The Golden State Warriors have seen quite a bit of upheaval during the last 12 months. A year ago, they were the darlings of the league after an electric upset of the Denver Nuggets. Since then, they (rightly) let Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack go, then acquired Andre Iguodala in a sign-and-trade that was enabled by the trade of 2014 and 2017 first round picks to the Utah Jazz.
Yet after a 51-win regular season and a hard-fought first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors have fired head coach Mark Jackson with one year remaining on his contract. Whether that was a wise decision remains to be seen, but with Jackson’s firing the pressure is now squarely on management to nail their next coaching hire and improve the personnel. And, as we shall see, the pressure is also going to be on owner Joe Lacob and his ownership group to open their wallets to maximize this team’s odds at a championship. Here’s what the Warriors should do moving forward:
Evaluate The Team
Warriors management has to determine whether it thinks this can be a championship core at some point in the future. A fairly obvious first step, right? As General Manager Bob Myers said to me earlier in the year, “The end goal is and will always remain winning championships and doing it over as long of a period of time as you can.”
How close the Warriors are must be determined so that management can figure out whether it should work on alleviating the weaknesses around this core or if major changes need to be made. But answering that question may be more difficult for this Warriors team than for any other good team in recent NBA history.
On one hand, the team made the playoffs for the second straight year, an unprecedented development for the franchise in the past 20 years. They improved from 47 wins to 51 wins, and perhaps more importantly from 44 “expected wins”* to 54 this year.* The team’s plus 5.4 net rating was sixth in the NBA, and the defense improved all the way to third in points allowed per possession. From a statistical perspective, this was a team that was a fringe championship contender. One could argue that the team very well might have defeated the Clippers had Andrew Bogut been healthy in the first round, or even if they had one more dependable athletic big man to replace him.
*The number of wins predicted by their point differential.
On the other hand, the team was still merely the number six seed in the West for the second straight year, and did not advance a round as it did last season. The team blew a number of winnable games against inferior opponents at home during the year that perhaps cost them a chance at the top half of the Western Conference bracket. Only a few of the more analytical writers even mentioned the possibility that the Warriors could be a championship dark horse even in their best stretches during the year. Even with a healthy Bogut it is nearly impossible to imagine the Warriors navigating through the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs without homecourt advantage this season. And perhaps the only reasons that first round series was so close were the Clippers’ distraction from the Donald Sterling affair and Chris Paul’s balky hamstring.
Whichever view you take, it seems clear the team was not quite a championship contender this year. Is this core likely to become so in the future? Stephen Curry had another healthy year and emerged as certainly a top-10 and possibly even top-five player in the NBA. Draymond Green emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the league and vastly improved on what was a sub-replacement level season offensively a year ago to become a very solid role player. He can improve even further by becoming more of a knock down shooter. Klay Thompson improved to become a better on-ball defender and finally began to diversify his shooting-based game with more passing and drives to the basket as the year ended, though his overall season and playoff statistics still suffered from a dearth of assists, rebounds and free throws. It is also worth noting that Green and Thompson basically never get hurt. Meanwhile, former lottery pick Harrison Barnes regressed from what was a middling rookie season, posting terrible efficiency on well below-average usage. Barnes was talked about as a future star after last year’s playoffs*, but at this point his only true merits are shooting standstill threes and playing above-average defense. Nevertheless, at only 22 years old, Barnes does have the skillset to develop into a reasonable three and D wing who could come off the bench or start in a pinch.
*Surprisingly, given the fact he had a mere 13.8 PER even in the playoffs, which was by far his apex for the year.
NBA players generally hit their primes between 25 and 27, although there is some evidence that superstars may peak slightly later. So that is it for Warriors mainstays who are likely to improve next year. Andrew Bogut (30 next year), Andre Iguodala (31) and David Lee (32) are now at the point where they will begin declining. All three struggled with nagging injuries this year.
Lee has looked athletically overmatched of late, especially against the Clippers. He may have to transition into a role as bench scorer as early as next season, as he is going to struggle to score one on one against the league’s more athletic players and he lacks the athleticism to make a positive impact on defense or the boards. Iguodala, while he rated very well by advanced plus minus metrics, averaged a mere 10.4 points per 36 minutes. He could well decline to an unacceptable individual level offensively very quickly, and while he was a great team defender his ability to lock down great scorers is already on the wane. Bogut should hold up a bit better over time due to his size, but injury is an ever-present risk for him.
Therefore, it seems likely that among this core, improvement from the young guys will be countered by decline from the older guys, resulting in a similar performance from those players overall during the next few years. It is possible that one of the younger players breaks out to lift the core to new heights, but equally possible one of the older players drops off the map completely.
