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How Extension Season Signals NBA Trends

Distinct types of players in this year’s rookie extension class may help signal broader NBA trends going forward.

Ben Dowsett

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The August and September months are a slog for most NBA basketball fans, but they’re an important time for several important housekeeping items. Rosters are a key area of focus for front offices across the league, from possible cuts to training camp signees and guys on the bubble for the 15-man roster down the road. As Basketball Insiders’ Eric Pincus wrote recently, there are also a number of quietly important league deadlines looming around this time of year.

Most prominent among these is the rookie extension deadline of October 31, before which players entering their fourth year of a rookie-scale contract can negotiate with their incumbent teams regarding extensions that, if agreed upon, kick in to begin the 2017-18 season. If a player and team cannot reach an agreement before that Halloween date, the issue is effectively tabled and the player becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, 2017, with his incumbent team retaining matching rights on any outside offer sheet he signs.

The process is simple enough, but there are numerous variables at play that often make the execution a more complex affair. Teams can offer extra incentives to their very best players to keep them in town, which is why it’s extremely rare for a star-level player to change teams after his rookie deal, but many in the next tier down or below are playing a trickier game.

Locking a guy up before his final rookie-scale season keeps him completely away from the open market, a place where predatory competitors can tinker with poison-pill contracts that hurt a team’s position if they choose to match. Finalizing a deal early also offers the potential for a bargain contract if the player in question takes an unexpected leap in his fourth season.

On the other side of the coin, though, agreeing to a deal commits a team salary-wise regardless of the results in that fourth year. For deals signed with future development as part of the expectation, the risk of a bad contract down the line comes with the territory. Even if the superstars almost never go this route, a number of very talented guys have passed the deadline and hit restricted free agency in recent years.

Made up primarily of picks from the 2013 draft, the crop of extension-eligible players this fall represents a few distinct stylistic groupings: Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams highlight a strong group of “traditional” big men; Dennis Schroder and Michael Carter-Williams are two of several notable guards with numerous complementary skills but lack consistent jump-shooting; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter are among a number of emerging “3-and-D” specialists looking to cash in on the modern value of their role; and of course, as will be the case his whole career, Giannis Antetokounmpo gets his own special category.

Not all these players will receive deals before Halloween, and what’s signed – or not signed – could tell us a lot about how the league values these types of players as the NBA’s next crop of young talent move into their primes.

The Treetops

Primaries: Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel, Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee

Even the grandmothers of discerning hoops fans know the league is trending smaller, but several notable names are set to test that trend over the next couple months. Elite defense is still easiest with a dominant big guy manning the paint, and the best of them do enough other things to be among the most valuable commodities in the game despite a lack of shooting prowess.

Gobert and Adams are the headliners this fall, both undisputed defensive anchors who double as rim-running pick-and-roll threats on the other end of the floor. It’s tough to separate bouts of apparent stagnation from injury concerns after a stop-and-go third season where Gobert missed 21 games and couldn’t ever really find his rhythm. However, he’s cemented his reputation as one of the premier interior defenders in the game, with a few underappreciated supplementary skills to boot. Gobert could be nearly done developing at 24 years old, though – something the casual observer perhaps doesn’t consciously realize.

How the Utah Jazz will approach his situation will be telling, and could reflect a lesson learned a few years back. A difference of a few million dollars reportedly kept them from locking up Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2013, causing Utah to lose a year of Hayward’s services on the deal they eventually matched from the Charlotte Hornets. At the same time, Gobert’s extremely low cap hold next summer could leave open a big chunk of flexibility for additional upgrades – if the Frenchman is willing to play ball and voluntarily table his extension talks until mid-July, with the understanding that he wouldn’t ink a potentially harmful deal elsewhere in the meantime.

That’s a lot of risk, though. As noted by Dan Clayton on the latest Basketball Insiders podcast, that space under the cap the Jazz could conceivably save if they tabled Gobert’s talks might be significantly lessened or even eliminated anyway if the Jazz look to restructure Derrick Favors’ contract – something that makes so much sense that it’s been discussed by local outlets and our Eric Pincus for months. If that happens, a Gobert extension feels even more likely before the deadline.

There’s a similar calculus for Adams in Oklahoma City, where Sam Presti and crew have been silent to this point on extension talks for not only the big Kiwi, but also Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson. Presti has typically acted early in these scenarios, and there’s a real chance the Thunder are playing the longer game here and hoping for trust – particularly from Adams.

After losing a ton of talent in Kevin Durant this summer, holding off on extensions and saving the cap space will allow OKC to take a real run at the free-agent market in their last chance to re-stock before Russell Westbrook hits unrestricted free agency in 2018. Adams might be the exception, especially if he’s willing to take a slight discount on his near-max value in exchange for security, but even in his case – and even with the understanding that he’s a core piece staying in Oklahoma City no matter what – a deal before the October 31 deadline seems like no sure thing.

