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Dunc’d On: Preseason Week One Thoughts

Nate Duncan shares his impressions from the first week of the preseason.

Nate Duncan

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With a week’s worth of preseason games in the books, it is possible to make a few observations about the teams I have seen a bit of.  Obviously given the sample and the preseason, anything here is only of limited utility.  But there are some legitimate takeaways so far, especially on player’s health or fitness going into the season.

Chicago Bulls

–The biggest takeaway for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose looks excellent.  His defense has been outstanding, and while he is not quite the athletic force he was getting to the rim, that may be more a function of him being 26 instead of 23 when we last really saw him.  Granted, Rose had trouble translating his preseason success into the regular season early last year before his injury, but this preseason has provided about as many positive signs as Bulls fans could have hoped for.  The only issue so far has been his midrange jumper, which as Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry noted has declined precipitously.  Rose does not appear to be rising on balance very well, as he almost always lands with his body oriented in a different direction.

–Nikola Mirotic has been a mixed bag. He showed *Marv voice* the entire repertoire in the opener against the Wizards, but has struggled offensively since.  He has been a little shy taking open spot up threes, looking to drive even when he has plenty of time to get the shot off.  That may just be a relic of his play in Europe. There, his driving game was more effective due to a lack of shotblockers, and there is also a little bit more of an unselfish ethos.  He should be a very effective offensive player once he adjusts, because he has a very high skill level.

Defensively his team defense has been encouraging. Mirotic has more quickness in rotations than anticipated, and his quick hands and length have provided a solid deterrent in the paint despite the fact he is not a leaper.  One-on-one he has struggled a bit more because he does not get into a deep enough stance and does not have a ton of quickness laterally.  And, the defensive boards have been a sore spot as well.

A plus though is that Mirotic appears in great cardiovascular shape.  He runs the floor hard, competes for offensive rebounds and still gets back on D.

–Joakim Noah is clearly still working his way back from offseason knee surgery.  Interestingly, we never found out precisely what that surgery actually was other than a “clean-up.” But the fact that Noah reportedly only resumed basketball activities for training camp after a May surgery would indicate that it was more than a small meniscus trim that a “clean-up” would normally imply.

Noah will eventually be himself on defense, but his offense will be something to keep an eye on as his athleticism declines with age—he turns 30 this year.   He can be an effective midrange shooter when wide open, but his slow and low release means that teams can stray very far off him and still recover.  They have not been guarding him at all in the preseason, and that is a problem when Pau Gasol is trying to post up.  Some of Noah’s scoring shortcomings have been mitigated by having the ball in his hands so much the last two years, because the man with the ball generally must be guarded. But with Rose and Gasol in the lineup now we will see less of Noah facilitating this year, so he must be a threat off the ball.  It may be that this is much ado about nothing, but it is something to keep an eye on as the regular season begins.

–Jimmy Butler looks to be in absolutely outstanding shape.  It seems clear that wear and tear and a toe injury sapped his athleticism a year ago, but he is now jumping out of the gym the way he was back in 2012-13.

ButlerMcDOop

Butler is attacking the basket hard on cuts and getting to the free throw line off passes from the Bulls’ skilled big men.  The only thing we have yet to see is his three point shot.  Butler has taken only one in three games, which is really going to hamstring the Bulls’ offense if he can’t at least be a consistent threat out there.

–Gasol has looked excellent defensively, as he is functioning as the center with Noah at power forward.  He has eight blocks in three games.  On offense his midranger has been effective, but he has not been particularly effective posting up, perhaps in part due to the lack of spacing.

–One thing to watch is coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotations.  He has a history of extreme rigidity, which has hurt the Bulls in the past.  Thus far in the preseason, Thibodeau has started Noah and Gasol, who are both really centers.  Rose, Butler and Mike Dunleavy fill out the starting lineup, which has played well despite a relative dearth of shooting.  But the bench units have been disappointing.  Granted it is preseason, so we may see more mixing and matching of starters and reserves when the real games begin.

My suggestion would be to play Gasol in three stints, like the Mavericks and Spurs often deploy Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker.  Taj Gibson for Gasol early would allow him to return for Noah and play with the second unit when Rose sits.  This second stint could give Gasol minutes with Mirotic, who could space the floor for postups and allow Gasol to work as a go-to option.  It would also behoove the Bulls to try a few minutes each half with Rose and Mirotic to run spread pick-and-roll, as Mirotic’s shooting would facilitate Rose’s drives.

To really compete for a championship, this Bulls team needs to get to the top 10 in offense this year.  With the offensive talent on hand, that type of finish seems possible.  But, Thibodeau is going to need to find the right mix of players in his regular units to make that happen.

Golden State Warriors

–Andrew Bogut is shooting free throws left-handed now!  To my knowledge, this was something no one had reported on at all until he unveiled it against the Lakers on Sunday night.  After shooting a miserable 34 percent last year, perhaps Bogut came to the conclusion that the after-effects of his awful elbow injury in 2010 would prevent him from shooting passably with his natural right hand.  He started 1-4 with the new approach.

–The Warriors’ offense already features much more ball movement than under Mark Jackson.  The problem with Jackson’s approach was not merely his fondness for iso-ball, but the fact that little movement occurred off the ball during those isos and postups.  That defect has been remedied as of the first two games, although it remains to be seen how the Warriors will look against a defense that is not the Los Angeles Lakers.  How the Warriors play offensively without Curry could be the biggest key (non-health division) to whether they can reach the high 50s in wins.  With Kevin Durant’s injury, a top three seed appears a bit more realistic for a lot of teams in the West.

