The Detroit Pistons hit the reset button on their culture this offseason without making significant roster changes. The Stan Van Gundy era officially ended after the 2017-18 season. With new head coach Dwane Casey at the helm, the Pistons hope to achieve more success in the form of playoff wins; the Pistons did not win a single playoff game – let alone series – in Van Gundy’s four years as coach and general manager.
But Van Gundy didn’t leave the cupboard entirely bare. While the Pistons are unlikely to compete for championships in the near future, the team has enough talent on the roster to surprise people this season. And the team hasn’t even been together long enough to appropriately set expectations.
The trade that redefined the Pistons just prior to last season’s trade deadline netted it Blake Griffin, who represents a clear upgrade in talent. Yes, the team’s lost 2018 first-round pick stings, as does Griffin’s contract, which stretches until 2021-22; however, the team’s roster is better positioned for success in 2018-19 than it was entering last season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Detroit Pistons were relatively quiet this summer but have reason to be optimistic heading into the 2018-19 season. The Pistons named Dwane Casey as the team’s new head coach with the hope that he can provide the same kind of internal improvement he generated in his tenure with the Toronto Raptors. Casey has talent to work with, including Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. It’s unclear how far Casey can take this team as constructed but outside of the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors, the Eastern Conference is essentially wide open. Detroit has the opportunity to jump into the second tier of Eastern Conference contenders and make some noise in the postseason. However, that will require Casey to generate significant chemistry between his core players and instill a culture that allows him to maximize the talent he has available on the roster.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Stan Van Gundy era may be over in Detroit, but his aura still lingers all over the roster. This is a capped-out roster paying nearly $75 million to Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson alone, and that’s a scary thought when you consider that the Pistons went just 11-14 with Griffin in the lineup following their acquisition of the big-name power forward from Los Angeles. Does a culture change in the form of Dwane Casey do enough to overhaul things and turn this group into a legitimate contender in the East? The Pistons had very few options to improve the roster over the summer, mostly tinkering around the margins on the personnel side. They’ll be counting on renewed continuity from the core plus some ingenuity from Casey to propel them a lot further than last season’s disappointing 39-win showing.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Could we be underestimating the Pistons? They will have their roster back fully healthy, Blake Griffin should be fully acclimated, and Dwane Casey is the reigning Coach of the Year. Even if it’s not a contender, that roster still has good talent to work with. Andre Drummond’s notable growth as a player fell under the radar thanks to the Pistons’ struggles last season. Should Detroit improve from last season, he could make the All-Star team without having to be a replacement. Also, outside of Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons have plenty of trade-able contracts at the helm. Expect the front office to be on the lookout if someone good becomes available.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Might a change in philosophy and leadership be the answer in the Motor City? We’ll find out. Dwane Casey has decided to take on the task of being the head coach of a Pistons team that always seems to stay where it’s at in the middle of the pack. Health is going to be what defines their season. Between Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin, the two missed 61 total games combined. Detroit will need these guys in order to progress towards the goal of the playoffs. Though he’s a double-double machine and two-time All-Star, it’s not like Andre Drummond can do it by himself. Still, bringing in Casey will benefit all parties involved for the long haul. Can they put it together?
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
$123 million; that’s what the Pistons have in guaranteed contracts going into the 2018-19 season. That’s seems like an awful lot for a team that may not win 45 games. The Pistons are trapped in a lot of really bad decisions, and unfortunately as good a coach as Dwane Casey, this roster just seems like a look of square pegs and not many square holes. There is a good possibility that Blake Griffin emerges as an elite All-Star in the East, he has that kind of potential, but its hard to envision that this Pistons team isn’t going to be much more than .500 and that means playoffs at best, but an early exit in May.
5th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
This one is a no-brainer. Griffin is the only career 20 point per game scorer on the roster. He is entering his ninth season, and his game is still incredibly effective despite relying on his athleticism. Only he no longer relies exclusively on athleticism.
Griffin has slowly but surely morphed into a true point forward: initiating fast breaks, throwing lobs and shooting from distance. When healthy he can score the ball effectively, create for others, shoot the ball and finish around the rim better than almost anyone not named Russell Westbrook. If he can produce like he has in years past, the Pistons will present problems for many Eastern Conference foes.
