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.
NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?
The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.
After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.
Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.
Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.
Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).
One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.
Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.
So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.
Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.
If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season.
Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.
If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.
There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.
NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford
Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.
As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt.
Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School.
Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.
During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie.
“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”
If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball.
Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.
As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause.
This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.
The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors.
As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core.
Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford.
Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to.
Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.
NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future
Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.
There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.
Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.
If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.
The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.
Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.
There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.
The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.
It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.
But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.
Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.
Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.
But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.
Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.
That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).
Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.
That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.