It is understandable that Warriors fans are shocked at the dismissal of Jackson. They just watched their best team since 1976, when Rick Barry brought a team that won the 1975 championship to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in seven.*
*That was a series in which it was alleged that Barry refused to shoot for much of Game 7 because his teammates did not come to his defense in a fight.
But the fact that the team has a terrible history is irrelevant to the team’s future goals of competing for a championship. Since this year’s core was not good enough to win one, and should play about the same going forward, it is clear that changes will need to be made. Unfortunately, the team went close to all-in with the trade of two future draft picks, and contracts for Bogut and Iguodala that last until 2017. And Barnes’ value has decreased mightily since his playoff heights last season. Therefore, the options are relatively limited for making massive improvements. Nevertheless, there are a few paths open to the Warriors.
Be Willing to Spend Big. Now.
In the modern NBA, no discussion of a team’s plans can be complete without a discussion of its finances. The Warriors have approximately $65 million in salary commitments to 11 players under contract for next year assuming Green is retained, as he will be since his $916,000 non-guaranteed salary is preposterously cheap for his production. That is over the projected* $63 million salary cap , but well under the projected $77 million luxury tax and, more importantly, the projected $81 million “apron,” over which transactions such as sign-and-trades and use of salary exceptions become quite limited.
*Those 11: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut, Barnes, Green, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. This assumes the Warriors do not extend Jordan Crawford a $3.2 million qualifying offer to retain the rights to match any contract offered to him as a restricted free agent.
These figures are higher than was originally believed, a fact that could become very useful for the Warriors given the availability of a $9.8 million trade exception left over from Richard Jefferson’s trade to the Jazz last summer (which must be used prior to July 10) and the $5.3 million mid-level exception (MLE).* These exceptions can be used piecemeal, but cannot be aggregated. However, the trade exception could potentially be used to essentially “sign” a free agent for up to $9.8 million, assuming his prior team could be persuaded to assist via sign-and-trade.** The Warriors could also include sweeteners like their 2015 first-round pick (which can dealt after the draft) or perhaps Barnes to entice a team to trade a player into the exception as well, likely an overpaid but still-productive player already under contract from a team looking to dump salary.
*It should be noted that using the mid-level exception or receiving a player in sign-and-trade would result in the Warriors being hard-capped at the $81 million apron for 2014-15.
**If a free agent’s prior team believes the player will depart regardless, it will often agree to a sign- and-trade to obtain a trade exception and/or a middling future draft pick, such as the Bucks in the J.J. Redick sign-and-trade last summer.
However, the upshot of using these two exceptions to improve the team means that the Warriors would almost certainly pay luxury tax next year, as taking on $14.1 million in salary would put the Warriors at about $79 million for 13 players. The team might also merely dump unproductive guaranteed players like Kuzmic and Nedovic to free up a little more room, but avoiding the tax could prove difficult. Next year, they would only be at most $4 million over the tax, resulting in luxury tax payments of up $6 million and further costs in foregoing the tax revenues distributed by the league to non-taxpaying teams.
The luxury tax chickens would really come home to roost the next year, assuming whomever were added via the MLE or trade exception had multi-year contracts. Green will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, and Thompson will be if he and the team do not agree on a lucrative extension this offseason (which would kick in for 2015-16). Those two players could command up to $15 million combined in annual salary, if not more. That could push the team salary to $95 million or more in 2015-16, about $15 million over the projected luxury tax for that year. That would mean that the Warriors would be paying approximately $95 million in salary plus another approximately $28.75 million in luxury tax in 2015-16 for a year until Lee’s contract expired in the summer of 2016.* The team could also try to bribe a rebuilding team to take Lee’s contract to minimize the tax payments, as he probably will not be particularly useful by then. After that, the bill would become manageable again until the expiration of Curry, Bogut and Iguodala in the summer of 2017 would enable a major makeover.
*For nerds, the formula: $1.50/$1 for the first $5 million over the tax, then $1.75/$1 for the next $5 million, then $2.50/$1 for the next $5 million, $3.25/$1 for the next $5 million, and then increasing by $0.50/$1 for every additional $5 million after that.
It is not necessarily the case that players acquired with these two exceptions must have multi-year contracts, but the better they are the more likely they are to demand them. With big new contracts for Green and Thompson looming, the Warriors will not be able to add any significant free agents after this summer until 2017, as their new contracts plus the current core alone would put the Warriors into the tax and close to the apron. The time to strike must be this summer.
Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob has made key changes to what was once a downtrodden franchise. He is is obsessed with winning to the point of putting enormous pressure on management and the coaching staff. Will he and his partners sacrifice profits to maximize the team’s chance to win as Curry enters his prime? And how much in profits are they willing to sacrifice?
Hire a Great Coach
The Warriors are certainly taking a risk in firing Jackson, who despite his other foibles succeeded in getting his players to defend and to play together. These are perhaps the two primary jobs for an NBA coach. Some have argued that Jackson is not really responsible for the solid defense, pointing to the systems implemented by former assistants Mike Malone and Darren Erman and the intelligence of the players on the roster as the primary impetus. But the fact remains that the team defended at an elite level in last year’s playoffs and all season this year with Jackson, and we don’t know whether they will for another coach.
The good news is that Golden State has the best talent on hand of any opening, unless Oklahoma City were to falter and relieve Scott Brooks. With great fans, a wonderful community and (hopefully) ownership committed to spend, Lacob, Myers and company should be able to lure the best candidate on the market. Evaluating coaches who have not been head men before is very difficult, but winning coaches such as Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni are available. However, both have had their personality clashes and dysfunction at previous stops with both management and players, which could make management gun-shy about pulling the trigger on those coaches. Steve Kerr has also been discussed; from a personality standpoint he is nearly as beloved a figure as exists in the NBA today. He has solid NBA experience as a GM with the Phoenix Suns, but has never coached. He, like all first-time head coaches, would represent a risk as well.
For my money, I would roll the dice with Van Gundy were he willing. He has shown the ability to coach excellent defenses and got more out of his teams in Orlando than anyone had a right to.
Kick the Tires on a Big Move With David Lee
Of all the Warriors players, Lee is likely the worst fit going forward unless he somehow learns to shoot threes at age 32. Given his odd shooting form, which does not particularly utilize his legs, that seems unlikely. Lee is a big salary and overpaid at this point, but he could possibly be traded for a player signed to a four-year deal last summer if his current team has buyer’s remorse. Barnes could also potentially be added to complete the deal if negotiations so require.
The perfect example of such a player is Josh Smith.* Smith was awful for the Pistons, compiling his worst statistics in years while playing out of position at the three and taking jumpers far too frequently and inaccurately. Lee was undeniably better last year. But Smith is much younger, and is excellent defensively when playing the four in the right system. His presence would make the Warriors absolutely impossible to score on, as they could switch everything from the two through four positions and protect the rim with Smith and Bogut. With room to operate as a four, Smith would also make a nice pick-and-roll partner with Curry and could take bigger fours off the dribble. He and Iguodala would also be terrors in transition. And Smith wouldn’t need to take nearly as many jumpers on a team with Curry and Thompson as shooters around him.
*Would the Pistons do this trade? That depends what their as yet unnamed GM thinks of Barnes, what happens with restricted free agent Greg Monroe and whether they think Smith is salvageable. If Monroe returns, then the Pistons would be unlikely to accept Lee.
Smith would be a risk, but he has much more upside if the cost is only Lee and possibly Barnes. Financially, there is little cost in flexibility since Smith’s contract will expire along with nearly everyone else’s after 2017, although the Warriors would be looking at another year of potentially hefty tax payments in 2016-17 since Smith’s contract is a year longer than Lee’s.
This sort of trade would not have to happen for Smith necessarily, but it gives an example of what the Warriors could do with Lee. The Warriors’ management has proved very creative in the past with the Iguodala, Crawford and Blake deals, so one can be certain they will exhaust all possible avenues.
Address the Offense off the Bench
Regardless of whether Lee or someone else is the starting power forward, the Warriors’ biggest regular season weakness was offense off the bench. The team scored a top-five rate with Curry in the game, but cratered to near league-worst levels when he was out. Barnes and Crawford were tried in the role of bench creator, but neither was any good during the regular year. Armed with the MLE and the Jefferson trade exception, the Warriors might acquire one or more of the following free agents to handle the ball and/or create offense from the bench:
I am partial to Mills and Vasquez of that group. Vasquez in particular could play with Curry and guard less threatening wing players with Thompson, Iguodala and Green available to take on tougher threats. Another option would be trading for an overpaid player that another team doesn’t want to fill this role.
Acquire a Two-Way Third Big Man
While the Warriors got a wonderful performance from Jermaine O’Neal considering his age, he is a free agent and also lacks the mobility, explosion and/or shooting the Warriors would ideally have in a big off the bench. Marreese Speights can score on occasion, but kills the defense due to his lack of awareness and failures to execute the scheme.
