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Fixing The Dallas Mavericks

The Mavs need to think long term as they move forward this summer, writes David Yapkowitz

David Yapkowitz

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With the 2016-17 NBA regular season winding down, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves in an interesting position. They started out with a 4-17 record and looked well on their way to a potentially high lottery finish. Since the New Year started, they’ve gone 19-15 and have climbed back into the Western Conference playoff race. It would be in the Mavericks’ best interest, however, to miss the playoffs and perhaps fall a bit in the standings.

The one thing the Mavericks have to get ready for is the inevitable retirement of Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has shown flashes of his former self this season, but his averages in points (14.2), field goal percentage (43.6), and minutes (26.4) are his lowest since his rookie year. He has one year left on his contract, a team option the Mavericks most likely will pick up. But even if Nowitzki plays one more year, the Mavericks should start planning now for life without him.

That would mean missing the playoffs and taking advantage of a lottery pick. Teams always want to be competitive, especially when a franchise legend like Nowitzki is still on the roster. However, barring an unforeseen event where they land a potential marquee free agent this summer such as Stephen Curry or Blake Griffin, there is no quick fix that is going to catapult them to the top of the Western Conference. Making the playoffs as a very low seed and missing out on a top draft pick will only set the Mavericks back further once Nowitzki is gone.

Fortunately for the Mavericks, this summer’s draft is shaping up to be a deep and talented one. Even a back-end lottery pick, which they’d most likely get should they miss the playoffs, could yield a potential impact player. Should the standings not fluctuate too much between now and the end of the regular season, one such player who may be available when the Mavericks are on the clock is Arizona’s freshman forward Lauri Markkanen.

At 7 feet tall and 230 pounds, the versatile forward has a similar game to Nowitzki. In his lone season at Arizona so far, he’s averaging 15.7 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting from the field, including 42.9 percent from the three point line, while pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game. Markkanen is exactly the type of player the Mavericks can groom into a possible Dirk replacement while he learns under Nowitzki for at least one year.

Every draft, there’s always a player or two that slips and ends up being drafted later than anticipated. If one of the other projected top ten players ends up slipping, the Mavericks should definitely snatch them up, even if Markkanen is still on the board. It’s always wise to draft the best player available and figure it out later. But if that doesn’t happen, and Markkanen is the best player on the board, he should be the Mavericks’ choice.

The draft is always a risk, and there are no guarantees that any player lives up to the expectations set when they were drafted. In addition to looking at the draft to begin the rebuilding process, the Mavericks can take a look at free agency to shape their roster. Again, aside from landing a potential marquee player, most of the bigger name free agents are just stop gap additions that would do nothing but slightly prolong the Mavericks rebuilding process. What the Mavericks should look for in free agency this summer are potential bargain players — young guys who still have something to prove and could come relatively cheap. It’s what they’ve been able to do with Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell.

Help in the front court is something the Mavericks need, and there are a couple of players who fit that bill and will be available as free agents this offseason. One player that comes to mind is Cristiano Felicio of the Chicago Bulls. The second-year center played sparingly his rookie season, appearing in only 31 games while averaging 10.4 minutes per. He started off similarly this year, low minutes mixed in with some DNP’s, until finally getting consistent minutes from December until now. He’s had three double-doubles so far, three more than all of last season. He started off this month with an 11 rebound effort in a win over the Golden State Warriors. He had one of his better offensive games (ten points on 4-8 shooting) of the season on Mar. 12 in a loss to the Boston Celtics. He is a restricted free agent, but it may be possible that the Mavericks can pry him away from Chicago with a decent offer the Bulls won’t match. At 24-years-old, the reserve big man still has room to grow.

Another potential front court player the Mavericks could target is Christian Wood of the Charlotte Hornets. Also a second-year player, Wood spent much of last season shuffling between the Philadelphia 76ers and their D-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers. This year, he appeared in only five games for the Hornets until this month. In March, he’s already seen action in six of the team’s nine games. He had his best game of the season on Mar. 10 in a win over the Orlando Magic when he scored 14 points on 5-6 shooting from the field and pulled down five rebounds. He’s spent time with the Hornets’ D-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, and it included a 45 point, 15 rebound, and eight block effort on Jan. 12 against the Long Island Nets. He is also a restricted free agent, but could possibly be had for an offer the Hornets wouldn’t match. A first-round talent who didn’t end up being drafted, Wood is only 21 years old and has quite a bit of potential.

One area the Mavericks have excelled at recently is finding and developing talent, particularly in the back court. Seth Curry was just a borderline NBA player before this season. Now he’s seemingly found a home with the Mavericks. Since being moved into the starting lineup on Jan. 12, he’s averaged 15.8 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting. Yogi Ferrell was toiling in the D-League before being called up to the Mavericks on a 10-day contract. Upon his arrival, the Mavericks won four straight games with Ferrell averaging 17.8 points and five assists, including a season- and career-high 32 points in a win on Feb. 3 over the Portland Trail Blazers. They skipped offering him any other 10-day contracts and gave him a two-year deal.

Continuing to develop talent already on the roster is the last way the Mavericks can get the rebuild underway. Assuming they re-sign Nerlens Noel in the summer, they potentially have their starting center for years to come. An interior defensive presence they’ve lacked since Tyson Chandler’s departure, and a great complement should they end up drafting someone like Markkanen. They also should use summer league to see what they have in Nicolas Brussino and A.J. Hammons. Brussino had his best game of the season this week in a win over the Washington Wizards when he scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Hammons has not played since Dec. 30, but he’s a young big man on a rookie contract. All the Mavericks need from him is someone to give Noel a breather.

Rebuilding is never easy, and sometimes teams try to do too much too fast. It’s a process, and it’s going to be rough, especially for a franchise like the Mavericks who have been a consistent playoff team for almost two decades. The Mavericks need to think long term rather than quick fix, and the potential payoff will be far greater.

 

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NBA

NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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