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Dante Cunningham: The Journeyman

Dante Cunningham talks to Basketball Insiders about life as a journeyman in the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A journeyman in the NBA is typically a player who is well-traveled around the league. Every other year or so it seems as if they’re playing for a different team. No matter where they end up next or what uniform they put on, they always manage to make positive contributions on the court for their current team.

Dante Cunningham is someone who definitely fits that bill. Currently with the Brooklyn Nets, Cunningham is on his sixth team in nine years in the NBA. Previously he’s had stops with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, and New Orleans Pelicans.

He’s been traded three times and prior to the past three and half years in New Orleans, he had been with a team no more than two years. It’s no wonder, then, that as he’s approaching a decade in the NBA, he’s looking for some long-term stability.

“Honestly, I want a good fit, a good team and a good home,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been around a couple of teams but I always seem to fit in and play on every team that I’ve been to. It’s towards the end of my career and I would like to kind of have more of a stable home situation.”

Cunningham is no stranger to free agency. He’s been through it four times already. The longest contract he signed was back in the summer of 2011. He was coming off his second year in the NBA. He had been traded midseason from Portland to Charlotte and he had flourished with the Bobcats.

As a result, the Grizzlies came calling in the offseason with a three-year, $7 million offer. As a restricted free agent, Charlotte had the right to match but declined to do so. He only lasted a year in Memphis before being traded to Minnesota.

He began the season part of a Pelicans team looking to make the playoffs, but was once again traded at the deadline to the Nets. While the Nets are a team that will miss the postseason for the third consecutive year, Cunningham has liked what he’s seen from this young group.

“We have such fight regardless of if we’re down,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “We always have an opportunity knowing that no one has their head down. There’s always someone ready to step up and get it done.”

Despite their overall record, the Nets have been involved in quite a few close games. They just haven’t been able to close them out. This is a team that plays hard and scrappy. Night in and night out they’re going to compete, even if it doesn’t always translate to wins.

The way the Nets play is almost like a mirror image of Cunningham’s career. He’s never been a flashy player. He’s not going to jump off the stat sheet. He has career averages of 6.0 points per game, 3.8 rebounds, 0.5 blocks and 0.7 steals.

He’s never averaged double figures in scoring. But you know what you’re going to get with him, that’s positive contributions. He’s going to play tough defense, crash the glass and score when needed.

“It’s a hard-nosed team. I love the competitiveness that we have,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “It’s right up my alley, just to continue to grind, push the ball and fight.”

After having been in the league for nine years now, Cunningham has seen his role begin to change. Although he’s still getting a decent amount of playing time (20.4 minutes per with the Nets), he’s becoming very valuable for what he can bring off the court.

As players begin to transition towards the end of their careers, they become more important for the mentoring they can provide to the younger guys in the locker room. For a team like the Nets that is full of youth, an older veteran like Cunningham is precisely what they need to keep them in line.

“It’s definitely changed a little, I’m one of the older guys now. I think I’m top two oldest on the team,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “Guys are looking at me a little differently as in different questioning. Some guys may or may not have been through certain things and I’m kind of there to help fill in, to continue to give them an edge and push them.”

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NBA Daily: Decisions Loom For Thunder With Deadline Ahead

With the deadline fast approaching, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have some tough decisions to make. Quinn Davis looks at the merits of each moveable player and the best course of action.

Quinn Davis

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Entering the 2019-20 NBA season, a new-look Western Conference seemed to have extremely limited playoff space. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who had traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George away, were not expected to compete for that space.

The age and contract of Chris Paul — combined with the seemingly lackluster roster around him — made the team appear as a likely trade port for contenders in need of one more piece. Paul, as well as fellow veterans Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, were expected to be highly sought after come January and early February.

Fast forward to today: The Thunder sits safely in seventh place in the Western Conference. The eighth-seeded Grizzlies trail them by 5.5 games, while the sixth-seeded Rockets hold a two-game advantage in their spot. Some of the shake-up is due to injuries to previous Western Conference Finals attendees in both Portland and Golden State — but mostly the Thunder have just been playing great, sound basketball.

Paul has seemingly bought into the culture, noting in multiple interviews that he has had as much fun as ever playing basketball this season. He also just told Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated that he will not be opting out or accepting a buyout to play for a contender.

With the team on the road to the playoffs and a Paul trade becoming increasingly less likely, Thunder general manager Sam Presti will have some tough decisions to make at the deadline. Do you trade the veterans around Paul to accumulate assets? Or should you stand pat, let this roster try to reach their ceiling and move forward with the stockpile of draft picks received in the last two blockbuster trades?

There is an intangible value to giving young players experience in April. They will see first-hand the effort and attention to detail required when the games become do or die.

