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DeAndre Ayton Is The NBA’s Biggest Wildcard

DeAndre Ayton’s play could be the key to the Suns’ success or their downfall come playoff time.

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s not often an NBA team goes from perennial lottery-dwellers to serious title contenders in one season. The Phoenix Suns have done just that, largely due to the addition of Chris Paul and the continued development of Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges. However, no Sun may be as crucial to their title hopes as DeAndre Ayton. 

The Suns sit in second place in the Western Conference standings and have formed an identity around their All-Star backcourt. They are one of the slowest teams in terms of pace (23rd), but it never feels slow. They are methodical and deliberate, seeking out the weak point in a defense; exploiting it with their two All-NBA level guards who are surrounded by shooters always ready to fire away from deep. 

Their defense is stingy. They don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they make the opposing offense earn it. At times, all five defenders seem like they are playing on a string with their always on-time rotations. The Suns know what they can expect to get from all their key guys come playoff time. Everyone except DeAndre Ayton. 

Ayton is the Suns’ biggest wildcard. In fact, he may be the biggest wildcard in the entire NBA in terms of swinging the NBA title race. He’s shown flashes of being capable of taking the next step in being an elite big man. There also times where his effort level fluctuates and his play becomes erratic, particularly defensively. 

Ayton has the physical tools and talent to elevate the Suns. Standing at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, he has the physical capability to stamp his presence on any game. Despite these physical tools, Ayton is more of a finesse big rather than an imposing paint presence which has provoked the ire of many of his detractors. 

The former number one overall pick is averaging a career-low in scoring, just 14.9 per game, but doing so with a career-high in efficiency with a true-shooting percentage at 64.3 percent. His shots are down which plays a role in both those numbers, but Ayton’s offensive role has shifted this season. He’s become more of a play-finisher, rolling to the basket for pocket passes and lobs, crashing the offensive glass, and the occasional face-up in the post.

For Ayton to truly elevate his game and the Suns’ come playoff time, he has to wreak havoc on teams who try to play small-ball lineups when he’s on the court. Ayton has been a reluctant back to the basket big; he is much more comfortable facing up and shooting 15-foot jumpers. This has allowed teams to play smaller guys on him in the past as teams aren’t concerned that he will exploit the perceived mismatch. 

Come playoff time, teams will look to exploit weaknesses in the Suns’ defense. In a lineup that includes Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, teams are going to take their chances with putting Ayton in pick-and-roll actions. 

James Harden comes off the screen and faces no resistance here from Ayton. He gives up the free lane easily in what’s a close fourth-quarter game.

Here is where he flashes the potential to be a force on the defensive end. He shuts down the Paul George drive at the basket. 

The Suns usually play Ayton in a “drop” type defense where he sits low under the basket, similar to Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, albeit not as drastic or effective. Ayton has the physical capability to play up higher and even be a reasonable if not good switchable big, but the results have been a mixed bag at best. Ayton often gets beat and it has led to him being targeted at times. 

Jeff Green, who isn’t a 1-on-1 scorer, is able to blow past Ayton with no resistance. 

But there are flashes where he stifles guards on a switch. Here he stays with Coby White and comes up with the block. 

The switch on DeAndre Ayton’s effort levels can be frustrating. He clearly has the capacity to be a game-changing player, but as is the case with young players, consistency is his biggest issue. As the center, he plays the most important defensive position so there is an added pressure for him to be effective there. A fully engaged Ayton would make the Suns an even scarier team come playoff time.

If the Suns are to truly make a playoff run, Ayton will have to elevate his game. He is their ceiling-raiser and the Suns seem to know it. Chris Paul in particular is always in his ear, trying to get the most out of him. Paul has a history of getting the most out of the bigs around him with David West, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela all serving as testimonials. 

The Suns will need Ayton to match up against the likes of Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. The Suns don’t have other options to guard those guys. Their backup big is small-ball center Dario Saric, who has been excellent coming off the bench but won’t be able to defend that caliber of big man.

The Suns are one of the Western Conference has a handful of teams who legitimately feel this is their year. Their title hopes could land on the broad shoulders of DeAndre Ayton. 

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NBA

NBA AM: Defensive Player Of The Year Watch

Rudy Gobert would appear to be the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. But should he be? A few players have made it quite the interesting race — and Dylan Thayer lays out exactly who.

Dylan Thayer

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The postseason is almost here as the NBA regular season winds down to its last couple of weeks. At this point, it is obvious to tell whether a team is going to make the playoffs or head for an appearance in the NBA draft lottery. What hasn’t been obvious thus far though is who is going to win the MVP award, but it looks to be between Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid. The DPotY award has been one that most could agree belongs to Rudy Gobert for the season he is having. The official site of the NBA however does not agree with this notion. Anyways, let’s jump right into our eighth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders!