Top Defensive Player: Stanley Johnson
Johnson has not developed exactly as the Pistons had hoped, but his upside remains – especially on the defensive side of the ball. NBADraft.net favorably compared Johnson to Kawhi Leonard and/or Ron Artest in its 2015 NBA Draft scouting report.
This prognosis has obviously not come to fruition, but Johnson remains a long, smart defender who can still lock down good wings. In fact, Coach Casey suggested at his own introductory press conference that Johnson is the best defensive matchup for the league’s best player, LeBron James.
Look for Johnson to play a bigger role in 2018-19. If he’s successful, Johnson’s career trajectory could take a positive turn. And much of Johnson’s overall success, as well as the team’s, will be tied to his defense and motor.
Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson
Griffin received serious consideration given his ability to create and lead fast breaks relative to his peers, but Jackson is the right answer. Jackson is a creative and confident lead guard. In his only professional season playing more than 60 games (79 games played in 2015-16), Jackson posted 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game en route to 44 wins and the team’s only playoff berth since 2009.
So while Griffin is the team’s best player and first option, Jackson’s influence is potentially as great in that he changes the pace of the game and creates scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. This is exemplified perfectly by the following statistic: when Jackson injured his left ankle on December 26, 2017 – which sidelined him for 37 games – the Pistons were five games above .500. The team went 20-29 following his injury.
Top Clutch Player: Reggie Jackson
It’s difficult to refer to any of the Detroit Pistons as clutch. Some are more so than others, though, and Reggie Jackson is the most clutch of the bunch.
Jackson is viewed as injury-prone more so than clutch. And to be fair, he has missed a combined 126 games in his seven seasons in the league. But Jackson is also a confident shooter who is not afraid of big moments. His swagger is infectious to teammates and fans. If Jackson stays healthy and can lead the Pistons to playoff victories, he can begin to change his narrative from fragile to clutch.
The Unheralded Player(s): Ish Smith and Glen Robinson III
The Pistons have two players who could easily overachieve this season. The first is Ish Smith, a journeyman guard who has played for 10 teams in his eight NBA seasons. But don’t let Smith’s transient nature mislead you into thinking he doesn’t get results. Smith is a crafty six-foot tall guard with a motor that more than makes up for his lack of size. He is a good finisher who can get buckets in a hurry. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a 15.4 PER in a full 82 games last season, 35 of which he started. Smith is reliable and dynamic in ways that a lot of backup players are not. His contract isn’t ideal at $6 million in 2018-19, but it’s far from the worst deal on the roster.
Glen Robinson III is the Pistons’ other sleeper. He was a second round pick and has mostly flown under the radar throughout his career. He was beginning to find a role in Indiana two seasons ago, where he logged career highs in minutes per game (20.7), points per game (6.1) and rebounds per game (3.6), but a poorly timed ankle injury prohibited him from continuing to improve. Robinson is an above-average three-point shooter who can still slash and finish around the rim. He is not a big time difference maker, but if the Robinson reaches his potential in the near future, consider him a steal at $4 million.
Best New Addition: Dwane Casey
The 2018 NBA Coach of the Year joined the Pistons shortly after being fired from his job in Toronto, but not before he led the Raptors to a franchise-best 59-win season in 2017-18. He possesses a calming influence few coaches have and is widely viewed as a player-friendly coach, unlike his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy. Coach Casey must now go about developing trust with the Pistons’ roster. If Casey can maximize the potential in the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson big three, then the team should have a relatively successful season.
Looking beyond next season, challenges remain in the form of the Pistons’ 2019-20 cap situation. Casey must focus on developing camaraderie and getting the most out of each player this season so his roster can hopefully continue overachieving the following season. After all, the Pistons are cash-strapped through 2020 and have limited resources to improve the roster via free agency next year.
