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Isaiah Thomas on Horford, Durant, Celtics Contending

Isaiah Thomas discusses his recruiting skills, offseason training, excitement over Al Horford joining Boston, 2016-17 goals and more.

Alex Kennedy

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The last year has been a whirlwind for Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.

Over the past 12 months, the veteran averaged 22.2 points, 6.2 assists, three rebounds and 1.1 steals, made his first All-Star appearance and then played a major role in the recruitment of stars like Al Horford and Kevin Durant for the Celtics.

Now, entering the 2016-17 season, Thomas is hoping to form a dominant one-two punch with Horford, continue to produce at an All-Star level and turn Boston into a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Thomas to discuss his recruiting skills, offseason training, relationship with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, expectations for this season, desire to be great and much more.

Alex Kennedy: What have you been working on this offseason?

Isaiah Thomas: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”

Kennedy: You ended up playing a big role in the recruitment of Al Horford, Kevin Durant and other free agents this summer. Entering the offseason, did you know you’d be in that ‘recruiter’ role and is it something you enjoy?

Thomas: “Yeah, I’ve always been a pretty good recruiter. Even back in college, I was pretty good at getting guys to come play on the teams that I was on. Danny [Ainge] actually asked me. He said just whenever he calls, pick up the phone and if they need my help, be there. I said, ‘I will!’ He wanted better players and I wanted better players as well. He’s trying to build this team to be a contending team. We went out and got a great player in Al Horford. We tried to get Kevin Durant and a few more players, but we came up short. With our team, we’re satisfied with what we have. I don’t know if those guys [in the front office] are working on getting any other players, but we’re satisfied with what we have with Al Horford, Gerald Green, the draft picks we added and our returning players; we can build with that.”

Kennedy: Take me through the process of landing Al Horford, and what was your reaction when he agreed to join the Celtics?

Thomas: “First off, with that type of money, he better be coming (laughs). Nah, just kidding. We were genuine with him. We told him what we liked in his game and what we felt he would help us at. He saw us a lot last year, so he was a fan of the style of play that we have along with the coaching staff and the players that we have. It was just the cherry on top to get in a meeting with him and sit down and tell him how interested we were in him with the skills that he brought – not just on the court, but off the court. I think he’s just going to mesh with us so well and help us take that next step in getting past the first round.”

Kennedy: How much easier does Horford make your job as a point guard?

Thomas: “He’s going to make my job very easy. He knows how to set picks, he knows how to roll and pop in certain situations, and he’s a four-time All-Star for a reason. He knows how to play the right way and he’s a winner. He’s kind of won at every level. Even though he hasn’t won an NBA championship, but he’s been a part of really good teams and he can help us out. He’s a professional and knows how to get the job done. I can’t wait to get things started with him.”

Kennedy: How did the whole Tom Brady thing come about? You guys obviously made headlines by bringing Brady to your meeting with Kevin Durant. Do you have a relationship with Tom?

Thomas: “Yeah, we text every now and then. It’s funny because I wanted to sit down and talk to him last season, but our schedules didn’t permit it as we were both busy. Then, when we were headed to the Hamptons, they said they had a surprise. We were actually on different planes going there and then when we landed, he was there. It was a great moment, not just to have him at the meeting with Kevin Durant, but for myself too because I wanted to pick his brain. We actually rode the same plane back to Boston and I got to ask him a lot of questions and we exchanged numbers. Throughout the summer, we have texted back and forth a few times and hopefully I’ll get to go to a game and watch his greatness. I’m a fan. And I want to be great, so I want to build relationships with the great players – not just in basketball, but from different sports as well.”

Kennedy: Last year, you were an All-Star for the first time and played really well. How can you build on last year’s success?

Thomas: “I’ve had a little bit of success, but that doesn’t get to me. I want to be great, like I told you. I want to be better each and every year. The great players always come back with something new and something better. I’ve had long talks with Allen Iverson this summer, just about having that killer mentality at all times and never letting up. That’s how I want to be on the court and he’s somebody that never let up. I think his career averages were about 27 points per game. I got a long way to go to get there, but I’m trying to take the right steps. That means continuing to work hard and never being satisfied and keeping my foot on the pedal. Knowing that as your career goes on, it’s a marathon. You’re going to have ups and downs, but you just keep getting better and keep staying at it and never get satisfied.

