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Fixing the Utah Jazz

Ben Dowsett looks at what the Utah Jazz can do to take the next step in their development.

Ben Dowsett

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Set against the backdrop of Kobe Bryant’s final NBA appearance, an event that more closely resembled a circus than a basketball game, the ending to another Utah Jazz season felt extremely surreal. It wasn’t just the hysterics of the moment, though watching a legend cap off a splendid career with a whirlwind come-from-behind performance as players, fans and referees alike temporarily forgot the traditional framework of basketball only heightened the strangeness. There was something more, though, a sense of abruptness most close to this team are unaccustomed to in recent years.

The players were informed just before tip that a Houston Rockets win had sealed their elimination, a fact that made subsequent events possible (sorry, Lakers fans, but that game goes a lot differently if the Jazz are playing for anything). At the same time, it put a sudden stop to a playoff chase that not even a week prior had seemed like nearly a sure thing.

Utah’s outside-looking-in finish naturally inspired disappointment, and with reason. This team had higher goals entering the season. A few costly missteps down the stretch could have meant the difference between playoff games and an early vacation.

However, little has changed in the team’s long-term outlook. Their future fortunes never hinged on a few games here or there within a single season. A thorough front office has already begun the process of looking back, assessing and finally moving forward; let’s do the same from an outside standpoint.

Progress

“It’s hard to say we’re disappointed when your point differential is better, your record is better,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “To a man, all of our players improved individually.”

Lindsey went on to say that everyone with the team really was disappointed in the final result – it may have seemed contradictory, but really just represents his approach. One can bemoan falling short of a particular benchmark without crushing the underlying process, and that’s what’s happening here.

A series of badly timed injuries are a good lens through which to view this line of thought. That the Jazz improved in defensive efficiency from 12th overall last year to seventh this year is good on the surface, but feels much more impressive when considering that their three most important defensive players from last season (Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Dante Exum) each missed significant time, with Exum sitting out the entire campaign. Evolved sixth man Alec Burks also missed three months. By way of final tally, four of Utah’s projected top six rotation players as of a year ago today missed a quarter of the season or more, with overlap in certain cases that only exacerbated things.

To whatever degree these bits of bad luck contributed to the team’s final standing, the time for that analysis has already passed. What’s done is done. The process-driven side, though, can pick positive nuggets from even the worst of situations.

Utah eked out roughly a league average offense for the second consecutive year. That won’t be enough for their eventual aspirations, but given all context involved it seems like a small win. The Jazz started a foreign rookie at point guard for most of the year, and endured periods where their frontcourt rotation was comprised of Jeff Withey, Trevor Booker and another rookie in Trey Lyles. Depth was a major concern, but was never quite able to fully submarine the team’s attack.

Lyles might be the clearest silver lining, another on a quickly growing list of young players who rapidly improved under Quin Snyder. Lost on both ends in November as a rookie who didn’t even play the same position in college, Lyles was thrust into a larger role than expected as Favors and Gobert missed overlapped time in December and January, coming out the other side with a more refined game than virtually anyone could have predicted. He finished the year as a 38 percent three-point shooter, and even more importantly developed a pump-and-go driving game to supplement it.

Lyles is already looking like a future key for this team, with a versatile skill set that could allow them to flip between “big” and “small” identities instantly, and he’ll create a talent overload in the frontcourt in a hurry if his development maintains this pace.

Fellow rookie Raul Neto was another clear success, handling the starting job at the point admirably for the first chunk of the season before continuing to succeed in a backup role after Shelvin Mack was acquired at the trade deadline. Neto quickly bucked a non-shooter reputation from overseas, finishing just decimals behind Burks as the team’s most accurate three-point shooter on a steady diet of catch-and-shoot looks, and was a consistent and engaged defender despite being undersized. His penchant for canning ridiculous, high-difficulty looks became the stuff of Jazz Twitter legend by midseason.

Mack’s addition and relative success lessened Neto’s role, but an assumption that Mack is permanently ahead on the depth chart is premature heading into the summer with Exum returning. Both will get a chance to compete for minutes behind or even alongside the Aussie.