Ezeli missed all of 2013-14 with a knee injury. His absence was pointed to as a reason for the struggles of the second unit, but Ezeli seemed like a player best suited as a third center even before the injury. Although he started at times in 2012-13, he had only a 9.3 PER and somehow had a .467 TS% despite using only 10 percent of the team’s possessions and never shooting outside of five feet. He also has horrendous hands. Ezeli is a force blocking shots and on the boards, but has so many offensive limitations that he is unlikely to be a player worthy of major playing time going forward.
Therefore, a true two-way big man is needed, especially considering that Andrew Bogut’s minutes will likely continue to be limited during the regular season. Not all of these players fit the bill, but available free agents include:
Ekpe Udoh (restricted)
Chris Andersen (player option)
Hawes and Frye would be particularly deadly with their shooting ability, although either would likely command a high enough salary that the Warriors would have to dip into the trade exception and secure the assistance of the Cavs or Suns to get that done.
Develop the Young Talent
We touched on the need for Thompson to diversify his game. If he can become more of a threat posting up, coming off screens and playmaking for others on such plays, he could play with the second unit and alleviate some of the scoring woes. And there should still be some (if not much) hope for Barnes to become a quality scorer, as he has shown flashes such as a 30-point performance in the meaningless season finale in Denver. He supposedly has dominated in practice at times, so perhaps another offseason and a new coaching staff can unlock his talent. While I do not believe he will ever have the quickness and moves to score efficiently against real wing defenders, perhaps amazing development could prove me wrong.
Speights, while he has defensive issues, could become a real bench weapon if he turns more of his two-point jumpers into threes. He flashed that kind of range at times during the year, so it is possible. He is under contract for two more years, so the Warriors need to do what they can to maximize his effectiveness.
It is hard to imagine how Curry could improve on his skills, but he could at least serve to cut down on his turnovers through better decision-making. He could also stand to get stronger to avoid being bumped off his path by stronger guards and provide at least some modicum of resistance when he is posted up on switches.
The X-Factors: Portland
Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.
In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.
Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.
We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?
For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.
Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.
Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.
Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.
Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.
Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.
Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.
Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.
Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.
Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.
All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.
Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.
The X-Factors: New Orleans
Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.
Basketball is back, baby.
Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.
Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.
To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.
Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.
But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.
Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.
Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.
And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.
Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.
Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.
The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.
Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.
At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.
But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.
Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.
Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.
With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.
At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.
But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.
In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.
If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.
Looking Back At The Draft: The No. 12 Picks
David Yapkowitz assesses the 12th picks made in recent NBA Drafts and identifies the hits, misses and everything in-between.
The further you get into the NBA draft, the harder it is to categorize hits and misses. There aren’t many expectations with later draft picks, especially in the second round. If a player ends up panning out, then great. If they don’t, it’s no big financial loss for the team and they can easily cut ties. When you’re still in the lottery, however, you probably expect a little more than just an average player. Superstars are never guaranteed, especially with late lottery selections. But you probably would expect to have a quality rotation player if not probable starter with a late lottery pick.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re continuing our look back at the draft, pick by pick, with each of the No. 12 picks going back the last 10 drafts. Let’s see how those picks have panned out.
Steven Adams – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2013
The OKC Thunder didn’t have a lottery pick in the 2013 draft, but they acquired it from the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden trade. With Adams, the Thunder certainly hit the mark. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo (who 13 other teams in addition to the Thunder passed on) and Rudy Gobert are players picked after Adams who have fared better.
Adams has become one of the best defensive players and rebounders in the league as well as a great screen setter and roll man in the pick and roll. He plays his role to perfection and is a starting-caliber center. He may not have hit All-Star status, but he is a legit starter and with a lottery pick, that’s probably what you would expect.
Gerald Henderson – Charlotte Bobcats – 2009
I’m going with a hit on this one. Henderson played nearly all of his eight-year career with the Bobcats with the exception of his final two years with the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers respectively. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement due to nagging injury issues.
But for the eight years he was in the NBA, he was a capable scorer and mostly a starting-caliber wing player. As mentioned, with a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you should expect. Henderson averaged double-digits in scoring for most of his career and he shot in the mid-’40s from the field. If not for injuries, he probably would have played in the NBA for a few more years.
Xavier Henry – Memphis Grizzlies – 2010
Going back to the last ten drafts, Henry is the only player picked No. 12 that I would consider to be a miss thus far. He had some hype coming out of Kansas and was expected to be a first-round pick and NBA contributor. He didn’t play much as a rookie with the Grizzlies and was traded to the New Orleans Hornets.