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous: 1)

It’s too late to displace Rudy Gobert from this position in these rankings because his season has been that good. While the Utah Jazz are destined to finish amongst the top of the Western Conference, Gobert will also finish at the top of this award’s final tally, even if he somehow isn’t the winner. Without the center from France, the Jazz defense would be out of sorts, as just his presence around the rim is enough to ward off the opposing offense. Just ask the Spurs.

And while he did get completely crossed out of his shoes by Devin Booker recently, it is a season-long award, so don’t hold that against him. For the majority of the season, he has held firm in key defensive stats such as defensive rating, defensive win shares and blocks per game. He ranks second in all three categories, per NBA Advanced Stats 𑁋 101.4 defensive rating, 0.181 defensive win shares and 2.8 blocks per game. These are key indicators that he has been having a monster season, along with the Jazz being one of the best teams in the league. As things continue to unfold, expect Gobert to come out of the season as the DPotY. 

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 2)

The seven-foot-three center for the Philadelphia 76ers has had a memorable season under Doc Rivers. The hiring of the new coach made a big impact on the Sixers’ future and helped Embiid take his game to even higher levels. The Sixers have looked like a title contender throughout the season, thanks to great defense from their two stars. Embiid holding down the paint and Simmons being a pest on and off the ball around the perimeter. His defensive rating is fifth among qualified starters with a rating of 105.6, to go along with 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Averaging more than a block and steal per game puts Embiid in elite company defensively, as P.J. Washington and Bam Adebayo are the only other centers putting up similar numbers. Embiid should be a finalist for this award for the impact and effect he leaves on the defensive end of the floor for the Sixers every game.

3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: N/A)

Simmons has been severely disrespected on this list many times, so now is the time to give him the recognition he deserves. As the number two offensive option for the Sixers, the defensive end is a different story, as Simmons brings a lot of energy to the defensive unit. Statistics aside, he has been a complete machine on defense wreaking havoc on his opponents. Whether it’s sending a Charlie Brown three flying into the stands or picking off an inbound pass intended for Coby White and taking it to the basket to ice the game, he has been having one of the best defensive seasons across the NBA. The advanced stats back up the claim as he ranks fifth in defensive win shares with 0.142. He’s also third in the league in steals per game with 1.7 per game to go along with 0.6 blocks per game. His play on defense has raised eyebrows everywhere, and he should be in the running for the DPotY award.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 5)

The Greek Freak has been having another historical season, even though he hasn’t gotten the credit he truly deserves. This happens when you have insane statistical seasons the past few years though, some people stop paying attention. Antetokounmpo should be recognized for the impact he has on winning for the Milwaukee Bucks, especially on the defensive end. Antetokounmpo averages 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game at the power forward position and is always someone opposing players have to think about when they’re on offense. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares (0.139) and eighth in defensive rating (106.3), so the advanced metrics also show just how valuable he is to have. While he may not win the award this year, even though he is the reigning DPotY, he should still be in the conversation as one of the game’s elite defenders.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: Honorable Mention)

The leader of the Miami HEAT has been having another phenomenal season on defense as the HEAT gear up for the playoff run. He has been a thief on defense as he leads the league in steals with 2.1 per game. Butler is so quick to display his elite defensive IQ as he is always there to jump the passing lane or attack a ballhandler at his vulnerable dribbling moments. Butler also ranks in the top 10 in defensive win shares with 0.138. It is clear that with him, Bam Adebayo, and the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo, that the HEAT are going to be a defensive nightmare for opposing teams this postseason.

Honorable Mention: Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (Previous: 4)

The game tape doesn’t jump off the screen to represent Conley’s case for the award, but as the season comes to an end, it is clear that Conley has played a huge role on the Jazz defense. Opposing teams not only have to worry about the Stifle Tower in the middle of the Jazz defense, but they also have to worry about the pesky point guard looking to steal the ball at any moment. Conley’s season has been remarkable as his improved play has been a catalyst of the improved play out of Utah. The advanced statistics give Conley a big lift and vaulted him into these rankings, as they are just too hard to ignore when he’s been at the top all season. Conley leads the league in both defensive rating (99.9) and defensive win shares (0.181), as well as the 1.4 steals per game he posts for the season.

The running for the DPotY is coming to an end. It looks like the center for the Utah Jazz, Gobert, is going to be the winner, but anything is possible. The Simmons for DPotY movement has begun to make waves on Twitter, so maybe he comes up and wins the award. It is the NBA and nothing is completely assured, so don’t be surprised if the winner isn’t who you thought it would be. Here’s to another great NBA regular season despite all of the obstacles that were faced during the pandemic. Stay tuned for the next edition of the rankings!

