The Miami HEAT didn’t get off to the start they had hoped.
There were inconsistencies. Four out of their first six games were losses, and an injury to their top center caused him to miss five of those. Guys weren’t communicating well enough.
But then came the simplest of realizations.
“If we don’t guard, we not gon’ win,” Miami wing Josh Richardson told Basketball Insiders at the team’s shoot around in Cleveland. “We can’t just outscore people.”
In November, the HEAT have an 8-6 record. They are fourth in the NBA in defense, allowing just 99.4 points per game, and have limited their opponents to the least amount of shot attempts per game (36.1) in the league. During this stretch of games, they’ve held their counterparts to less than 100 points all but two times in winning situations.
“I think we’re figuring out how we need to play,” Richardson said. “I think we started the year off thinking we played one way, but ya know, just going back to the drawing board and back to basics helped us out.”
The third-year swingman out of Tennessee has certainly done his part in shaping this Miami defense. You could even say he’s been the anchor.
According to Cleaning The Glass, when he’s playing the HEAT’s defensive rating is 101.1. If he’s sitting, they allow 13.8 more points per 100 possessions. It’s a discrepancy that grades in the 97th percentile among all players.
Richardson flat-out flusters his competition and has really put himself in the top tier of defenders. In regards to his position, Richardson ranks fifth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (1.49) and ninth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (1.6).
Among players whose opponents shoot at least 10 attempts against them per game, Richardson has stifled his adversaries to a league-low 34 percent from the field. As specified by NBA.com, opponents normally convert 44.8 percent of those shots — the difference between those two figures is the highest margin in the NBA.
With all that being said, there’s got to be a trick in the book that Richardson has found, right?
“Man I can’t throw my secrets out there,” he said with a grin. “But I think a lot of it’s effort and positioning. I put a lot of emphasis on that end.”
Defense has always been a staple of the HEAT culture since Erik Spoelstra sunk his teeth into the organization. He’s instilled these principles for years now and, though this team isn’t where he wants it to be right now on that end collectively, he’s seeing it specifically from Richardson.
“He takes pride in his defense,” Spoelstra said. “He really competes. He loves to take on any challenge one through four, sometimes with us one through five. He’s not afraid of getting embarrassed out there. He’s gonna put himself out there competitively. And he has the physical tools to match that.”
Miami’s head coach talked to his players about the week they just had—three straight wins and a Player of the Week Award for Goran Dragic. He used it as an example, basically saying if they get their defense to that “top five” level where they want it to be, then guys could get recognized for it individually.
For Richardson, the appreciation is well received, but it’s difficult to get him to talk about himself. He’s a person who doesn’t want to talk about personal accomplishments or awards and quietly goes about his business.
What he’s truly focused on is answering the bell for Spoelstra by getting the HEAT’s defense to the standard he expects.
“I’m a great teammate,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m a good communicator. I can help drive these guys to want to be able to be that top five defense.
“I think we all want to, but we just gotta put it into action. I think we’ve got the personnel. We’ve got guys—Justise Winslow, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters—guys that are physically gifted that can make it happen on that end.”
While Richardson’s prowess on the defensive end has been spectacular, success on the other side of the ball hasn’t come nearly as easily. Fortunately for him that wasn’t the case on Tuesday. He had his best night of the season efficiency-wise in Cleveland, pitching in 15 points on 67 percent from the field.
So the flashes have been there, but the consistency has not. Through 20 games, his field goal percentage is below 37 percent. More than half of his attempts have come from the perimeter, where he’s only hit 27 percent of those shots.
The struggles haven’t defeated him, though. When asked about what he thinks the issue is, the 24-year-old seemed baffled.
“It’s not a secret I’m not playing up to my offensive potential, but I mean we winning so I’m not really getting into that,” Richardson said. “I mean if I need to, I feel like I can…I don’t know. I gotta turn it around eventually, but this game is tough.
“You’re not always gonna be playing well. You could be playing great one week, could play terrible another week. I mean, it’s hard to put your finger on it. You can’t get on that roller coaster of emotions, ‘cause then, that’s where you might end up in the doldrums or some sh**.”
If you think about it, it would be difficult to find a groove with so many ball-dominant players getting touches.
Waiters is a very aggressive offensive player who will always get his looks. Dragic is a floor general, but also somebody who’s a threat to put the ball in the basket. And we all know that Whiteside will get plenty of opportunities when it comes to post-ups.
“It’s tough ‘cause you know we’ve got so many guys that are good with the ball, that can really score,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. “If somebody sits, then yeah I’ll be more aggressive, I’ll take more of the game into my own hands. But that’s not what I need to do right now, so it is what it is.”
His current role in the offense is to make his shots when given chances. As previously mentioned, the success rate beyond the arc leaves much to be desired. To him, it has nothing to do with mechanics.
Richardson told Basketball Insiders that it’s strictly a “rhythm thing” and he’s been feeling great during practices. He’s even told his coaches that it’s only a matter of time before he reels off a great stretch from distance. Maybe the trio of threes he hit against the Cavaliers was the start of it.
If there’s anybody that believes in him as much as he does in himself, it’s David Fizdale. The two shared a tight-knit relationship in his final year as an assistant in Miami, which coincided with Richardson’s first season as a pro.
Monday night, it was announced that the Memphis Grizzlies shockingly relieved Fizdale of his duties as head coach of the team after a 7-12 start, plagued by injuries to Mike Conley and other key pieces.
“It’s tough man,” Richardson said. “I don’t think he deserved that. I don’t think he was given enough of a chance with one of their best players being out for so long, so of course it’s gonna be tough to win as many games as you want.
“But I mean Fiz—I was one of the closest to him my rookie year. My pre-draft workout in Miami, we talked for like 35 minutes the first time we ever met. He encouraged me a lot. He told me I had a great chance to be in this league. He had seen me play and the first day I got drafted here, I texted him. I was like, ‘I’m on the plane. I can’t believe it. Let’s get in the gym tomorrow.’
“Fiz is one of my closest friends and coaches, one of my guys, so I’m praying that he lands well.”
Richardson was then poised to send out a message to his former coach.
“…Come back,” he told Basketball Insiders laughing before giving words of encouragement. “Just keep your head up. He’s a great coach. He’s a genius, very smart coach. Anybody would be lucky to have him. So keep his head up and stay ready.”
Miami took one on the chin in Northeast Ohio and will look to regroup with a victory against the Knicks in New York on the second night of a back-to-back. They’re 10-10 and have their sights set on being in the playoff picture.
Thanks to stellar leadership from everybody on the team and especially Spoelstra, the HEAT were within one game of the postseason in the 2016-17 campaign despite going 11-30 in the first half of the year.
This time around, it’s on the players to reciprocate it to their head coach, and Richardson believes they will.
“I think we owe it to [Spoelstra], ourselves, how much work we put in, to the fans—I think we deserve to put ourselves in that position to at least get in there,” Richardson said. “I think we’re doing a decent job right now. We can always get better, so as the year goes on I think we’ll keep figuring it out.”
NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC
Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.
There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.
The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.
For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.
Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.
“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”
Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.
This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.
“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”
This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.
But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.
“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”
In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.
However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.
They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.
“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.