On the other hand, there is also value to having a veteran team around the young players that the Thunder hope will one day be the faces of the franchise. There are obvious off-the-court mentorship reasons as well as basketball benefits to this strategy. A team with a handful of capable professionals allows for rookies to play within themselves and decreases the likelihood of developing bad habits. If the team decides to sell off their veteran players, there is also the risk of losing team chemistry and the interest of others looking for a new team.

With that said, these benefits are extremely hard to quantify. There is also a fair argument on the other side of the coin, too. The guaranteed minutes and lack of expectations make for a more experimental and open environment, in which a certain skill set may be discovered that would have otherwise never been unearthed.

It would be foolish to confidently say one strategy is better than the other — moreover, there are examples on either end. The Thunder’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has developed quite nicely while spending his first season-and-a-half with two talented rosters. Meanwhile, Trae Young has become one of the league’s best offensive players in the same amount of time while being asked to do everything for an uninspiring supporting cast in Atlanta.

Even if there were more examples found on one side, using them would be a flawed exercise. There is no way to tell whether a rookie who blossomed in one scenario would flame out in the reverse.

This is the life of an NBA executive, one Presti knows all too well. If there was a clear answer to these questions, every team would have figured it out by now. The most likely answer is that every player is different and what works for some may fail for others.

For the Thunder, the player to cater to is Gilgeous-Alexander. The second-year guard has looked like a burgeoning All-Star for much of the season and will be priority number one as the team heads into this next chapter — whatever it may be.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that he has taken a second-year leap while under the tutelage of the future Hall-of-Famer in Paul. There is no telling the amount of knowledge and wisdom passed down from one of the most cerebral players to ever step foot on a court.

With that in mind, along with the contract concerns discussed earlier, it seems unlikely that the Thunder would break up that symbiotic relationship (barring any incredible offers, of course).

The next two trade pieces would be Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. The former is off the books after this season, while Adams is signed through the end of the 2020-21 season.

Gallinari is the likely candidate here as his ability to both space the floor and act as a secondary playmaker would be valuable to… well, pretty much every franchise. His expiring contract would also allow potential buyers to stay flexible for this offseason.

Adams, meanwhile, is a fan favorite in Oklahoma City and a far harder to trade with his longer contract. The burly center also fills a more niche role as a defensive anchor and screen-setter that may not be as coveted by teams at the top of the standings.

Another name popping up in trade rumors is current sixth man Dennis Schroder. The speedy ball-handler is on the books until 2021 but has a much more reasonable salary of about $15 million per year. Teams in need of leadership up top may already be inquiring about the availability of the veteran point guard.

Better, Schroder is in the midst of his best season. He is averaging 18 points per game on his best efficiency ever. His ability to finish at the rim, in the mid-range and from three-point distance are all at career-highs, per Cleaning the Glass. His steady play and the Thunder’s winning record have made him a potential candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

If teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers could shed enough salary to open up room for Schroder, a bidding war could emerge for the German guard.

Trading any of those four veterans could have significant effects on the Thunder’s results for this season. The team’s best lineup features all four of those veterans next to Gilgeous-Alexander. That foursome has a mind-boggling net rating of plus-35 in their 242 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass.

If playoffs are the goal, the Thunder should stand pat at the deadline, keep the core together and chase an exciting first-round series against one of the league’s best.

The risk of staying competitive is well-documented. Even though the Thunder have accumulated a king’s ransom of draft capital, most of these picks are from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams that will likely be competing for championships in the foreseeable future. The Thunder making the playoffs will leave them drafting consistently in the mid-to-late first round where it is much harder to predict the potential of incoming draftees.

With that said, the Thunder have the most to offer when a team is looking to trade out of a high pick, or when a disgruntled star emerges. The capital they accumulated could be simply saved up for future opportunities.

The Thunder may not win a championship this season — or even make it out of the first round — but the foundation is conducive to next-generation successes. Further, the current framework of the team has proven a perfect garden for Gilgeous-Alexander to grow.

There may be tougher decisions down the line and a time at which those assets need to be cashed in — but for now, the risk of losing this foundation outweighs the reward of a potential return.

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NBA

The Flimsiness of Narratives

It doesn’t take much for a player’s narrative to take a drastic turn. That’s certainly been the case for Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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To begin this segment on narratives, let’s travel back to the 2016 NBA Draft. Remember what the narrative was for that particular class around that time?

It was labeled as top-heavy. Very top-heavy. It was supposed to be a two-man draft. Only two prospects in that draft were projected to be potentially special talents in the NBA: Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. While the prospects below them were labeled as more of a crapshoot, Simmons and Ingram were believed to be a cut above the rest.

Simmons was deemed a future superstar the second he hit the national stage in Australia, while Ingram garnered attention during an impressive freshman campaign at Duke. Needless to say: Whichever franchise got those two were getting a marquee building block.

