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Five Big Questions As Training Camp Looms

Buddy Grizzard looks at five intriguing NBA storylines entering training camp.

Buddy Grizzard

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Training camp is so close you can almost taste the arena hot dogs and beer. But we’re not there yet. So while we wait for these last few weeks to tick away to have the NBA back in our lives, Basketball Insiders will look at five burning questions that face the NBA, its players and its teams as a brand new cycle is set to begin.

1. Is Derrick Rose the answer for Cleveland?

We’ve already explored the question of what moves the Cavaliers might make to ensure this season’s team is a contender. Cleveland’s fate, with LeBron James set to enter free agency next summer, provides some of the most compelling drama for the upcoming season. The Kyrie Irving trade provided the Cavs with a movable asset in the Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick which could be used to address whatever is the team’s greatest position of need.

Thus, Derrick Rose must try to show early on that point guard is not that position. The question is, can Rose be a complimentary player? In his best seasons, Rose was the centerpiece of Bulls roster that appeared to be on its way to contending for championships. Post-injury, the Cavaliers must discover if Rose is willing and able to operate in the shadow of James, a shadow that grew too long for Irving. If Rose can’t thrive in a complimentary role, the Cavs may still need to address the point guard position. The organization has been ominously silent about Isaiah Thomas’ timeline for a return to action, so it may not be able to afford to wait to see if he can be the answer either.

2. Can Russell Westbrook coexist with another star?

Anytime an NBA team has three of the top 10 players in the world, the reasonable expectation is that the team will win multiple championships. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be forever known as a team that was given that opportunity and failed to capitalize. The reasons for that failure will remain matters of debate for the foreseeable future, so it might be best to analyze it in terms of results.

After Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, during which James Harden attempted only six shots, Harden complained about his lack of touches. The result was a rift in the locker room which led to a messy divorce that sent Harden to Houston in one of the most second-guessed trades of all time. With Harden gone, OKC’s remaining top-10 players — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — failed to return to the NBA Finals. As a result — since Durant’s goal is to win NBA championships — Durant sought greener pastures and found a championship formula in Golden State.

As a result of Durant’s departure, Westbrook was free to take as many shots as he wanted and pursue individual accolades such as MVP. But this offseason, the Pacers unexpectedly threw the Thunder a lifeline by offering Paul George in a trade. With George’s arrival, the Thunder — on paper — have the talent to compete in the stacked West. But can Westbrook coexist with another star player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective? During every previous opportunity, the combination has failed to produce a championship for the Thunder.

3. Can Kemba Walker unlock Dwight Howard?

In stops with the Lakers, Rockets, and Hawks since leaving Orlando, Dwight Howard has always sought a return to his glory years when he carried an average Magic roster to the NBA Finals. To hear Howard tell it, circumstances have conspired to prevent that return from happening.

In Los Angeles and Houston, Howard failed to mesh with star teammates. In Atlanta, a roster with more role players and complementary pieces — rather than superstar egos — awaited. But Howard says he still didn’t receive the role he was sold on when he signed. Regardless of who is to blame for Howard’s inability to recapture his Orlando form, it falls to Kemba Walker to incorporate him into a Hornets team that hopes to put last season’s disappointment behind it and make the playoffs.

To do that, Walker will need to form a consistent pick and roll partnership with Howard. Long gone are the days when throwing the ball into the post and expecting Howard to manufacture a bucket was an efficient use of a possession. Howard is dramatically more efficient when operating as the roll man in pick and rolls. But for some reason, Howard used fewer than 100 such possessions in Atlanta last season. Who is to blame for that? Was it Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder’s lack of proficiency or Howard’s lack of willingness? Who knows and who cares? For Walker and the Hornets, all that matters is results.

4. Will Dennis Schroder wreck Atlanta’s tank?

Speaking of Dennis Schroder, despite being outplayed by John Wall in last season’s first round, he showed real signs of maturation in his first season as a full-time starter. Schroder’s assist-to-turnover ratio improved dramatically in the postseason despite facing a top-flight defender in Wall. Meanwhile, he’s in a neck-and-neck race with Goran Dragic to emerge as the most outstanding player at the ongoing EuroBasket 2017.