– Drew Maresca
WHO WE LIKE
1. Andre Drummond
The six-year veteran has been mostly effective throughout his career thus far save for free throw shooting. But who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Drummond shot a much-improved .605 from the free throw line last season after shooting a dismal .386 the year prior. In fact, prior to last season, he had never shot above .418. Will he continue shooting free throws at the same rate as last season? Might he improve? The Pistons hope so, because while he is an obvious target for intentional fouls, Drummond is also a difference maker. He posted a PER of 22.9 in 2017-18, which is just slightly higher than his career average (21.8). He is an above average athlete who is constantly among the league leaders in rebounds. He is also a strong finisher and an above-average shot blocker.
2. Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia
Simply because of their veteran know-how and grit, Calderon and Pachulia are assumed to be one addition for this piece. Neither is likely to log heavy minutes, but the Pistons roster lacked a veteran presence. In Calderon, the team added a high IQ player and a patient leader. Similarly, the team added savviness and fortitude in Pachulia. The Pistons need both to influence the rest of the roster as much as possible so the team develops poise.
3. Luke Kenard
Kenard performed as expected for a late-lottery pick – inconsistently. The 2017 first-round pick showed flashes, though, especially down the stretch. In the final three games of the season, Kenard scored 18, 20 and 23 points, respectively. Further, when given the opportunity to play 30-plus minutes, Kenard averaged 16.5 points per game. He is a strong three-point shooter, but needs to be put in the position to shoot more regularly. He should benefit from the leadership of Coach Casey and veterans like those outlined above. Thankfully for the Pistons, he remains relatively cheap for as long as the next three years given his rookie deal.
4. Bruce Brown Jr.
It remains a long shot that Brown develops into a serviceable player for the 2018-19 season. Brown dropped to the second round due in part to a foot injury that cost him much of his sophomore season. But the 6-foot-5 point guard impressed the Pistons front office as well as others around the league with his summer league performance. In four games, Brown averaged 12.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Brown must work on shooting more consistently, but he is a tenacious defender whose ceiling is a poor man’s Russell Westbrook. But Brown must ignore those comparisons and focus on becoming the best version of himself. If he develops properly, he could be the Pistons’ next starting point guard.
– Drew Maresca
The Pistons possess two of the better big men in the league: Blake Griffin and Andrew Drummond. Griffin enters his first full season as a member of the Pistons with ample experience playing alongside an athletic, albeit limited, center. Drummond is similar in many ways to Griffin’s former frontcourt mate, DeAndre Jordan. And the two complement each other equally nicely. Griffin is an excellent passer and Drummond is a strong, agile finisher.
But the Pistons must exploit mismatches as much as possible prior to the final minutes of close games. While the team is hoping that Drummond’s free throw shooting continues to improve like it did last season, he is still a liability, shooting .605 from the line. Further, as teams continue to play with smaller, more versatile lineups, how can Drummond stay on the court when opponents attack him in pick-and-rolls? Unfortunately, that means the team will likely need to limit late game minutes in which Griffin and Drummond are on the court together.
– Drew Maresca
Unfortunately for the Pistons, they play in the NBA and not the Big3. The team has a solid core centered around Drummond, Jackson and Griffin that can score points, block shots and clean the glass. But the team’s effectiveness will likely be compromised as games wear on.
The Pistons are especially thin at the wing positions, with Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson as projected starters. Neither has been a consistent contributor, and it only gets worse from there. Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Glenn Robinson III are likely to be the back-up wings. And while all have strengths and upside, the Pistons need proven players, not assets.
Additionally, the Pistons’ roster lacks a reliable backup center. Yes, the team signed Zaza Pachulia, but he is as much a locker room voice as he is a contributor at this stage of his career. Lucky for the Pistons, the league has deemphasized the need for meaty bigs. But if the Pistons fail to address any of its depth issues, the team’s core will be run ragged from the strains of the 82-game schedule.
– Drew Maresca
The Burning Question:
Can the Pistons’ stars stay healthy?
Yes, the team has talent. No, it’s not likely to be enough to propel them deep into playoffs. But for most teams in the NBA, making noise in the playoffs constitutes a successful season. While the playoffs should be as near a sure thing as exists in the NBA, all of the team’s success is contingent on health.