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – May 4

With under 10 games to go in the regular season, Tristan Tucker breaks down the latest iteration of Basketball Insiders’ MVP ladder.

Tristan Tucker

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With just a couple of weeks until the end of the 2020-21 regular season, the NBA’s award races are getting closer to being complete. Though several contenders emerged across the year, one is beginning to set himself apart from the rest. Let’s take a look at how the race is shaking out toward the end of the year.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 1)

With under 10 games left in the regular season, it appears the MVP award is Jokic’s to lose. Much can happen in the last few weeks of the season, but Jokic has been phenomenal all year long. On the year, Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game and has the Nuggets on a five-game win streak and third in the west.

Jokic’s shooting splits are also the best of his career by far. “The Joker” is connecting at a 41.2 percent clip from deep and is shooting 86 percent from the charity stripe.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last MVP ladder, the Nuggets have lost just one game with Jokic leading the charge.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: Honorable Mention)

Though Antetokounmpo missed more time soon after missing six straight, “The Greek Freak” would be a solid runner-up as MVP. Even though he played under a minute in one of the contests, Antetokounmpo is still averaging 26.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1 block per game in his last nine outings.

However, no game is more impressive than his 49-point showing against the daunting Brooklyn Nets. With the massive playoff implications on the line, Antetokounmpo added 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and a steal in a win over Brooklyn.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 3)

Though Embiid might not win the award, he deserves immense credit for being this close in the race despite missing significant time due to injury. On the year, Embiid is averaging a career-high 29.3 points per game. Even more impressive is his career-best shooting numbers: 51.2 percent from the floor, 37.6 percent from three and 85.4 percent from the line.

At full health, the 76ers are a scary unit and are on the brink of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference. With its entire starting unit healthy, the team is 21-4.

4. Chris Paul/Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Previous: 4)

As mentioned in the last ladder, Chris Paul and Devin Booker are equally responsible for the phenomenal success of the Suns. Phoenix has a legitimate chance to finish as the No. 1 seed in the west, a remarkable feat and quick turnaround for the franchise.

In the last few weeks, Paul is averaging 17.1 points and 9 assists per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from deep. Success follows Paul wherever he goes. The worst a Paul-led team has performed is 37-45 in 2009-10, when he played just 45 games. Just last season, Paul took an Oklahoma City Thunder team with no stars to a 44-28 record.

However, this stint with the Suns might be his most impressive work yet. Phoenix, who finished outside of the playoffs last season, is 24-9 against teams with a .500 record or better.

Then there’s Booker, who’s averaging 25.6 points per game as the team’s leading scorer. Others are certainly contributing, but the tandem of Booker and Paul is one of the most exciting in the league.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Previous: 5)

The Mavericks are just 6-4 in their last 10 games with Doncic, but the team is close to clinching the Southwest Division. Winning the division would give the Mavericks a tiebreaker over the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, who are both tied with Dallas for the fifth seed.

Even though the Mavericks haven’t jumped off the page in recent weeks, Doncic is continuing to be impressive. Since the last MVP ladder, Doncic is averaging 29 points, 10.4 assists, 8 rebounds and 1.2 steals while connecting at a 48.8 percent clip from the floor.

6. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Previous: Not Ranked)

In what would’ve been an unthinkable turn of events mere months ago, the Knicks are 36-28, fourth in the Eastern Conference. Randle has been great all season but has played like a true superstar in the last few weeks.

Since April 13, Randle is averaging 31 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Even more mindblowing is the fact that Randle is shooting 51.4 percent from deep on 7.8 attempts per night across that span of time.

The Knicks are winners of 11 of their last 12 games and have clinched a postseason appearance for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Honorable Mention: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: NR)

He won’t win the award due to team success but it would be amiss to not mention Stephen Curry in the race for MVP. There’s an argument to be made that no team would be worse off without its best player than the Warriors. Look no further than last season’s team that boasted the worst record in the league.

Over the last few weeks, Curry’s play has kept the Warriors in the playoff picture despite several injuries in the team’s frontcourt. Now, Curry is the leading scorer in the NBA, averaging 31.3 points per game while shooting 42.6 percent from three on 12.2 attempts per contest.

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NBA Daily: Center Position Key to Celtics’ Fate

The Boston Celtics are walking the tight rope as they fight for their playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Brad Stevens must solve the riddle at the Center position if Boston wants to avoid being part of the Play-In Tournament.

Chad Smith

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After a disappointing and confusing start to the season, the Boston Celtics have seemingly turned things around. Boston went 11-5 in April but is still a full game out of the coveted sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate goal is to avoid the new Play-In Tournament. To do that, they will need to play excellent basketball in these last seven regular-season games.

