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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 3/30/18

With the season winding down and the playoffs taking shape, things are starting to get tight in the NBA. Spencer Davies looks at his six DPOY candidates.

Spencer Davies

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With the season winding down and the playoffs taking shape, things are starting to get tight in the NBA. Approaching April, individual award discussions are going to pick up steam, so let’s get back in Defensive Player of the Year talk.

The field has thinned down a bit with the final stretch in tact, but there are plenty of names to pay attention to.

6) Al Horford

Despite all the injuries and whatever kind of adversity has been thrown their way this year, the Boston Celtics are still at the top of the mountain in defensive efficiency. They’re allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions and an effective field goal percentage of 49.3 percent. Both figures are the lowest in the league, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Horford has been a leader all season long at both ends and has played with starters, bench players and reserves. He’s third among centers in contested three-pointers (229), ranks sixth on NBA Math’s Defensive Points Saved scale (135.68) and is eighth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus (3.1).

5) Kevin Durant

The reigning Finals MVP is averaging just a hair under two blocks and nearly a steal per game, but those numbers aren’t telling the real story about Durant’s defensive prowess this season. In the fourth quarter, opponents are shooting just 32.8 percent against him overall, which is the top defended field goal percentage in the league. Translation: You don’t want to see this guy in crunch time on either side of the floor.

On a wider scale, the opposition takes 12.4 shots per game against him and he’s allowing just 41.4 percent of those to be successful. That’s good for fourth-best regarding players who see the same amount of the attempts.

4) Jrue Holiday

The New Orleans Pelicans are lobbying to get their teammate some attention when it comes to DPOY, so we’re here to oblige. It’s not just because of those desires. It’s because it’s warranted. Let the individual defensive metrics support the evidence.

When Holiday is off the floor, the Pelicans allow 10.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on. Their opponent’s effective field goal percentage increases by four percent and turnover percentage decreases by 1.6 percent. Those figures put the 27-year-old guard in the 98th, 96th, and 84th percentiles respectively, as specified by Cleaning The Glass.

Holiday is quite literally the lone backcourt player in the NBA seeing at least 14 attempts per game. Among that crowd, Holiday ranks sixth in defended field goal percentage (43.3), which is a better figure than eight other big men and Tobias Harris. For that reason, it makes sense why he’s the fifth best point guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

3) Anthony Davis

It goes without saying the impact that Anthony Davis has had on the NBA this year. In the second half of the season, without DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans has taken off and is right in the thick of things getting prepared for the postseason. He won’t win it, but Davis is playing at an MVP level and could be vying for a DPOY award if the momentum keeps going.

Starting with your traditional statistics, it’s easy to make an argument for Davis. He’s the only player in the NBA who’s averaging 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. The Brow is far and away the leader in total rejections as well, recording 170 already to this point.

Remember what we previously mentioned regarding Holiday’s 14 opponent attempts per game? Davis is taking on the second-highest average amount of tries in the league (16.4) and has held the opposition to a stifling 40.7 defended field goal percentage, which is the best in the league by far.

Post All-Star break, the Pelicans superstar has turned it up even more in protecting the paint as well, limiting his matchups to 51.4 percent at the rim. It’s the lowest conversion rate in the league, as specified by Second Spectrum.

2) Joel Embiid

The Process caught an unfortunate break this week, but it’s just a small bump in the road for somebody who’s easily been the most consistent and dependable defender in the entire association this year. What Embiid has done this year on both ends is nothing short of spectacular.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ defensive rating of 104.8 is the third lowest among all teams and he’s a vital reason why that’s the case. Using CTG, the team allows only 100.6 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is playing. While he’s on the bench, that number decreases to 109.7. Both of those statistics rank him in the 97th percentile.

Defending over 14 field goal attempts per game, Embiid yields the fewest field goal makes (5.8) and lowest field goal percentage differential (-7.9) among those who see the same frequency.

His defensive impact on the interior goes without saying as well. There are 18 players in the league—some hurt, some not—who have seen at least five attempts within five feet or less. Embiid has the best defended field goal percentage (52.4) in this group and is only behind Kristaps Porzingis in the category.

1) Rudy Gobert

The Utah Jazz were on the outside looking in during mid-January. With an 18-26 record and teams in the Western Conference continuing to get better around them, it didn’t look so good for their chances to play past the regular season.

Enter Rudy Gobert, and the Jazz have been absolutely lethal. They are 24-7 since his return from injury. They have skyrocketed up the statistical ranks and into the playoff picture. Most of this has been in part to the Stifle Tower’s presence.

Utah has shot up to the second-best defensive rating in the NBA at 103.9 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. They allow the least average amount of points in the paint (41.6) and fast break points (9.7).

Their opponent’s effective field goal percentage is a lowly 48.2 percent, which is the worst in the league from January 19th on. In the same time frame, the Jazz’s defensive rating is 97.7 in that 31-game sample according to NBA.com, which is by leaps and bounds the best efficiency on that end in the league.

Individually, Gobert’s tear is well documented. On the floor, Utah allows 99.4 points per 100 possessions this year, which ranks in the 98th percentile as specified by CTG. With him off the floor, Utah’s defensive rating dips to 107.7.

As pointed out by NBA.com’s David Aldridge, the Jazz have a five-man group headed by Gobert that completely shuts teams down. Between Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio and him, they allow just 80.1 points per 100 possessions. Minimum 100 minutes of floor time together, that is easily the lowest in the whole association.

Despite the disadvantage of playing fewer minutes than his peers, Gobert’s defensive metrics are right up there with some figures at the very top of the mountain. For example, the French big man leads everybody in DRPM (5.11), ranks second in DPBM (4.5), and has saved the fifth-most points (140.26) according to NBA Math.

There’s a reason that the Jazz are back in contention. If Gobert plays out the rest of the season, he’ll end up at 56 games played, but it’s hard to argue against him as the top candidate for DPOY honors—especially if Utah makes it into the playoffs.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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