Other bits of progress were clearly evident as the year wore on, particularly the team defense; the Jazz were third for league-wide defensive efficiency after the All-Star break, and second in this category from the moment both Favors and Gobert returned from their respective injuries in late January. Sophomore Rodney Hood had ups and downs, but put lingering foot issues behind him to play 79 games on the year and establish himself as a go-to offensive option. Star Gordon Hayward may not have made any big leap numbers wise, but he showed a noticeable defensive improvement without lowering the nightly burden he carried on the other end.

So many areas are incomplete, but tracking real progress made is easy. Snyder is still learning himself, something he frequently alluded to, and falling just short of the postseason will instill a greater sense of urgency in all parties involved next year.

Roadblocks

Regardless of their final spot in the standings, a few major issues persisted throughout the season and stand in the way of the heights this team hopes to reach. A look at a few of the most relevant:

  • Crunch time play

The Jazz’s point differential was more in line with a 46-win team than the 40 we saw, and the chief culprit for the gap was a season-long struggle to close big games. Utah was outscored by a gross 17.8 points per-100-possessions during the final five minutes of regulation or overtime with the score within five (NBA.com’s most-used definition for “crunch time”), worse than any team in the league other than sad sacks Philadelphia and Phoenix. Team defensive rebounding, normally a strength, was likewise 28th during these high-leverage minutes, which contributed in large part to a massive gap between the team’s standard defensive expectation and the reality during crunch time. Much of it tied back to a team-wide lack of readiness for the way the game changes in these big moments.

“The way the game is played at the end of a game is different. It’s a lot more physical,” Snyder said. “There [are] screens that sometimes aren’t legal in the first quarter that become more legal in the fourth quarter. Hopefully [we can] help our players understand that the game has shifted, that there’s a point in the game where it is unique, and for us to raise our concentration, our physicality and our competitiveness to respond to that. I don’t think we were able to do that on the level that we liked.”

Snyder’s year was fascinating on the whole from a rotation and game management standpoint, and nowhere is that more crystallized than in his decisions down the stretch of close games. The injuries obviously threw things out of whack to a large degree, but a careful eye could spot some interesting trends even during healthy periods – particularly pertaining to the “frontcourt of the future” in Gobert and Favors.

The Jazz have embraced a big identity spurred by those two even as the league around them goes in the other direction, but Snyder’s seeming lack of confidence in the pairing to close tight games could throw this somewhat into question. Gobert played in barely half the team’s crunch minutes following the All-Star break, and Favors wasn’t too far ahead of him as Snyder appeared to prefer one of Lyles or Booker alongside a revolving Gobert-Favors door.

The decision is made more curious by the realization that, from a relative standpoint, the duo did a perfectly good job when they did see the court together down the stretch. Data from Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow using slightly different time and score thresholds (final six minutes, score within 10 at any point to more closely match typical rotational patterns) reveals that the two were nearly neutral on a per-possession basis. That’s a huge step up from the atrocious figure the Jazz posted as a team, and a mark that would have seen them easily make the playoffs if it were applied across the balance of their crunch time minutes on the year.

It’s not that simple, of course, but the issue certainly casts light on what could be a big personnel situation down the line. Even if there are times where it was the right move, Snyder’s reluctance to stick with the team’s stated identity raises questions; he often directly referenced matching up to smaller opponents while explaining the decisions. If at least one of the team’s three best players simply can’t be on the floor during many of their biggest moments, is that identity flawed? Is that really the best allocation of team resources in the long term?

The Jazz aren’t panicking in this or any other regard, but it’s worth monitoring – and, if one sees continued issues on the horizon, quietly considering options to assess the situation. In any case, their play down the stretch is a top, stated priority in the offseason.

  • Depth

The various injuries really exposed this one, but it would have been an issue regardless. Exum’s ACL tear in July left Utah thin at the point for the entire year, and while each of Mack, Neto and Trey Burke had their moments, the position was a consistent source of weakness relative to competition.

The same things happened on the wings and in the frontcourt, though to lesser and more temporary degrees. Burks’ absence forced real minutes onto Joe Ingles and Chris Johnson, the former of whom is a solid situational veteran and the latter of whom isn’t currently an NBA rotation player. One could certainly question whether upgrades on at least Johnson were possible at some point along the line, whether earlier in the year or at trade deadline or buyout season. Guys like Jeff Withey and Lyles did well in expanded roles while Favors and Gobert were down.

