The 2015-16 NBA season was particularly disappointing for these New Orleans Pelicans (30-52) since, for the first time in years, this was a team that entered the season with heightened expectations. Not just from eager fans of the team, but also from pundits seemingly and understandably in a rush to promote franchise player Anthony Davis as the league’s next great player.
Only two players, Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee, played in 70 or more games this season. Davis, as talented as he truly is, has never missed less than 14 games over his first four seasons in the league (including 21 missed this year), so the idea of adding to his workload and responsibilities was a bit optimistic in itself, but that’s precisely what the Pelicans attempted to do. Davis did appear to finally settle into his adjusted role as the season wore on, but no true progress could be made as a team with so many of the rotation pieces routinely going in and out of the lineup.
Beyond having a roster that doesn’t necessarily fit the direction and preferred style of play of Alvin Gentry and the coaching staff, all that roster fluctuation also makes it difficult to get a true assessment of the job Gentry did in his first year as head coach in New Orleans. Even though they may be limited in what they can do, this is an absolutely pivotal summer for the Pelicans in terms of at least getting things headed in the right direction. They may have Davis locked in for another five years, but you certainly don’t want him reaching his prime at the age of 25 or 26 (over the next couple years) having not played in the postseason for several consecutive seasons – not in a league where instant gratification and mounting expectations to not only succeed but to also do it immediately are becoming the norm. Here are some of the ways to potentially improve the roster as early as this summer:
Draft Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray or Kris Dunn with their lottery pick
If they were to happen to end up with the No. 6 pick, as they are currently slated by their amount of lottery balls, that could permit them to still bring in a talent like Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray or even Providence’s Kris Dunn to help bolster their backcourt. Even if you determine Jrue Holiday will be a part of the future beyond the final year of his deal, he came off the bench for a majority of his 65 games played in 2015-16 and actually looked comfortable in that role. Bringing in a guy like Murray or Dunn could not only give you a great one-two punch at the position, but also help with any wear-and-tear concerns you may have with the injury-prone Holiday. He may even increase his overall efficiency with a decreased workload.
Murray is a playmaker who can also shoot, but he’s less developed than Dunn and Hield since he’s several years younger. Dunn is a very good facilitator and defender, but struggles shooting the ball. Hield is a legitimate scoring threat who can absolutely shoot the lights out from deep. Hield shot a whopping 45.7 percent from beyond the arc on 8.7 attempts per game as a senior at Oklahoma, and had several impressive performances on the grand stage of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Replacing Eric Gordon (UFA) with a player like Hield would be great, bringing in a younger and presumably more reliable player as well as one who will be locked into a rookie deal for the next several seasons.
Allow Anthony Davis’ body to fully heal prior to bringing him back
This may seem like one of those suggestions where a resounding “DUH” is warranted, but for some reason it appears necessary in this case. When reports that Davis’ torn labrum would require season-ending surgery and would likely involve a lengthy recovery period (four-to-six months) surfaced, it was also accompanied by rumors of the 23-year-old actually playing through the pain and discomfort for the better part of three seasons, which should have raised more than a few eyebrows at the time. While injuries and playing through pain will always be a part of professional sports, it did come as somewhat of a surprise that Davis would be permitted and encouraged to play through something that would eventually require surgery for that extended of a period.
Particularly in the case of Davis, since the Pelicans have already invested an estimated $145 million into him over the next five seasons. At a certain point, the risks vs. rewards were undoubtedly calculated, but you’d think this organization would want to protect such a hefty investment a bit more carefully than that. Make no mistake, part of being considered a “franchise guy” and one of the faces of the league is that certain sacrifices are simply an expectation, but you also want to protect those players in some ways in an effort to maximize their careers.
Take a look at the forest beyond the trees when it comes to this situation if you’re the Pelicans. There’s no need to rush Davis back to the floor with the long-term goals in mind.