For guys like Noel, Dieng and Plumlee, the final dollar figure is likely more interesting than the timing. Team roster situations could play a big role: Noel suddenly finds himself in a frontcourt cluster with multiple other lottery picks including No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, while Plumlee just watched seemingly every teammate (plus a new center in Festus Ezeli) get a huge raise and clog up Portland’s books ahead of his big extension summer. Dieng is the only one of the three with a relatively safe role, but it’s tough to gauge his value (and whether he’s worth locking up ahead of his fourth season) in a situation where he isn’t even the fourth-most valued young player on an up-and-coming team.

The way these guys are approached by their incumbent teams will be dictated in part by circumstance, but they could tell us something more. Are younger teams willing to pony up for big man talent even if it risks future flexibility, or will they test the perils of restricted free agency in hopes of finding more modern talent and (hopefully) still retaining their big later on?

No-J Handlers

Primaries: Dennis Schroder, Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo

An even smaller niche as the league modernizes is the talented ball-handler who does many things well but can’t shoot an accurate enough jumper, and several notable candidates for extensions dot the pool in this category as well.

Oladipo may fall into a similar category as Adams in Oklahoma City. With a huge summer already on the horizon next year, it’s tough to imagine Presti and Co. committing a big number to a guy who hasn’t even played a game in a Thunder uniform yet. Carter-Williams feels like even more of a lock to enter the 2016-17 season without an extension, especially considering the Bucks just brought in Matthew Dellavedova at the same position. And even if there’s money left for Carter-Williams after Antetokounmpo gets his expected max raise, it’s unlikely John Hammond and his brain trust will want to shell it out before seeing how things fit on the floor.

Schroder probably falls between those two skill-wise, but he’s a completely different ballgame. The Hawks signaled his inheritance of their starting point guard position when they traded away Jeff Teague before the draft; letting Schroder enter his final rookie-scale year without an extension in place would appear to run completely contrary to this line of thinking.

That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, of course. Schroder and his representation surely recognize this same reality, and could be pushing for a big payday. Will they be willing to play the game of chicken and refuse a fair market extension, demanding more or allowing Schroder to prove his own value as a starter? Like always, it’s a big risk – a career 32 percent three-point shooter at the point has a ceiling, and Schroder probably isn’t upping his current value next year unless that sees a real uptick. There would appear to be motivation on both sides to get a deal done before October 31.

These types are a dying breed in the NBA, and their eventual market could reflect that. Teams might be more willing to let restricted free agency dictate their value; in return for security, these players and their agents might become amenable to accepting less than what they feel they’re worth. What we hear and see on these names in the next couple months will be telling.

3-and-D Specialists

Primaries: Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Roberson

Where traditional centers and non-shooting guards could have a plethora of talents but be left behind for lacking one or two vital skills, “3-and-D” wings are completely at the other end of the spectrum: Even if they’re pretty limited in many aspects of the game, the value of these kinds of players is exploding if both “3” and “D” are present in their skill set. Kent Bazemore, an athletic but limited swingman who does pretty little outside shooting threes and defending multiple spots on the perimeter, got a payday the same size as Dwight Howard this summer.

Exactly how far this concept can stretch will be tested by this extension season, and Porter might be the perfect case. At 23 and sporting a career 35 percent mark from deep, Porter barely qualifies in one half of the equation; many in Washington will tell you it’s a coin flip for the “D” part on a given night as well. Metrics may disagree on the latter half – ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus placed Porter in the upper tier of defenders at the small forward spot, and others have similar outputs. In either case, Porter isn’t doing a whole lot else on the court.

With the other two members of Washington’s starting perimeter eating up a combined $40 million or more every year moving forward (and reportedly feuding to some extent), whether these glue skills alone are enough to break out the checkbook yet again for Porter is an intriguing question. Porter and his representation know full well the value the league places on his primary functions, and could easily be willing to risk injury or slight regression to let him hit the market next summer if the Wizards are reticent to commit so much money to three guys.

It feels like a more tightly-run ship in Detroit currently, but that doesn’t make Caldwell-Pope’s impending extension eligibility any less complex. Barring a sizable salary-shedding move before July, a deal with KCP this fall would immediately stamp out any cap space the Pistons may have been hoping to use on the free agent market in 2017. If Stan Van Gundy is going to act now, it’s with a virtual certainty that this is his group for the future.

Van Gundy is a savvy executive, though. He already curried favor among his players by rewarding Andre Drummond with a deserved five-year max after Drummond did the franchise a solid and waited on his own rookie extension, allowing the Pistons to sign additional pieces alongside him. It’s tougher with a non-max guy like KCP, but look for the same approach here; Van Gundy can sell team loyalty after a successful 2016 summer, and might even be able to kill two birds by adding more talent next offseason before once again rewarding one of his guys for their patience. There’s still a lot of risk here though, and Caldwell-Pope’s agent, Rich Paul, is known for hard-nosed bargaining.

Further still, this is a distinct seller’s market. There are fewer capable “3-and-D” guys in the league than there are needs for such players. The summer of 2017 will introduce even more money into the equation, and guys like Porter and Caldwell-Pope simply have to look back at the contracts signed in the past few months to see what they might be in for. Their team situations could determine outcomes this fall, but just how far the league’s obsession with these two skills stretches will be interesting to track through next offseason.

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: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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