About two weeks into the NBA season, there have been plenty of players who have made their mark defensively. Some of the faces have been familiar, but the others are stepping their games up.
Otto Porter Jr. is leading the league in steals per game. Rookie forwards Jonathan Isaac and O.G. Anunoby are causing opponents trouble with their length. Backups such as Kyle O’Quinn, Lucas Nogueira, and Josh Huestis have done a tremendous job making their presences felt.
It’s obviously too early to pick an actual winner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but there are some names to keep an eye on throughout the year that have a legitimate chance at contending for it.
Here’s a list of six players who are in the picture as of now.
6) Draymond Green
The reigning Defensive Player of The Year has to be on this list, right?
Green’s impact on the Golden State Warriors on both ends is well known. His ability to get stops game-in and game-out is what makes his presence so valuable for them. If you want evidence, go back and see what happened on opening night against the Houston Rockets.
At the tail end of the third quarter, the Warriors were ahead 101-88 when Green suffered a knee strain and had to exit. Houston outscored Golden State 34-20 in the fourth and spoiled one for the home team at Oracle Arena.
It’s one of eight games, but it shows what he means to his squad. Statistically, he’s still averaging a block and a steal per game despite not having the best defensive rating early on.
5) Kevin Durant
Green has plenty of competition in defending his honor, including on his own team.
We’re all aware of how great Durant is with the ball in his hands, but in the last couple of years, he’s truly been a menace on the other side of the floor. He’s got the length and reach to pester every player he guards, which usually results in an errant pass or an ill-advised shot attempt.
Allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions, Golden State hasn’t hung their hat defensively as much as usual so far. But when Durant has been off the floor, they’ve given up a team-high 112.6 points using the same scale. Among starters, he’s the only one that statistically betters the Warriors’ overall defensive rating while on the court.
Durant ranks second in the NBA in blocks per game (2.4) and has contested the fourth-most amount of shots (107) to this point. If this keeps up, he could have another accolade to add to his collection.
4) Al-Farouq Aminu
As one of the more surprising defensively sound teams in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers are off to a good start. They rank ninth in defensive rating (100.3), fifth in opponent three-point field goal percentage (32.1) and fourth in opponent fast break points per game (7.7).
A vital reason for their success is the outstanding play of Aminu. With a wingspan stretching to almost seven feet and three inches, the veteran forward has length and size that bothers every player he faces. He’s able to guard one through four and that versatility is huge for Terry Stotts, especially in today’s type of league.
Through eight games, the veteran forward is averaging 1.3 blocks and nearly a steal per game. In those, Aminu is seeing over five attempts per game against him coming six feet or less—only 46.3 percent of those shots have been successful.
Without Aminu on the floor, Portland suffers significantly, allowing up 15.4 more points per 100 possessions and a team-high defensive rating of 108.9. Unfortunately for them, they’re going to have to figure out how to survive on that end without him for a couple of weeks, because he just went down with an ankle sprain.
3) Al Horford
With brand new pieces and a slew of young talent leading the charge, the Boston Celtics are one of the top defensive teams in basketball.
Collectively, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Horford have done an excellent job of forcing their opponents to take tough shots and haven’t budged on individual challenges.
Horford has arguably been the most important piece of this puzzle. As the most experienced player of the bunch, his leadership on the floor and impact defensively is translating to the rest of the team.
Averaging close to a block and a steal per game, Horford is making an all-around difference on that end. He’s tied for the fifth-most contested shots in the NBA with 99 and has prioritized crashing the glass with more aggressiveness to make sure nobody gets extra opportunities.
Without Horford, the Celtics’ defensive rating skyrockets to 105.4 as opposed to 90 when he’s playing. The discrepancy is by far the highest on the team, which is why he deserves more credit than he’s gotten.
2) DeMarcus Cousins
It’s been a treat to watch Boogie go to work this season. Over the summer he slimmed down and worked on getting in better shape. You’re seeing the results of that in front of your very eyes.
Let’s just forget the dominance as a scoring threat and his strength as a whole. Let’s not focus on the ridiculous ball-handling skills for a man his size. Instead, how about we dive into the season he’s having as a lockdown defender?
The New Orleans Pelicans are not the best in that department. Aside from Cousins and Anthony Davis being the twin towers underneath, they don’t have much size to stop the outside threats. They run a three-guard set—in which Jrue Holiday is absolutely paramount—that is often a mismatch most opponents take advantage of.
Bigs are then forced to take the one-on-one challenge often with players that are quicker than them. Cousins has accepted that challenge and is passing the test with flying colors.
In protecting the paint, Cousins is not only contesting these shots, but he’s picking his opponents’ pockets at the same time. He’s stolen the ball 17 times, which is tied with Andre Drummond for most in the league among big men.
According to NBA.com, only 46.9 percent of attempts against Cousins in the paint are successful. Ranking among players that have seen at least 40 such shots this season, that is the lowest conversion percentage in the league. Oh, and he’s also swatted 18 of those.
In the early going, Cousins is the lone player in the NBA who is averaging two steals and two blocks per game. As far as the league’s concerned, he’s playing like an MVP candidate right now. Davis is usually the one who gets the rightful attention as a defensive threat, but currently, it’s Boogie’s world in The Big Easy.
1) Rudy Gobert
Last year was so close. It was a neck-and-neck battle with Green through the entire season for the NBA’s most prestigious award as a defender. After just missing out on the honor in 2016-17, it’s Gobert’s time to shine.
When Gordon Hayward signed with the Celtics, many believed the Utah Jazz would have trouble staying afloat in an upgraded and heavily crowded Western Conference. Losing the scoring and effort on both ends of the floor was a huge blow.
But Gobert has continued to lead this team as not only an efficient scorer inside but also as the most intimidating interior defender in the NBA. It’s no surprise considering how dominant he’s been for the past few years, but he is constantly getting better with each season.
According to Basketball-Reference, Gobert ranks first in defensive win shares (0.7) and second in the NBA in defensive box plus-minus (5.8). Among starters and players averaging over 30 minutes per game, he’s at the top of the DBPM list.
He’s denying everything in sight as per usual, leading the league in blocks with 23 in eight games. That’s the highest average (2.9 per game) in the game. Because of Gobert’s presence down low, the Jazz are allowing 37.5 points in the paint per game, which is the third-least in the league.
The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s leadership has Utah only allowing 96.3 points per 100 possessions as a team. It’s good for the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. They’ve held their opponents to a 43.2 field goal percentage as well.
The numbers tell the story, but Gobert’s influence on this Jazz ball club goes beyond the box score. If he keeps this up—and his reputation wouldn’t indicate anything otherwise—the Jazz could be in a position to make the postseason for the second straight year.
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.
NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge
Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.
Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.
Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.
“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”
Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.
July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists
Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.
“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”
On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.
“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”
Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.
“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”
In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.
“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”
When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.
In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.