Bring in more talent to support Anthony Davis via free agency
Another way to “protect” Davis would be in general manager Dell Demps bringing in more talent to surround the former Olympic and NCAA Tournament champion. Here’s the tricky part about this for Demps: beyond needing to fill several holes and team needs – including additional shooting, more roster versatility and more healthy bodies – the Pelicans really don’t have that much cap space to work with. You’d imagine they are likely to simply let free agent guards Eric Gordon and Norris Cole to walk, but reserve power forward Ryan Anderson is an unknown at this stage. Given the fact that they elected to hold onto him at this year’s trade deadline, it would seem they are interested in re-signing the three-point shooting big man. While Anderson has played relatively well for the Pelicans, the basic question is whether they’d want to spend a good chunk of their space on a player who hasn’t helped yield the type of team success they are seeking? Anderson is also going to have huge offers thrown his way, so does it make sense for New Orleans to use most of their money to retain the stretch-four?
With an expected total that ranges from about $15 million to right around $22.9 million (depending on player options, their own free agents and non-guaranteed contracts), the Pelicans would find themselves toward the bottom-third of the league in terms of actual space to work with this summer. For perspective, teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers will have as much as $56.6 million and $52 million to work with, respectively.
The Pelicans are spending a ton of money on either oft-injured or simply ineffective players at multiple positions, but could find some cap relief if they are able to move the expiring contracts of Tyreke Evans ($10.2 million) or the aforementioned Holiday ($11.5 million). Their injury histories could make it difficult to find a suitor that isn’t asking them to take needless salary back in return, but each can still be very effective when healthy and it only takes a one rival GM to determine that one of them could contribute at a high level after a change of scenery.
In a league that continues to shift toward player movement and big men who can stretch and space the floor – and on a team specifically looking to play an up-tempo style of basketball moving forward, according to Coach Gentry – good luck finding someone to take the remaining four years and approximately $44 million left on center Omer Asik’s contract. It was a bit of a head-scratching deal for some when he received it and the move definitely looks questionable now that Gentry has acknowledged he wants to push the tempo next season.
This may ultimately be a case of simply having to spend wisely this summer in order to retool the roster for one more season until additional cap flexibility comes the following July. Would Demps make a run at a player like Nicolas Batum (UFA) this summer if it meant spending the bulk of his cap space on one player? At 27, and coming off one of his most productive seasons of his career, Batum is precisely the type of multi-skilled player at the small forward position who plays both ends of the court and would fit in well next to Davis. Batum also brings plenty of veteran experience (playoff and international) that this roster could certainly use.
If the Pelicans are unable to bring in a guy like Batum – who would admittedly be the best-case scenario for New Orleans – given the limited resources, they’d have to look at free agents like Kent Bazemore (UFA), Evan Fournier (RFA) or Evan Turner (UFA) for perimeter support unless they’re somehow able to become active on the trade market with their expiring deals. Chandler Parsons (Player Option) is a name that has also been mentioned in relation to the Pelicans, but would Demps really want to play with fire once again when it comes to players with well-documented injury concerns?
There’s obviously cause for concern given their recent luck when it comes to injuries, plus Parsons probably makes more sense either re-upping with the Dallas Mavericks for another run or actually returning to the Houston Rockets where he enjoyed his most success as a player. Fournier might be a bit of a pipe dream given the fact that Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan has gone on record stating he would be one of the team’s “top priorities” this summer, but of course that doesn’t always guarantee a return.
If the team does decide to part ways with Anderson or if he simply accepts a deal somewhere else (there have been rumors of interest from Detroit), one player who could make some sense on the open market is Brandon Bass Bass, who is from Baton Rouge and started his NBA career with New Orleans, is versatile enough to play power forward as a reserve or even alongside Davis in an up-tempo lineup.
In a perfect world, the front office would consider the future when making deals this offseason in order to maintain some flexibility for upcoming summers when more cap room is available, but with both Davis’ overall happiness and their own job security in mind, it also wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Demps at least attempt to swing for the fences whenever the opportunity presents itself. Certain exceptions tend to evaporate quickly once an organization reaches a particular level of expectations. With Davis heading into that massive deal next season and fans wanting to experience the success that comes with having a potential superstar on the roster, Demps and Coach Gentry are on the clock.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.