And the Pistons are headlined by two oft-injured stars: Jackson and Griffin. In fact, they have missed 67 and 107 games over the last two seasons, respectively. But the other side of that argument is when all three of the Jackson-Drummond-Griffin triumvirate played together – only 44 minutes in 2017-18 – they outscored opponents by 13.7 per 100 possessions.
Jackson and Griffin must remain on the court alongside Drummond as much as possible for Detroit to reach its potential. They are all impactful separately, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons’ front office recently identified injury issues as a point of emphasis. The team attempted to combat them by bringing back former strength and conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, this offseason as an injury consultant. Kander has historically emphasized stretching and range of motion exercises. While this alone does not guarantee any player’s health, it shows that the team is taking its players’ health seriously.
Further, Van Gundy’s preference for long, grueling practices can lead to fatigue, which can easily cause injuries. Conversely, Casey’s philosophy on practice is to wrap them up more quickly in at attempt to preserve his players’ bodies. If the Pistons can remain healthy, they could see themselves back in the playoffs in a less top heavy Eastern Conference.
– Drew Maresca
NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston
Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.
James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.
But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.
Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.
Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.
At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.
According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.
With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.
Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.
Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.
Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.
If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.
Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.
We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.
This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?
Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.
Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.
There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.
Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.
Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.
Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.
Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.
With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.
This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.
Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.
The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?
NBA Daily: The Wizards Have Been Reborn
Despite John Wall’s season-ending injury, the Wizards have somehow risen above in their darkest hour, which could do wonders for them for what’s left in the season, writes Matt John.
Ever since the season began, we all wondered: if Washington wasn’t going to blow it up, what exactly could they do to right the ship?
They were obstinate in keeping Scott Brooks as head coach, and to be fair, they shook a few things up. They traded Austin Rivers, who was not fitting in, and Kelly Oubre Jr. – who they didn’t want to re-sign for luxury tax reasons – for Trevor Ariza, a veteran that John Wall and Bradley Beal respected during his previous stint on the team.
Blowing it up seemed like an elephant in the room they were going to have to confront at some point, but not anymore.
We were wondering what on earth was going to fix Washington’s problems, and now we may have our answer: Take John Wall out of the equation.
Since Wall went down for the season to remove bone spurs from his heels, the Wizards have gone 5-4, good for slightly above average, but when you consider that they are currently 18-26, they should take any victory they can get.
Also, take a look at who two of those wins came against: Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Perhaps just a fluke, but Sunday, they pushed Toronto to the brink in double overtime. All three of those teams are at the top of their class in the Eastern Conference, and all three of them are trying their darndest to get home court advantage over each other, so they would not take any game against inferior opponents lightly.
Even if this wasn’t the solution Washington was hoping for, it seems that in a time where the doubt placed on them is stronger than ever, the team has finally found a spark. How have they gotten themselves back on course? For a few reasons.
Bradley Beal’s superstar play
Is it too late to throw Beal in the MVP conversation?
Since we’ve entered the halfway mark and at this point, it’s a two-man race between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, yes. Not to mention it’s only been nine games, but holy schnikes this nine-game stretch has got to be the best of Beal’s career.
Since Wall went down, Beal has been putting up 30.2 points on 47.2 percent shooting from the field, including 41.3 percent from three. Along with that, Beal is dishing out 6.4 assists a game, grabbing 5.4 rebounds a game and averaging 2.4 steals a game.
His scoring numbers were bound to go up with him being the primary focus. It’s his all-around game that’s really opening some eyes. Beal’s never averaged more than 4.5 assists or 4.4 rebounds in his career. Seeing him run the point while demonstrating a better nose for the ball has been a revelation.
Since the Wizards have been playing better because of this, Beal’s uptick in his stats all-around shows that it’s not a fluke. We knew Beal was a great player, but did anyone see him playing at this high a level?
Beal finding another gear unfortunately also makes a fair case that Wall may have been holding him back. The only way we’ll know for sure if he sustains this for the rest of the season.
Otto Porter’s return to form
Despite being one of the premier three-and-D players in the league, Porter’s numbers have been down this season.
This season, Porter is averaging 12.6 points on 48.2 percent shooting including 39 percent from three. Those are some pretty solid numbers, but compared to what Porter’s been able to put up in the past – He’s averaged between 13 to nearly 15 points a game to go with 50 to 51 percent shooting from the field (including 44 to 45 percent from three over the last two years) – that’s a step back. That’s not good when you’re getting paid over $26 million.