Almost four years later, the narrative on the draft has definitely changed.

Let’s get back to Simmons and Ingram. Because these two were selected nos. 1 and 2 in the same draft, they will never be able to avoid comparisons to one another. Even if their skillsets have some very obvious differences, as far as overall talent goes, there are some striking similarities between the two.

Besides their same class designation and a relatively-similar height, both are oversized for the positions they play. However, those physical gifts mean that they not only outside of their regular position but instead thrive in those spots as well. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, it makes both of them two of the most versatile and unique young talents in the league.

Comparing their careers as a whole, Simmons gets the edge for now. The Aussie hit the ground running from the first moment he entered the league. Simmons has had more success both as a player and with the teams he’s played on. Today, he’s even on a team that currently has a better record than Ingram’s — by a fair margin too.

So why is it that their career trajectories appear to be going in opposite directions? At the present time, Ingram is looked at as a promising starlet whose efforts this season should be enough to, at the very least, make a case for the All-Star game. Simmons, on the other hand, seems to be everyone’s favorite scapegoat, despite making a solid case to make the All-Star Game, too.

One simple word: Progress.

With a fresh start on a new team and a clean slate of health — fingers crossed that those blood clots were a one-time thing — Brandon Ingram is living up to the billing of the second overall pick. He’s using his slender physique to abuse mismatches, his jumper is more on-point and his play-making abilities are now on full display.

Until Zion Williamson makes his debut on Wednesday, he has been the indisputable face of the suddenly-scary New Orleans Pelicans. The player that we see from Ingram today did show himself at times when he was in Los Angeles — but only in small doses. His injury issues were not on the Lakers, but with LeBron James on the team, he was thrust into a role that he wasn’t ready for. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and for Ingram, it looks like he’s just about reached it.

As for Simmons, well, he has made progress from a technical standpoint. This season, he’s been able to use his physical advantages to become a much better defender. A 6-foot-10 player with his agility and great vision has all the tools to be an elite defender. Simmons was never a slouch on that end, but he’s elevated his defense well enough to get him All-NBA consideration in that department.

But, somehow, that’s also where the progress stops. Despite summer workout videos suggesting to the contrary, Simmons’ jumper is still a non-factor. Because of that, he faces more questions about his ceiling both as a player and as a pairing with Joel Embiid. Offensively, Simmons is still basically the same player he was when he first entered the league. There’s still so much to like about what he does on that end — and yet the complete lack of spacing leaves so much to be desired.

So, Simmons has improved as a player since coming into the league. He just hasn’t made the improvements that we have wanted to see from him.

The same can’t be said for Ingram

The point is: It doesn’t take all that long for a narrative to change. In this case, to many, Ingram is now the can’t-miss-blossoming-star while Simmons has stagnated — even if only just a little.

Simmons had the future-superstar label slapped on him since he entered the league — with one simple caveated-asterisk, his jumper. This was a well-dissected flaw as a prospect and, with no noticeable progress in that category, critics are on his case now more than ever.

Meanwhile, Ingram’s critics have all but disappeared. His potential has always been there, but his injury history made his future murky. For the time being, he has potential to be a perennial All-Star — most in part thanks to his clean bill of health — and he’s producing better than ever.

Still, there’s also the atmosphere that both of these players are in.

Since the 76ers don’t revolve around him primarily, nor put the best shooters around him, Simmons’ Achilles heel nearly overshadows all the beauty of his game. At this point, it’s gotten fair to wonder if Philadelphia is the right situation for him as a developing player.

That said, Ingram certainly has found the right situation for him.

Simmons was supposed to be a key cog on a title contender; Ingram was supposed to be the new face of a rebuild. There’s so much more pressure on Simmons to produce at an elite level because of the franchise’s long-term goals. New Orleans definitely has lofty expectations for the future, but not in the current year. Given Philadelphia’s shortcomings in 2019-20 thus far, someone has to be the fall guy. There’s some blame to go around, but a fair amount of it is going to Simmons.

With Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram as the latest examples, many factors in this league shape the narrative behind a player. Because the NBA always seems to live in a land of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-isms, most forget past narratives that were once completely legitimate.

Years ago, the narrative surrounding Tracy McGrady was that he was just as good as Kobe Bryant. Not too long after, Bryant’s narrative was that he could never win without Shaquille O’Neal. Better, it wasn’t too long ago that LeBron James was perceived as a fourth quarter disappointment. In short, the story is ever-changing.

If the 76ers win the title and the Pelicans miss the playoffs, what will the narrative be for those two then? Is it going to be the same as it is now?

For now, only one thing is for sure: Narratives are — and always will be — flimsy as hell.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20

Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.

That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.

Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets

Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.

Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.

If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.

Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.

Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.

As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.

His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.

He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.

Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.

What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.

Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.

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