As the race for the playoffs heats up at the beginning of March, so does the competition at the bottom of the barrel. Basketball Insiders is set to bring you our “Fixing” series based on all the teams who are lottery-bound for the 2018 NBA Draft.
We’re kicking things off with the league’s worst team by record as of this writing: the Memphis Grizzlies.
Currently, the situation on Beale Street is the lowest it’s been in quite some time.
The Grizzlies have lost 13 straight games and are 18-44.
Doomed by an early season-ending injury to Mike Conley Jr., that event was a harbinger of what was to come for the Grizzlies. They’ve been bruised and battered all season long. Their roster is a mixture of a ton of inexperience and a few guys in their thirties desiring more. To top that all off, organizational mainstay Marc Gasol is disgruntled and hasn’t shied away from expressing his frustration.
What Is Working
The re-invention of Tyreke Evans has been an awesome revelation individually, and he’ll probably earn a nice payday after winning a gamble on himself, but that’s really all that can be said.
It’s hard to see the positives when you’re in the basement of the NBA. However, Memphis has done as good of a job as they possibly can in developing their players.
Dillon Brooks is proving with each game that he was undervalued and selected way too late in last summer’s draft. Defensively, he’s been about as effective as any rookie in his class. Regarding his knack to score, the Oregon alum has taken it upon himself to be more aggressive with each night.
The consistency from the field hasn’t been necessarily amazing, but that’s to be expected from a first-year player. Let’s not forget to mention he’s fifth in games started (54) and eighth in minutes per game (28.5) among his peers.
As for the younger talents, you’ve seen flashes of progress. Jarell Martin’s filled in for JaMychal Green in instances and has taken advantage of the opportunity. Andrew Harrison’s made significant progress in his sophomore year. Ivan Rabb has shown promise in stretches where he’s gotten consistent run on the floor. Similarly, Deyonta Davis has done much of the same. Wayne Selden carved out an important role between late January and mid-February. Two-way player Kobi Simmons appears to be bound for decent minutes in the closing months of the season as well.
The majority of that talent pool is between the ages of 20-23. Despite the terrible record, they’re all getting experience against top-tier players, and that is invaluable when it comes to professional growth.
What Needs To Change
For some reason, Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace was so reluctant to part ways with Gasol that he prioritized his happiness over then up-and-coming head coach David Fizdale. In hindsight, this was probably the wrong move, but what’s done is done.
That being said, Memphis has to move on from its franchise darling. Like previously mentioned, as the losses have piled up, so has the impatience in Gasol. He’s clearly unhappy with where things are. There’s nothing left of the Grind City core besides Conley and Green, so why not find a trade partner?
Surely there’s a contender out there who would love to have one of the smoothest big men in the game today, especially with his ability to stretch the floor and make plays in the post.
Shipping Gasol away would not only rid the Grizzlies of an unhappy superstar, but would also help shed one of their three humungous 20-plus million dollar contracts. When you’re attempting to rebuild, and that’s what the focus should be on after seeing this year, flexibility is paramount to tinkering a roster.
The other two hefty contracts on the books are Chandler Parsons and Conley, but it’d be difficult to track down a team who would be able to take on those deals. Besides, neither is going anywhere because Conley is the heart and soul of Memphis and not too many organizations would trade for Parsons with that kind of cash attached to him.
Focus Area: The Draft
This offseason is going to be absolutely crucial for the Grizzlies. Starting off on the wrong foot in a franchise reset can be catastrophic. There are so many areas of need that it’s difficult to pinpoint what direction they should go in this draft, but hypothetically let’s say Gasol gets traded.
Don’t mess around—go and get DeAndre Ayton. There is no question who the most dominant force is in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft class. He is a 7-foot-1, 250-pound monster. There’s no other way to describe him.
Ayton is extremely physical down low and is a ferocious finisher. He crashes the glass with the best and provides second chances. He’s able to step out and knock down shots. He gets to the line consistently.
There are drawbacks, too, but that’s expected of any prospect. For example, Ayton’s individual defense leaves something to be desired despite nearly averaging two blocks per game. That could be due to mismatches with quicker guards at times and intangibles. Even so, the upside there is too high to pass on.
Pairing Ayton with an experienced veteran point guard like Conley in the pick-and-roll would make for an instant one-two punch and would absolutely be a head start on teaching him how to play the right way at the professional level.
Basketball reasons come first, but Memphis needs one of those players that makes you say, “Oh man, I’ve got to see this.” They haven’t had that in quite some time. Ayton would immediately accomplish bringing in that mainstream audience.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Unless something drastic happens, the Grizzlies’ hands are pretty much tied as far as targeting impactful players in the free agent pool because of their over-the-cap salary situation. They have a boatload of money invested between the trio of Conley, Parsons, and Gasol.
They’ll have multiple minor contracts expire (Mario Chalmers, Brice Johnson, Evans) and two other deals (Selden, Harrison) are non-guaranteed until July 10 and January 10, 2019, respectively.
If Memphis can make any kind of significant move in free agency, the focus needs to be on bringing in shooters and scorers.
Mario Hezonja seems to be the perfect fit for a mid-level exception. At just 23 years old, he’s shown enough flashes with the Orlando Magic that prove he’s got plenty of untapped potential with an expanded role, and his skill set is perfect in today’s NBA. He could fit in seamlessly with a brand new young core of players.
Reggie Bullock is a bit older with a couple more years of experience, but he’s had a breakout season with the Detroit Pistons after waiting his turn. He’s a deadly perimeter threat and a dependable marksman. He’s still relatively under-the-radar, so that could be a bargain for a team like the Grizzlies to swoop in.
Those are a couple of names that could be a match for the Grizzlies. Not many higher tier players want to come to a rebuilding situation in free agency so that, coupled with little leeway, makes it difficult to attract talent. The brunt of restructuring is generally done internally and through the draft anyway.
Memphis has to undergo a facelift to get back on the right track. They have to figure out whether J.B. Bickerstaff is their guy. They have to make the difficult choice of whether or not to keep Gasol. They have to get the draft right after a sketchy track record in past years.
It won’t be easy, but the Grizzlies have to get it done. The future of the franchise depends on it.
NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.
Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers
Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.
The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.
The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.
With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.
Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:
“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.
“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.
“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”
There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.
Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.
Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.
Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.
LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.
“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”
The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.
NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.