Since coming back from his most recent injury, Porter is showing more signs of his old self. His field goal percentage still isn’t quite as good as the precedent he’s set for himself, but Porter is shooting 45 percent from three in this span, which has definitely played a part in him averaging 16 points per game.
The most encouraging stat from Porter is plus-minus, where over these past seven games since his return, he averages a plus-8.3. If Porter’s field goal percentages can return to form, then the odds of the Wizards keeping this up will end in their favor.
The Rotation Guys are stepping up
That, of course, had to be a given with Wall being out. Tomas Satoransky is putting up solid all-around numbers in these last nine games, averaging 11 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists. Since he filled in well for Wall when he went out last year, seeing him do that again shouldn’t be shocking anyone in DC.
Trevor Ariza has been okay. He’s averaged 14.5 points in these last nine games, but on 36.8 percent shooting including 30.6 percent from three. His average plus/minus has been -0.9.
It’s really been the offseason additions that have filled in quite well.
Who would have guessed that in an offseason where the Wizards added players with higher profiles like Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard that their most fruitful additions came from the likes of Jeff Green and Thomas Bryant?
Forget this nine-game stretch in regards to Jeff Green. Did you know, according to Basketball-Reference, that he’s putting up some of the most efficient numbers of his career this season? He’s posting career highs in effective field goal percentage (.557), true field goal percentage (.607) all while having the lowest usage rate in his career (16.9 percent). Green may have found a permanent home in the very city he grew up in.
Bryant has become one of the growing feel-good stories of the season. After his 31-point/13-rebound performance against the Suns, Bryant has established himself as a solid fill-in at the starting center position since Wall’s departure, averaging 13.3 points on 64.9 percent shooting from the field while also averaging 7.8 rebounds a game. Not bad for someone who was cut by the Lakers last summer.
In retrospect, perhaps we should have seen this coming. According to NBA.com, the Wizards are a minus-6.8 with Wall on the floor this season. Last season, when Wall went out with a knee injury back in February, the team went a respectable 14-12, which is not fantastic, but respectable.
The question worth pondering is whether they should keep this going. The Wizards are currently two games in back of Charlotte for the eighth seed in the east. On the one hand, getting a low seed in the playoffs isn’t exactly much to be excited about since the top of the east is actually quite strong this season. On the other hand, according to Tankathon, Washington has the third easiest schedule in the league going by strength. If this strong play proves to not be a fluke, the Wizards may prove to be the one team nobody in the east wants to play.
Then there are the impending returns of both Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris. Morris’ numbers have taken a hit both this season and the season before. With Wall out and other players stepping up their games, viewers should focus on how Morris plays without Wall since he’s in a contract year.
Putting all of the gossip surrounding Dwight off the court aside, Howard was the biggest prize of the offseason and came at a discount compared to what he can do on the court. According to Basketball-Reference, the Wizards are currently 28th in rebounding average with 40.7 per game. Howard has still been one of the league’s best rebounders so he could give a monumental boost in that department.
The Wiz may have some hope after all in spite of Wall’s injury appearing to signify their demise, which is something absolutely nobody believed at the start of the new year. Whether they truly are better without Wall really depends on how they perform for the rest of the season.
If they prove that they are better off without him, then Wall’s super-max extension that kicks in next season could be a bigger problem than we thought. This writer has an easy retort for that.
NBA Daily: How The Nets Reversed Their Fortunes
After hastily suggesting that the Brooklyn Nets should consider tanking, Ben Nadeau admits that he was totally and completely wrong.
Just over a month ago, one Basketball Insiders writer foolishly suggested that the Brooklyn Nets — despite all their youth, determination and overall grittiness — should strongly consider tanking out for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
At the time, the Nets were floundering without do-it-all playmaker Caris LeVert — holders of a dismal 3-10 record following that gruesome injury, in fact. Between their lingering injuries, the once-neverending on-court debate over D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie and an inability to finish games to the final buzzer, it almost seemed like a no-brainer. After all, losing might’ve resulted in a Zion Williamson-shaped prize headed the borough’s way, coincidently, during the first season in which the Nets have owned their own first rounder since 2013.