“I’m not satisfied with what I did last year. I don’t just want to be an All-Star one year. I want to make this something that’s annual. I want this to be something that happens every year, where people can count on me being in that game and winning playoff series and taking my team further and further. I’m not satisfied. I want to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, small guys to ever play the game. I know I have a long way to go and I know I have to keep working. But my confidence is at an all-time high and that’s never going to waiver. My confidence is what got me to where I am today and that’s just going to keep me going.”

Kennedy: What are the expectations within the organization entering this season? I recently ranked Boston the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference in our season preview. Is the feeling internally that it’s time to contend now?

Thomas: “It is [time to contend]. Why not? We can compete against the best teams in the NBA. We know that. We showed that. We just got to put it all together. We got a good player in Al Horford and we got a few more pieces that can help us. I think we play so hard and we play so together that it gives us a chance no matter what. Like I said, why not now? We aren’t going to put [specific] expectations on the season; we just know if we can control what we can control, we can be there in the end.”

Kennedy: Was landing Al Horford a major selling point to Kevin Durant? And how did the meeting with Kevin go?

Thomas: “We thought we had a real chance. The meeting went great. I felt like if Al had committed before that meeting and was able to go to the meeting [with Kevin], I think that would have helped even more. At the same time, Kevin Durant surprised everybody by picking the Golden State Warriors. In our meeting, he was a fan of what he had going, was a fan of Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge and those types of things. I honestly felt like we probably didn’t have enough for him in that situation. He’s trying to win a championship now. Like I said, if we had Al Horford going into that meeting, I think that would have been enough. But it is what it is. The man made his decision that he wanted to make and you can’t fault him for that. We tried.

“To say that we had a legit chance at landing Kevin Durant shows that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Kennedy: That’s a great point. Not to mention, you guys will have cap flexibility and more first-round picks coming in from the Brooklyn Nets. How confident are you that you guys can eventually land another star?

Thomas: “Oh, for sure. I know Danny Ainge and those guys in the front office aren’t done. We’re not the championship team they had in 2008. We can always add more pieces. With Coach Brad Stevens and the way he coaches, I know they’ll find somebody. And like I said before, guys like the way we play, guys like the system we play and guys like Coach Brad Stevens. I think if it’s not another star, we can land a really good player that can help us get to the next level.”

Kennedy: Which teammates have impressed you the most this summer?

Thomas: “Everybody. Honestly, guys are working hard. Guys have a bad taste left in their mouth after that Atlanta series. I think with the help of Al Horford and Gerald Green – who is really going to help us out a lot by bringing that scoring punch we need – I think we’re going to be ready. I can’t just name one guy that has gotten better. Everybody has worked hard, and the last week or two we’ve had almost everybody on the team in the training facility working out together and playing five-on-five runs. I think that says a lot itself.”

For more of our one-on-one interviews, check out our recent conversations with Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo, Atlanta Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee, Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., Atlanta Hawks forward DeAndre Bembry, New Orleans Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore and Sacramento Kings swingman Garrett Temple.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Central Divison

Which players could be on the move in the Central? Shane Rhodes names a list of candidates.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been quite the up and down start to the season for the Central Division.

On one hand, the Milwaukee Bucks have stormed out of the gates, while the Indiana Pacers have, at times, looked like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. On the other, the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers have combined to start a dismal 13-29.

It may be early in the season but, as the Philadelphia 76ers have shown with their recent acquisition of Jimmy Butler, it is never too early to think about trades that could improve the team. If these teams make themselves out to be wheelers and dealers, what could they add or subtract? Which players could be on the move?

Milwaukee Bucks – John Henson

The play of Brook Lopez has made John Henson, and the near $10 million he is due next season, expendable. Lopez has started every game this season for the Bucks to the tune of 12.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.6 blocks per game. He has also played a major role in the three-point wave that washed over Milwaukee upon Mike Budenholzer’s arrival; Lopez has taken seven three-point attempts per game and is knocking them down at a 41.8 percent clip.

Henson, meanwhile, hasn’t done much off the bench.