Lindsey was frank in his end-of-season media availability, noting that improving depth was another top priority.

  • Turnovers

The Jazz coughed the ball up at the fourth-highest rate in the league, a number that only got worse with Mack’s arrival at the break. A simple lack of ball-handling talent contributed in a big way, and it seems fair to assume that Snyder’s relatively simplistic offensive scheme deserves some blame as well. Decision-making probably covered the rest – on too many occasions, Jazzmen inflicted their own wounds with poor judgement and a tendency to dig themselves into a hole by doing too much (or too little) with the ball.

As both Snyder and Lindsey noted postmortem, the effects here weren’t only felt on the offensive side of the ball – Utah’s defense suffered as a result of all the transition opportunities they gave up through killer live-ball turnovers, and could have been even better than seventh in the league otherwise.

  • Transition Play

If defensive transition as a result of turnovers was a warning light, the team’s own ability to generate these sorts of free points was a huge neon sign. Masked slightly to the casual fan by their slow pace and middling opponent turnover numbers, Utah’s unwillingness to push in transition extended well beyond reasonable excuses and was likely their largest tactical issue this season.

A good proxy for measuring a team’s “aggression” on the break is looking at the percentage of shots they attempt within five to seven seconds directly following a forced turnover or a defensive rebound – easily the two most common preceding events to fast breaks. Per Nylon Calculus data, the average NBA team in 2015-16 attempted a shot within seven seconds about 43 percent of the time following a defensive rebound.

The Jazz, though? They weren’t even at 25 percent as of the final week of the season, far and away the lowest in the NBA. The next-lowest team in this regard was Dallas, who still pushed the ball nearly 33 percent of the time. Simply attempting and making these shots at league average rates would have added nearly half a point to Utah’s season-long per-100-possession offensive rating.

It was much of the same following turnovers, where the Jazz were 23rd in aggression by this same metric. Per inpredictable.com, only the Spurs averaged longer possessions following opposing cough-ups than Utah. The theme is clear: The Jazz were incredibly hesitant to push advantages in transition.

Even when they did muster up the courage, the execution was frequently lacking. Timing seemed to be a big issue, with a two-on-one or three-on-one break blown by elementary level decision-making seemingly every night. Bad three-point shooters peeled away from layups for low-percentage prayers from beyond the arc; many Jazz players simply seemed confused about which lanes to run in. Guys made fancy plays when simplicity would do. Hayward, easily the wing on this team who’s most capable of absorbing a physical style, developed a maddening tendency to eschew even minor contact at the rim in favor of tougher mid-range pullups.

For a team lacking offensive punch in the halfcourt for obvious reasons, this simply isn’t acceptable. The Jazz badly need these easy points, particularly if they stick to their big, defensive identity moving forward. Execution on chances taken is one fixable element, but convincing guys to be aggressive and pursue the opportunities in the first place needs to be a big emphasis for Snyder.

Eyes Forward

The Jazz now move into the next stage of their multi-year project. An unprecedented cap environment is the backdrop for the most pivotal summer for the franchise in at least a half-decade, after which a season with the highest expectations since the Jerry Sloan days will be upon them.

Team brass is open to all potential summer avenues, and will be aggressive from the start. Utah’s first-round pick, presumed 12th again barring some major lottery luck, would be on the table for the right deal along with all three of their second-rounders. The Jazz’s outlook on team-building is a shorter one now; with the grunt work of assembling a core mostly finished, the details and margins come into focus.

A common concern in some circles is the displacement of current pieces. Upgrading talent naturally means reducing or eliminating someone else’s role, and some struggle with this idea for a Jazz team with a young, talented starting five all ostensibly in place already.

The NBA is cyclical, though, and it’s easy to forget that the team has dealt with significant re-shuffling as recently as this season, and mostly come through it unscathed. Utah added four new names from last season’s squad in Neto, Lyles, Withey and Mack, and all four played real on-court roles at one point or another. The Jazz value the continuity they’ve fostered with this core, but won’t let fear of the future – whether in the form of role changes or eventual money concerns – stop them from addressing the now.

