reminiscent to that of Dwight Howard, when Howard won three-straight DPOY awards. The obvious difference to that argument is Howard’s bulk over Davis and the additional three rebounds per game Howard posted during his run. Conversely, Davis wins the blocks battle as Howard averaged 2.4, 2.8 and 2.9 blocks per game, respectively. Davis’ steals are also on target with Howard’s, as Davis is averaging 1.4 per game and Howard averaged 1.4 the final year he won the award. Those three years Howard won the DPOY award were arguably Howard’s best years of his career.

Davis isn’t like the average big man in the league, as his offensive possessions would indicate. According to Synergy Sports, Davis is scoring the bulk of his points on transition, cuts, pick-and-rolls and put backs. Due to Davis’ lack of bulk, his post-up possessions are at the bottom of his scoring options and isn’t something that he needs to rely on. Bottom line is Davis does most of his damage using his athleticism on transition and cutting toward the basket.

The fact that he’s not even done with his second season yet and is already posting these types of numbers is only going to solidify his place among the league’s best players in the coming years.

– Cody Taylor

Which NBA player would you pay to see? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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