Since the original piece was posted on Dec. 8, the Nets have done little beyond rattling off 13 wins in their last 17 contests, becoming one of the NBA’s hottest teams along the way. In a mere instant, Dinwiddie got paid and continued to play out of his absolute mind, Latvian rookie Rodions Kurucs was jettisoned into the starting lineup to great success and even Russell suddenly appeared to approach that metaphorical corner.
As of Friday, Brooklyn has gone from single-digit winners (9-18) to the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed (21-22). So, uh, unfortunately, it looks like a once well-thought out article belongs firmly and totally in the garbage. The Brooklyn Nets are not tanking in 2019 and nor should they be — but just how wrong has that take become over the last 36 days? Well, let’s find out.
Take No. 1: “But with so many crucial, organization-altering decisions on the very near horizon, Brooklyn will need to reevaluate their direction if the losses continue to pile up. At what point does incubating culture come at the expense of missing out on an elite prospect?”
The record obviously speaks for itself — and per Nets PR recently, their 13-4 record over the last month is only bettered by the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers’ three-loss efforts. During that stretch, the Nets have ranked fourth in field goal percentage (47.9), fifth in three-pointers made (12.8) and sixth in points (114.7) per game. The defense is still a work in progress — although Brooklyn been much better at getting crucial stops when they need them — but the offense has hummed like a well-oiled machine.
From Oct. 17 to Dec. 8, the Nets’ offensive rating came in at 107.9, a mark that left them just 17th-best. In the last 18 games, however, head coach Kenny Atkinson has worked his magic touch and elevated his oft-injured roster all the way up to 111.6. Not only does it rank 10th-highest, but it’s additionally better than the Clippers, Bucks, Trail Blazers and Thunder in that time span as well. All of these plaudits have come with the useful Allen Crabbe missing most of the red-hot streak and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the team’s best man-to-man defender, sitting for the last six contests.
In layman’s terms, the Nets have gotten a whole lot better in a hurry, even without their roster at full health.
And on the other hand, it’s not that the Nets have rid themselves of all their important choices — the immediate futures of Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, Hollis-Jefferson and others remain — but they’ve addressed one of their biggest difficulties already. Dinwiddie may not have received his sought-after extension right on Dec. 8 — and he even left money on the table to boot — but the now-financially-secured point guard has been the consistent key and engine behind Brooklyn’s fast resurrection.
Which brings this teardown to the second previous point of conversation…
Take No. 2: “As two of the Nets’ best players, a desire to retain them both is understandable — but unless one is willing to come off the bench for the foreseeable future, it may not be the road the franchise wants to head down.”
Of course, there are some variables left to play out here: Mainly, Russell’s foray into restricted free agency this summer. Even then, the last month of basketball has gone a far distance toward proving that the-one-or-the-other notion may not be the only way forward for Brooklyn. Over the last 18 games, Dinwiddie has confidently poured in 19.3 points and 5.5 assists per game — both upticks on his averages from Oct. to early Dec — even hitting a number of clutch buckets in the process.
Dinwiddie has continued to come off the bench in a hyper-aggressive sixth man role — and may even be the current odds-on favorite to win the annual award come April — but it hasn’t slowed down his backcourt partner lately either.
Amidst this recent stretch, Russell has averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 44.2 percent from the floor. He’s tallied multiple, complete 30-plus point efforts while also distributing the ball seamlessly in a quick-moving offense. Most importantly, the Nets have deployed their promising guard in the fourth quarter at a higher rate as well — he’s no longer just cheering his teammates on through clutch moments, Russell is leading them. Sure, there are nights where Russell still struggles — like his five-point, six-turnover disappointment versus Boston last week — but his improved play has onlookers asking if the fourth-year’s sky-high potential is finally coming to fruition.
Russell turns just 23 years-old next month but if he keeps playing like this, the will-they-won’t-they match debate will disintegrate long before free agency. Needless to say, if this positive turn is a permanent look for Russell, he’ll be staying in Brooklyn long-term. In the course of a month, ultimately, it may be just the road this franchise wants to head down after all.