Lindsey’s admission last week that two larger moves featuring multiple draft picks and a “major salary slot” were agreed upon but never consummated (for reasons unknown) at the deadline is reflective of his group’s attitude here. Competition for roles is never a bad thing, so long as everyone is on board with the group’s mission. The Jazz won’t hesitate to pull the trigger this summer for the right piece.

Salary considerations are in play as well, particularly for Gobert. The Stifle Tower is eligible to begin negotiations with the Jazz for his rookie extension, and could ink a deal that wouldn’t kick in until the beginning of the 2017-18 season if both sides were to reach an agreement before October 31.

How they choose to approach things here will be interesting, especially under this exploding cap. Gobert’s cap hold (a figure that counts against a team’s cap number as a placeholder even once a player’s contract has expired, unless the team renounces his rights) in the summer of 2017 is a measly $5.3 million, meaning he won’t clog up their books to any large degree if they wait on an extension. It’s a risk, but if the Jazz were fully convinced Rudy was on board and willing to play ball, they could table things this year and save his extension for next summer, allowing them to spend up to the ludicrous $107 million (projected) cap before signing Gobert over the top of that using Bird rights.

All signs to this point indicate that Gobert is all-in with the team, but risks remain. A leap next season could see his asking price rise, and the Jazz could end up wishing they’d locked him up to a more team-friendly deal when they had the chance. Leaving him with any chance at all of hitting the open market could create a situation similar to Gordon Hayward’s a few years ago with Charlotte – the Jazz lost a year of team control on Gordon’s deal due to a poison pill Charlotte included in their offer sheet, and similar things could happen with Gobert. His worth in a vacuum is another topic altogether, and where any real or rumored deals place him relative to his peers will be interesting to track.

Burke is also eligible to begin rookie extension conversations, but these seem far less likely to produce a deal. Burke was relegated to third point guard duties and barely played following Mack’s acquisition, and it’s been clear for some time that he desires a larger role. Burke has handled a tough situation with nothing but class and professionalism, and some of the negative insinuations made against both him and his representation are simply flat-out false. He’s also become a better basketball player, though whether he has any positive trade value at this point is uncertain. Regardless, it looks as though his time in Utah is drawing to a close. It would be a surprise if he played another game in a Jazz uniform.

In between the draft and these negotiation deadlines lies another summer of international play, with multiple Jazzmen once again potentially involved. Neto is presumed set to play for his home country of Brazil, something he’s done in the past, and while Hayward is a big long shot to make the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics, he’d certainly play if he was included. Lyles would likely play for Canada if they qualified, but that’s under a 50 percent proposition currently.

Gobert and Exum are more interesting cases, the latter in particular. It’s not lost on anyone that Dante’s major injury came during a friendly for the Australian national team, and while blaming them in any way is obviously silly, there are real concerns to allowing his first competitive basketball since then to come outside a Jazz environment. Gobert’s is an issue more of long-term fatigue than anything else, something Lindsey addressed at length. Rudy has indicated he’d like to play in Rio if France qualifies, but that he’ll likely sit out of the qualification itself. Le Bleu will need to win a bit of a strangely-organized tournament with six teams involved, and will be favorites as long as they bring most of their typical roster outside Gobert – though that’s no guarantee. Canada is also involved in this six-team tournament, meaning only one of Gobert or Lyles, at most (and possibly neither), will end up playing in Rio.

There are specific rules for these FIBA-NBA interactions, and the Jazz cannot legally block any player with an independent bill of health who chooses to play for his country. Lindsey and his team would never put back-channel pressure on guys to sit, something it’s fair to assume a few other teams might consider.

At the same time, though, they know that these players’ development comes from the Jazz, and only the Jazz. Exum in particular isn’t gaining a whole lot by standing in the corner watching other guys run the point, his typical role under Australian coach Andrej Lemanis in the past. Gobert came to camp exhausted last year after a rigorous summer with the French team, and while the Rio timetable is friendlier, the Jazz are fully aware he’s had precious little time to rest his body in the last couple years. No one within the organization would do anything to stop them from playing if they’re healthy and willing, but no one is spilling any tears if their next competitive basketball comes during preseason play with Utah.


With a unique year in the rear view, a vital time for the Utah Jazz franchise approaches. The next 16 months will go a long way to determining the fate of the team’s current iteration, and of management’s long developmental view. No pressure, guys.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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