With most of the big minutes split between Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, Henson hasn’t seen the floor much. While he has played in all 14 games, he has averaged only 13.5 minutes per to go along with 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. He is shooting a career-high 35.5 percent on 2.2 three-point attempts per game (also a career high), but that alone isn’t enough to take minutes away from Lopez.

At this point, a trade would not only seem logical but beneficial for both parties as well. Henson could latch on with a team that would make use of his services. Meanwhile, the Bucks would clear some cap space and open up more minutes for third-year center Thon Maker.

Ideally, Milwaukee would acquire another shooter to provide Giannis Antetokounmpo with maximum spacing as well.

Indiana Pacers – Myles Turner

Myles Turner looked like he needed a change of scenery last season. Then, the Indiana Pacers gave him a four-year, $80 million extension over the offseason.

Not much has changed for Turner in 2018. While he has posted an impressive 2.4 blocks per game, Turner has averaged just 10.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in 26.7 minutes per game, down from the 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds he posted a season ago.

More importantly, Turner has continued to play ahead of Domantas Sabonis.

In his second season with the Pacers, Sabonis has averaged 14.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 24.1 minutes per game off the bench. While he isn’t the versatile defender Turner is, Sabonis has shown that he has much more to offer on the offensive end.

As was the case last season, Turner has the look of a player that could use a change of scenery. His departure would allow the Pacers to move Sabonis into the starting lineup, alleviate some spacing issues and clear the way for offseason-signee Kyle O’Quinn to see some minutes off the bench.

Detroit Pistons – Langston Galloway

In back-to-back years, the Detroit Pistons have used their top draft selection on a shooting guard: Bruce Brown in 2018 and Luke Kennard in 2017.

So, why is Langston Galloway still on the books?

Galloway would seem the odd man out in a crowded two-guard rotation in Detroit, one that includes Kennard, Brown and Reggie Bullock. Not only is he the most expensive of the bunch with a $7 million cap hit this season, but he hasn’t exactly made waves when on the court. While he has seen a major bump in playing time — 24.5 minutes per game compared to 14.9 last season — his contributions haven’t changed all that much; Galloway has averaged 9.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game this season compared to 6.2 points, 1.6 rebounds and one assist per game last season.

It doesn’t make sense to take any time away from Bullock, the starter, or stunt the potential growth of Kennard and Brown. If Detroit can flip Galloway and clear the money on his contract, or find some competent forward depth behind Blake Griffin, Stanley Johnson and Glenn Robinson III, they should jump at the chance.

Chicago Bulls – Robin Lopez

This one is simple.

The Chicago Bulls are rebuilding and Robin Lopez is, at worst, a serviceable rotation player on a potential playoff team. Outside some mentor-like responsibilities, he only serves to take minutes away from the Bulls’ youth.

His playing time has dipped this season; Lopez has averaged 15.3 minutes per game after he saw 26.4 a season ago. With Lauri Markkanen expected back in the next few weeks, it would only seem destined to dip further. The best course of action for Chicago would be to move Lopez to a team desperate for an interior presence.

While there is light at the end of the tunnel in Chicago, they should keep in mind that they are still in the midst of a rebuild. The Bulls should acquire assets whenever they can to further things along wherever they can, and this seems like a prime opportunity.

Cleveland Cavaliers – Is Anyone Not On The Table?

The Land has fallen on hard times.

With the departure of LeBron James, so too has winning basketball departed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team has dealt with their share of injuries, but the Cavaliers looked bad at the start of the season when they were healthy. With Kevin Love out for the foreseeable future, no one should expect things to get much better.

There are a number of players that Cleveland could look to move: Love, J.R. Smith, George Hill, Kyle Korver. The list goes on. The only player one could think to be “off limits” would be rookie point guard Collin Sexton, and even he could probably be had for the right price.

Such is the life of the NBA bottom feeder.

The Cavaliers would be wise stockpile whatever future assets they can. Expect their phones to be some of the busiest in the country between now and the February trade deadline.

As teams continue to soldier on through the season, they will look to make deals. Whether they approach the table as buyers or sellers, every team will look to improve themselves either in the now or with an eye on the future.

Basketball Insiders has already looked at some of the potential trade candidates in the Northwest and Southwest divisions. Keep an eye out for our trade candidates in the Southeast, Atlantic and Pacific divisions as well.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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