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Fixing The New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans may lack sufficient surrounding talent to make a Cousins-Davis pairing work.

Buddy Grizzard

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The New Orleans Pelicans executed one of the weirdest, wildest trades in NBA history when the team acquired DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a top-three-protected first round pick and a second-rounder in the upcoming 2017 NBA draft. The trade was expected to transform the Pelicans into a team that could go on a run to secure the eighth playoff seed, but that scenario has yet to emerge with the team stumbling to a 4-6 record since the blockbuster trade.

The weirdness was in the behind-the-scenes intrigue surrounding the trade. Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher tweeted that the Pelicans pulled an offer that added a 2019 first round pick after Cousins’ camp made the team nervous about its ability to re-sign him. The consensus view is that the Kings got fleeced, but Sacramento effectively got a pair of first round picks for a player the team had decided to move on from. With the Kings holding a fire sale and dropping the price, the Pelicans likely saw a deal too good to pass up, despite any misgivings.

Cousins’ play for the Pelicans leaves open the question of whether New Orleans is where he wants to be. He still shows the same tendencies to swipe at steals, pick up cheap fouls and trot back on defense that soured the Kings on extending him. The trade didn’t seem to pick him up from his usual surliness, although he led the Pelicans to a 100-77 blowout of the visiting Portland Trail Blazers with 22 points and nine rebounds Tuesday. Cousins may have perked up as a result of his past history with current Blazers Meyers Leonard and Jusuf Nurkic, who were held to 4-for-16 shooting. The win drew the Pelicans within five games of the Denver Nuggets — owners of a three-game win streak and the eighth spot in the playoff picture — with only 15 games remaining.

Ultimately, the Pelicans won the trade from a talent standpoint, but lack both sufficient talent to surround Davis and Cousins with and salary cap flexibility to address that deficit. Point guard Jrue Holiday will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and New Orleans may have no choice but to tender a large offer. The team is only projected to have about $15 million in cap space if Holiday leaves. Just as the Atlanta Hawks overpaid to retain Joe Johnson in 2010, the Pelicans may be forced to overpay since the team won’t have the cap flexibility to find a replacement of equal talent.

Holiday is currently ranked 15th in real plus-minus and 16th in player efficiency rating among NBA point guards, making him about average for a starter. Potential max free agents such as Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry are beyond New Orleans’ means. Other pending free agent point guards include Utah’s George Hill and Indiana’s Jeff Teague, who were involved in a draft-day, three-team trade. Since the Jazz gave a lottery pick to the Hawks as part of the trade and the Pacers surrendered Hill, both players will be expensive to obtain due to sunk costs for their current teams. This puts the Pelicans in a tough spot since Holiday hasn’t appeared in more than 65 games since 2012-13.

Beyond Davis, Cousins and Holiday, New Orleans has no player averaging double-digit points other than Jordan Crawford (given the great nickname “Instant Grits” by Cousins), who is averaging 15.3 points through four games on a 10-day contract. Starting small forward Soloman Hill is averaging 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds. He’s signed for three more seasons at around $12 million per. The Pelicans have a similar commitment to center Omer Asik, who is completely out of the rotation. Asik is unlikely to find his way back into it with the arrival of Cousins and improved play from fellow backup center Alexis Ajinca. Shooting guard E’Twaun Moore has three more seasons at about $8.5 million per and is averaging 9.7 points on better than 39 percent shooting from three-point range.

The Pelicans are essentially auditioning to the league’s bargain free agents as a new super team, and the audition isn’t going well. In 179 minutes Cousins and Davis have shared the court, no Pelican with multiple field goal attempts has shot better than Cousins’ 41.4 percent from the floor, per NBAWowy. Davis is shooting just 38.6 percent while on the floor with Cousins. That number jumps to 55 percent in 169 minutes with Cousins on the bench. The roster situation is so volatile in New Orleans that coach Alvin Gentry — whose job may be on the line if he can’t figure this out in a hurry — started undrafted free agent Wayne Selden Jr. at shooting guard against the Trail Blazers in his first NBA game.

On the positive side, one pending free agent who might be motivated to play for the Pelicans is Knicks shooting guard Justin Holiday, Jrue’s older brother. Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto interviewed Holiday recently, and he spoke about his desire to play on the same team as his brother. The Knicks are 5.3 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on court than on the bench, a team-best net differential (minimum 400 minutes). If the Pelicans are so desperate for guards that Gentry feels the need to start an undrafted player with zero games experience, Justin Holiday might be exactly what New Orleans is missing.

NBC’s Michael Gallagher tweeted that Cousins said he felt expectations were set too high after the trade. So what are realistic expectations for the Pelicans? Gentry is faced with the unenviable task of trying to make a twin towers configuration work in a small-ball era with insufficient surrounding talent. A full offseason and training camp together would allow Cousins and Davis a more realistic opportunity to figure out how to play together. For New Orleans, the bottom line is that this process must result in Cousins’ image being repaired. Accomplish that and, even if it turns out that New Orleans isn’t where Cousins wants to be at next season’s trade deadline, the Pelicans could ultimately improve by facilitating a trade to Cousins’ preferred destination and receiving assets in return.

So that’s what it has come to for the Pelicans: becoming a Bourbon Street version of the Spurs Car Wash. Win or lose, if Davis can convince his fellow Kentucky Wildcat to cut down on the technical fouls and other negatives, it could improve Cousins’ trade value. The Celtics, with a war chest full of assets, would have presumably gotten involved if Boston found Cousins attractive. That they didn’t, and that New Orleans got Cousins so cheaply, indicates exactly the sort of trade value he had. Barring a miracle such as New Orleans winning one of the top three picks in the NBA Draft Lottery, the most important outcome is that, win or lose, the Pelicans need to look like they’re having fun doing it.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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