It was a wild weekend of basketball for the Celtics at TD Garden. On Friday, Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 60 points to cap a 32-point comeback win over the San Antonio Spurs in overtime. Tatum joined Larry Bird as the only Celtics player to reach that scoring mark and became the first player in team history to have multiple 50-point games in a season.

Following that victory, Boston was unable to stop the Portland Trail Blazers at home. Making matters worse, both Tatum and Jaylen Brown were injured after colliding with one another with just 40 seconds remaining in the game. The good news is that it appears both of Boston’s All-Stars are going to be okay.

Boston has road trips to Orlando, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and New York. Those are games they should win but their two remaining home games will be pivotal. Both are against the Miami HEAT, who sit directly ahead of them in the standings. These two games could ultimately decide which team goes to the Play-In Tournament and which one will get a much-needed week of rest before the playoffs.

Brad Stevens has proven to be one of the elite coaches in this league, but even he has found this puzzle difficult to solve. On paper, the Celtics have all of the talent needed to content for one of the top teams in the East. Stevens has had to experiment with different lineups throughout the season as they have dealt with many of their players missing time for various reasons.

While Boston’s depth chart is fairly solidified, the one spot that has plagued them most this season has been the center position. With the playoffs right around the corner, it is a riddle they are still trying to solve.

When the Celtics traded Enes Kanter before the start of the season, it opened the door for free agent Tristan Thompson to join the fray. The two-year, $19 million contract that Thompson signed seemed to solidify him as the starting center going forward. His lack of production and versatility was part of the reason why Boston struggled coming out of the gates. Daniel Theis was a much better fit around the rest of the guys on the floor.

When Boston decided that the 30-year old Thompson was not the answer, the window of opportunity opened for Robert Williams. The 23-year old is in his third season and has been highly productive with his increased minutes. When Boston traded Theis to the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline, part of that was proof of their confidence in Williams.

Looking at Boston’s other options, none of them have the upside that Williams possesses. Grant Williams has improved slightly but has not become a difference-maker. Mo Wagner was acquired at the trade deadline but has since been cut. Luke Kornet has stuck around since the trade but adds little value. Tacko Fall provides tremendous length but little to nothing else at this stage of his development.

The trio of Tatum, Brown and Kemba Walker account for about 60 percent of Boston’s scoring this season. While these three have shouldered the load on most nights, it has been the hustle, rebounding, and rim protection that Williams provides that has been vital to their success.

The raw numbers also point to Williams as the better option for Boston against most teams.

Williams currently ranks inside the top ten in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) this season. By comparison, the only other Celtics players are Tatum in 31st and Brown in 50th. Williams also ranks inside the top ten in offensive rebounding rate and ranks third in the league in terms of true shooting percentage. One other notable ranking lists Williams 14th overall in Value Added. Thompson, meanwhile, ranks 49th in the league in that same category.

Williams and Thompson are neck-and-neck in many of these other statistical categories but Williams has the slight edge in all of them. Overall he has been much more efficient despite playing fewer minutes on average. His versatility and athleticism are valuable skillsets that Thompson simply cannot match at this stage of his career.

In a starting role, Williams has produced some impressive numbers. As a member of the starting rotation, Williams averages 10.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and two blocks per game while shooting 69 percent from the floor. Most importantly, the Celtics have a 9-1 record when Williams starts.

Williams nearly averaged a double-double in March and started April on a tear as well. He posted 20 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists against the Houston Rockets, followed by a solid performance of 16 points and 8 rebounds versus the Charlotte Hornets. He missed a handful of games with soreness in his left knee but has since returned to the lineup.

The brief absence of Williams opened the door back up for Thompson, who has played better over the past two weeks. His movement on the floor and his production on it have improved, but his real value for Boston is his size. The Celtics will need his interior defense to match up with MVP candidate Joel Embiid in a potential playoff matchup. Williams is the better option against most teams but he has not shown the ability to slow down the Philadelphia 76ers’ star big man.

Another important attribute that Thompson brings to the table for this team is championship pedigree. Winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thompson adds some valuable championship experience to a young team that sorely lacks it. He is the only player on Boston’s roster that has even played in the NBA Finals.

The fact is that while Williams and Thompson share some similarities, these are two vastly different players on the court. That should bode well for Stevens, as he can throw another wrinkle into the opponent’s game plan. He can also play to his strengths, which is something that is often overlooked in coaching.

While there may not be a clear and obvious choice to their center position right now, they don’t necessarily need to have one. What they have been doing is working, and appears to finally have them headed in the right direction. They are far from the top tier in the East, but then again so too are the other 11 teams.

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