–Brandon Rush has looked excellent so far.  He cut quite a bit of weight from his nadir in Utah a season ago, when he was probably about 15 pounds too heavy and struggled with his confidence.  He is looking like a viable rotation piece as a three and D player, and potentially an excellent signing for the minimum.  Despite the “Splash Brothers” moniker, the Warriors could really use another shooter on the wing aside from Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.

–Backup center is the only real weakness to emerge for the Warriors.  Festus Ezeli still has yet to make his debut after a setback with shin discomfort, and Ognjen Kuzmic has not impressed offensively and looks pretty limited athletically.  Mareese Speights’ weakness executing the system defensively has been well-documented, so the Warriors do not have a great in-house option backing up the injury-prone Bogut.

–This play was perhaps my favorite so far of the preseason.  As the Lakers were getting blown out of the gym, Kobe put Ronnie Price on Harrison Barnes and tried to pressure up Stephen Curry.  This was the result.

CurryDropOff

Los Angeles Lakers

–I have seen all three of the Lakers’ preseason games. After an encouraging start against the Nuggets, the Warriors have put their weaknesses in stark relief.   We knew this team would struggle defensively without a single above-average defensive player on the roster aside from the limited Ronnie Price.  But as Stephen Curry roasted Steve Nash to start Sunday’s game, it was apparent that the Lakers really didn’t have a superior option.  Bryant is not a stopper at this point in his career, although he is better on-ball than off.  Jeremy Lin was injured and has never been great on D, and Wesley Johnson is probably too slow.  It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Lakers avoid the bottom five in defense this year.

–Another underappreciated Laker weakness was highlighted by Byron Scott’s comments earlier this week that he wanted the Lakers taking less than 15 threes per game.  That seems like lunacy in today’s NBA, but L.A. really doesn’t have three-point shooters aside from Nash until Ryan Kelly returns from a hamstring injury.  Against Golden State, they took a mere three from downtown, making none.  On a related note, the Lakers managed 75 points.

–The good news for the Lakers is that Kobe Bryant has looked about as good as could be expected so far.  Unlike his abortive return a year ago, he looks to be about the same weight as he finished 2012-13.  Despite the torn Achilles and the knee fracture, I wouldn’t say he looks much worse than might have been expected with another two years of aging had he stayed healthy.

Brooklyn Nets

–The encouraging news for the Nets is that Brook Lopez looks like he is back.  Lost amidst the Nets’ horrible start last year was Lopez’s injury, and the fact that he was on pace for a wonderful individual offensive season.  He looked like his old self against Sacramento in China early Sunday morning.

–Lionel Hollins gave Mason Plumlee and Lopez a few minutes together, but it is hard to imagine that pairing working well with Plumlee’s limited shooting range and Lopez’s penchant for posting up.  Plumlee also struggles out on the floor against power forwards despite his athleticism.  It is a bit of a conundrum for coach Hollins, as Lopez, Plumlee, and Kevin Garnett are all best at center at this point in their careers.

–Garnett looked great in the few minutes he played, looking quite spry as he skied for a defensive rebound and a goaltend.  Maybe we just caught him on a good day (which can be fewer and further between as players age), but it was good to see.

–The Nets were very effective posting their smalls a year ago.  With the departures of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, that strategy will be deployed a bit less this year, but Joe Johnson and Deron Williams can still be lethal in that role.  They may want to try it with Lopez out of the game though, as he had trouble finding a spot to avoid gumming up the spacing.  It may just be rust hurting his timing for cutting to the basket, but the small postups were ineffective when he played.

–Deron Williams looked relatively spry and canned a few jumpers, but he was not particularly successful getting into the paint against Sacramento’s usually porous defense.  I did not see enough to posit whether he will be significantly improved after procedures on his ankles in the offseason, although reports from previous games and camp have been positive.

–Sergey Karasev spent the summer in relative limbo before being traded to the Nets as the Cavs cleared space for LeBron James. There appears to be almost no chance he will be in the rotation, which is not a surprise with the veteran wings the Nets have.  But it would be nice if he had improved his body some in the offseason.  Instead, he looked to have extremely high body fat for a young 20 year old wing.  Considering athleticism is his biggest roadblock to success in the NBA, it is disappointing.

Sacramento Kings

–Ramon Sessions was a very underrated signing late in the summer.  He is probably the best passer the Kings have rostered since Brad Miller, and has also showed an ability to keep the defense honest with his jumper so far.

–Nik Stauskas is going to get attacked defensively, as he noted the other day.  A typical sequence saw Deron Williams wave off a pick-and-roll to isolate against him, although he missed a reasonably tough jumper since the help was waiting behind Stauskas.  The good news for the Kings is Stauskas can shoot, dribble and pass.  It turns out those skills are pretty important for basketball.  Moreover, Stauskas looks like he belongs out there athletically.  He certainly isn’t going to help the Kings’ defensive woes, but I would expect him to supplant Ben McLemore as the starter by season’s end, especially with Darren Collison’s playmaking limitations.

–The reports that Omri Casspi had slimmed down appear accurate.  I had noted it would really help him to do so after he looked a little heavy down the stretch with Houston a year ago, and he is much quicker getting to the basket and asserting himself in the floor game.

–The Kings are another team  that somehow does not have a single high-minute player on their roster who projects to play above-average NBA defense.  It is really difficult to see how they are going to improve on last year’s point-prevention, and that is a problem since the offense could take a step back without Isaiah Thomas.

Washington Wizards

–With the unfortunate injury to Bradley Beal, we are going to find out whether Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. can play.  While that may torpedo Washington’s hopes of getting home-court in the first round, determining whether a long-term in-house solution is available at the three is a silver lining.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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