He showed some brief flashes with the Hornets but never really was able to sustain any sort of consistent success. He got hurt during his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and that pretty much ended his NBA career after five years. He’s had a couple of G League appearances since then but didn’t really show that he was ready for an NBA return.
The Middle of the Road
Taurean Prince – Atlanta Hawks – 2016
Again, for a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you expect your selection to develop into. Prince is here under the middle of the road rather than hits because it’s still too early in his career to determine if he is truly a full-time starter.
With the Hawks, he certainly looked the part. After a so-so rookie year, he stepped up in a big way, becoming a scorer and deadly three-point shooter with solid defensive capabilities. When he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, he was considered to be a big pick up. This season, although he started in 61 of the 64 games he suited up in Brooklyn, his shooting suffered and he wasn’t as effective as he had been in Atlanta. There is still time for him to be considered a hit though.
Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets – 2012
Lamb is another player who had some high expectations coming out of college but got off to a rocky start in the NBA. He showed some flashes in Oklahoma City but was wildly inconsistent. But like many players, a change of scenery seemed to be all he needed.
He broke out when he arrived in Charlotte, becoming a solid bench scoring threat and becoming more of a regular in the starting lineup as the years went on.
He rightfully earned himself a solid payday from the Indiana Pacers and he started 42 of the 46 games he played in. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a season-ending injury in February. The Pacers are hoping he can bounce back from that.
Luke Kennard – Detroit Pistons – 2017
Another player that is still a little early to categorize. For now, he appears to be a middle of the ground type player. This is only his third year in the NBA, and he’s shown improvement each year. This season was a breakout year for him.
Since coming to the league, he’s been a very good three-point shooter. This season he was knocking down 39.9 percent of his attempts. His scoring has gone up every season and this year he had broken through to double-digits. He has some injury concerns, and he was actually out when the NBA suspended the season. But if he can bounce back healthy, then he certainly looks like a solid pick at No. 12.
The Role Players
Trey Lyles – Utah Jazz – 2015
In a league where the game is changing and traditional big men aren’t as common as they used to be, Lyles fits right in. Lyles seemingly was another case of a player who needed a change of scenery to find his niche. He wasn’t able to stick in either Utah or Denver, and it wasn’t until this season, his first in San Antonio, that he looked like a capable role player.
Lyles became a regular starter for the Spurs, and again, that’s what you want from a lottery pick. He isn’t included in the hits yet because this is the first season out of his five that he’s shown this. He doesn’t have a big enough sample size. He shot a career-best 38.7 percent from three and if he keeps this up, he’ll be a good pick albeit a late bloomer.
Alec Burks – Utah Jazz – 2011
Burks once looked like he was going to become more than just a solid NBA player. He might have had borderline All-Star potential. At least a starting-caliber shooting guard. But unfortunately for him, his career was seemingly derailed by early injuries.
He has since bounced back though. He’s reinvented himself as a scoring threat off the bench. He put up a career-high 16.1 points per game with the Golden State Warriors in the first half of the season. On a playoff team though, he’s a second unit player and that’s exactly what the 76ers were hoping for when they traded for him. He only had 11 games in Philly before the season was halted, but he’s done well to change his game and be effective despite major injuries.
Too Early to Tell
Dario Saric – Orlando Magic – 2014
I’m introducing a new category here, the too early to tell group. These players either don’t have a big enough sample size, or they have had circumstances that may have hindered their abilities. Saric falls into the latter part of that. He’s been a solid starting stretch-four when he’s gotten consistent playing time. But he struggled to adapt to being thrown around in different roles and inconsistent minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. He’s a pending restricted free agent who might not figure to be in the Suns future plans. Quite a few teams should consider throwing an offer his way.
Miles Bridges – Charlotte Bobcats – 2018
It’s a bit too early to make any major assessments on Bridges. This is only his second year in the NBA, a season that has been cut short. He mostly came off the bench as a rookie and had a pretty solid year with some aspects he could certainly improve upon. He looked much improved this season albeit some areas he could still work on.
He became a regular starting small forward for the Bobcats this season. He upped his scoring and rebounding and he’s often asked to guard multiple positions. He’s young and has a lot of room to improve. I don’t quite feel comfortable yet placing him in one of the above categories so that’s why he’s too early to tell. The future does look good for him though.
The later you go in the draft, the fewer expectations you put on the player you drafted. Franchise level players are not common, there are only a handful in the league. But at least with first-rounders, and especially a lottery pick, you’d expect to get at least a quality rotation player.
Judging by the production of the all the No. 12 picks for the past ten years, it’s safe to say that they all have, or look like they will pan out in some capacity. Only one of them is a sure-fire miss.