Schroder showed out in a round of 16 victory over France, shredding every defender that tried to slow him and flying all over the court to help his team advance. After Spain defeated Turkey in the first round of the knockout stage yesterday, it set up a meeting with Schroder’s Germany on Tuesday in the round of eight. Spain’s roster is packed with NBA players while Schroder is the only major NBA talent on Germany’s roster. The meeting with Spain will be an opportunity for Schroder to show how far he’s come.

In the meantime, ESPN’s Zach Lowe joined the Woj Podcast Friday with Adrian Wojnarowski to talk about the NBA’s latest proposal to reform the NBA Draft Lottery (more on that below) and casually threw out the Atlanta Hawks as a team that may be deliberately tanking. If the Hawks are tanking, the organization has a strange way of going about it after signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova as free agents. They give the Hawks depth and starting experience in the power rotation. If Atlanta is really determined to lose games, why not stick with Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala?

Beyond the steps new Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has taken to ensure Atlanta has a fairly complete roster, Schroder may be too good to allow the Hawks to tank. Judging by his performance at EuroBasket, Schroder could have a breakout season and drive Atlanta’s tank right into a ditch.

5. What’s really behind the NBA’s lottery reform proposal?

Lowe and Wojnarowski had a fairly thorough discussion of the NBA’s latest lottery reform proposal, but it raised as many questions as it answered. Both seemed to agree that nobody around the league really thinks the proposal will put an end to tanking, which is the stated purpose. If nobody believes reform will stop tanking, then what’s the real reason behind the proposal?

“If the point of tanking is to get stars and you want to eliminate tanking, in theory, you can’t just look at lottery reform,” said Lowe. “You have to look at, how can we enable these other teams to get stars in different ways?”

With those two sentences, Lowe cut to the heart of the debate. The issue isn’t tanking. The issue is, which teams have access to star players and how do those teams have access to star players? Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers recently argued that the league’s latest lottery reform proposal won’t create parity. The reality is that parity in the NBA is impossible. Here’s why:

Championships in the NBA are won by what we’ll refer to as “dynastic” players. A dynastic player is a player that has been central to multiple NBA championships. Putting aside any arguments about the definition of “central” for the moment, here are the dynastic players since 1980 and how many championships they’ve won:

Magic Johnson, 5
Larry Bird, 3
Isiah Thomas, 2
Michael Jordan, 6
Hakeem Olajuwan, 2
Tim Duncan, 5
Kobe Bryant, 5
Shaquille O’Neal, 4
Dwyane Wade, 3
LeBron James, 3
Stephen Curry, 2

Since 1980, only four teams — about 10 percent — have won an NBA championship without a dynastic player: The 1983 76ers (Moses Malone was Finals MVP), 2004 Pistons (Chauncey Billups), 2008 Celtics (Paul Pierce) and 2011 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki). Almost 90 percent of the time, a team needs a player capable of winning multiple championships to win an NBA title. Of 34 NBA champions since 1980 that featured a dynastic player, 27 (79 percent) included one that was selected in the top three of the NBA Draft. That means only a small percentage of teams will EVER compete for an NBA championship. In contrast to Major League Baseball and the NFL — where parity is possible because no single player can drive the fate of an entire franchise — the NBA is a completely star-driven league.

And stars are in too short a supply for parity to ever happen in the NBA.

Thus, since the consensus is that tanking will continue no matter what sort of lottery reform the NBA institutes, the proposal appears to be aimed at impacting what teams have access to star players. In a sort of Trojan Horse, the reform proposal includes a provision that would increase the odds for a team that barely misses the playoffs to receive one of the top three picks. This proposal was part of the league’s last attempt at lottery reform that was voted down by league owners. It’s unclear who is pushing this effort to give borderline playoff teams a better shot at a superstar, but it’s clear from the league’s persistent efforts that this is the end game.

And that’s something that nobody is paying enough attention to. With the fate of NBA franchises so dependent on ultra-rare generational talents, which teams have access to those players should be the focus of the debate, not the smokescreen of tanking.

With a new NBA season just around the corner, these are some of the storylines that will be at the forefront. As this offseason proved, however — with Irving’s unexpected trade request and the forced retooling of Cleveland’s contending roster — it’s impossible to predict what new storylines will emerge at any given moment.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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