On a more interesting note, not only have the Nets toyed with playing both Russell and Dinwiddie at the same time, thus eliminating the Sophie’s Choice conundrum between choosing who to sit, but Atkinson has also thrown Shabazz Napier into the mix. A three-guard lineup wouldn’t work for most teams, but the Nets must utilize their talent in any shape or form they can. The electric ballhandlers have both been exceptional as of late, so Brooklyn hasn’t had to worry about taking turns or trying to guess who’ll possess the hotter hand.
Their ability to play together could be a major development as the Nets decide how to ride this rebuild into 2020 and beyond.
Take No. 3: Play the kids, trade the veterans
Last but not least, there was a hope for a youthful jolt of energy to the arm. If the Nets were going to flounder, they might as well do it with some panache, right? Turning the keys to the wobbly wagon over to the kids — specifically Rodions Kurucs, Džanan Musa, Alan Williams and Theo Pinson — would theoretically grant them valuable experience for years to come. Past that, the Nets and the always trade-savvy general manager Sean Marks could then ship off effective veterans on large, expiring contracts for future assets. Instead, almost the opposite has happened.
Obviously, Kurucs’ role promotion been undeniably prudent and invaluable within this Nets mini-run — but after that? Musa, who had averaged 20.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals in 32.4 minutes for Brooklyn’s G League affiliate in Long Island this season, was diagnosed with a left shoulder subluxation in mid-December and has yet to return. Williams, although a G League menace, was released by the Nets on Jan. 2 so the center could pursue a more lucrative contract in China, only to return this week after complications. And despite torching the Maine Red Claws for 43 points on Thursday, Pinson has yet to totally sort through his burgeoning skills at the NBA level.
That lack of consistent in-game burn has allowed the roster’s strong veteran presence to shine on through entirely. DeMarre Carroll was cold in the season’s early aughts, but he’s torched opposing defenses lately with a new-look approach. Last week alone, Carroll dropped 19-, 20- and 20-point efforts back-to-back-to-back on a combined 19-for-33 from the floor. The junkyard dog likely won’t regain his effortless wizardry from his career-best 2017-18 campaign, but this revitalized version — which Carroll chalked up to assistant Jordan Ott — isn’t just expiring trade bait, he’s absolutely essential to the Nets’ successes.
It’s often tough to predict the daily statistical contributions from Jared Dudley — but for what he lacks in big scoring performances, the 33-year-old has been universally hailed for his leadership. Aside from being well-loved, Dudley has started in 25 games for Brooklyn this season, always willing to hit some much-needed late three-pointers and do the dirty work without complaint. While he’s not the future answer at the position by any means, it’s safe to say Dudley is going nowhere during this busy trade deadline season. Without Carroll or Dudley, there’s no way the Nets would’ve stayed this hot for this long — that seems almost certain.
Kenneth Faried is still glued to the bench, but in two of his three appearances since Dec. 8, the Manimal has turned in double-doubles lines. Whether there’s a trade or a buyout on the horizon, something else must be in store for the handy power forward.
At the end of the day, it was too hasty to turn a watchful eye toward Zion Williamson and his killer draft class that early. But after falling prey to a bad 3-10 streak, and without LeVert for the foreseeable future, it looked like a potential route with merit. It’s strange how quickly things can change in the NBA and the Nets, once again, appear to be a shining example of this clause. Thirty-six days ago, the Nets were tumbling down the conference ladder with a bubbling point guard controversy and a glaring need for an exit plan. Now in mid-January, the Nets look wholly competitive despite a slew of injuries, while Dinwiddie and Russell have not only existed in conjunction with each other, they’ve thrived.
Brooklyn won’t be looking for a youth movement to save them, or even see the season out — that’s a strategy for those secret tankers. And although this writer incorrectly doubted the Nets, the franchise never wavered. Not everything has been fixed, handled or dealt with, of course, but it no longer feels like slapping a band-aid on a massive bleeding wound and calling it good enough. These Nets, competitive and scrappy, are here to stay, which is a significant accomplishment considering where the team stood not too long ago.