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LA Clippers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The LA Clippers had the dream off-season landing not only Kawhi Leonard but also Paul George. If both are healthy, could the Clippers be the favorite in the West? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the LA Clippers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Los Angeles Clippers exceeded expectations last season and pushed the Golden State Warriors to a Game 6 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The Clippers had high hopes entering the 2019 offseason, aiming to land two top-tier stars, with Kawhi Leonard as the top priority. While it seemed as though the Clippers had been edged out in the race for Leonard by the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers, it was the Clippers who secured Leonard’s services by trading a valuable haul of players and assets in exchange for star forward Paul George. The Clippers now enter the 2019-20 NBA season as one of a handful of top-tier title contenders. Oh how times have changed.

Let’s take at a look at the Los Angeles Clippers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Clippers are the clear favorites out west. They have three top-five wing defenders. Let that sink in – three of the league’s five best wing defenders are on the Clippers. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the defensive abilities of Moe Harkless, Montrezl Harrell, Mfiondu Kabengele and others. Further, they have incredible offensive versatility – most notably from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but there’s also Lou Williams for opponents to worry about. It’s hard to imagine the Clippers finishing with less than 55 wins, and their ceiling is obviously far higher – especially considering Doc Rivers is in charge of setting the tone and motivating the club to perform.
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1st Place – Pacific Division

-Drew Maresca

To say the Clippers had a winning offseason would be a major understatement. They had perhaps the best summer out of any team in the league. Not only did they land arguably the marquee free agent in Kawhi Leonard, but they managed to pull off a trade for Paul George, whom nobody assumed was even on the market. And to top it off, they didn’t really have to give up much of the already established core. Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are all still there. They went from being a fun team to watch who gave the Golden State Warriors all they could handle in the first round, to being a championship contender. The only real question mark is the center position, but they have a promising young big man in Ivica Zubac. This team is primed for a championship run, something that seems unreal when talking about the Clippers. Steve Ballmer and the front office have put their money where their mouths are and have proven they’re serious about bringing a title to the Clippers franchise. They should be considered the preseason favorite to come out of the West.

1st Place – Pacific Division.

– David Yapkowitz

Who isn’t excited for this new, exciting rivalry in Hollywood? Already with momentum from a highly successful year and first-round series in the postseason, the Clippers landed the two big fish of the 2019 free agent class in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. We don’t need to tell you what those two can do individually, but together in the prime of their careers? That is going to be a tandem for the ages. Perhaps even more impressive is that when that duo is sitting, another one-two punch awaits in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. LA’s second unit did the brunt of its damage last year. With shooting and defense – Patrick Beverley’s tenacity being the tone-setter – from top to bottom on this roster, there’s no reason to see that slowing down. Doc Rivers hasn’t had talent like this since his days in Boston, which is ironically where he won his last NBA Championship. Could history repeat itself over a decade later?

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The Los Angeles Clippers are the winners of the 2019 offseason. Many will argue that the team gave up too many talented players and draft assets in the Paul George trade, but failing to do so could have been disastrous. If the Clippers failed to land George, Leonard could have moved on and re-signed with the Toronto Raptors or, even worse, the Los Angeles Lakers. With the options of either making the deal and landing Leonard and George, or failing to make the deal and allowing Leonard to create a Big-Three with LeBron James and Anthony Davis across the hall with the Lakers, the Clippers seemingly had to go all in. In doing so, the Clippers now have a deep roster led by two star forwards and a championship window of at least two seasons. Injuries could derail the Clippers’ upcoming season, but the team will likely be extremely careful in managing its star players’ respective health situations. Buckle up for what should be the most exciting season in Clippers’ franchise history.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Clippers may have won the off-season with the landing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while being able to keep most of the core that got to the playoffs last year. The problem with buying the Clippers hype is that George had both shoulders operated on and Leonard still does not seem like his leg is right. If both are hobbled with injuries then all of this was for nothing in a Western Conference loaded with would-be contenders. If both players get back to looking like the MVP vote-getters they were last year, then the Clippers could be scary good because of their depth and star power.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Clippers invested heavily over the summer, acquiring two stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while giving additional deals to Ivica Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Rodney McGruder. The team will probably hover right below the NBA’s 132.6 million luxury tax line, and while they have no other spending tools to add free agents above minimum salaries, Los Angeles could look to make midseason trades to bolster the roster as needed.

Given that Maurice Harkless is making just over $11 million in the final year of his contract, he could become important salary ballast if the team can find a deal. Montrezl Harrell will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he plays as well as he did last year, he’ll be the team’s top priority in July.

Before November, the Clippers need to pick up team options on Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

It’s tough to not go with Kawhi Leonard here, especially considering he was a one-man offensive force throughout the 2018-19 postseason. But Paul George was a legitimate MVP candidate throughout most of last season and was particularly effective on offense. George posted 28 points and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three-point range.

George is arguably a more polished playmaker and can effectively lead an offense as a point forward for long stretches. Both players can do it all on offense, but George is a bit more fluid with the ball in his hands, has better vision as a playmaker and his efficient high-volume shooting from distance sets him apart from Leonard. Leonard is the better overall player, but George is arguably a bit more advanced overall offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard and George are top-tier perimeter defenders but Leonard, when healthy and motivated, is arguably the best defensive wing-defender in the league. Leonard can lock down an opposing star guard or forward, is an intelligent team-defender, has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and, at times, can be an effective weak side rim defender. Leonard isn’t quite the defender he was earlier in his career due to the leg injury that caused him to miss nearly the entire 2017-18 season and 22 games last season (load management).

Leonard insists he is healthier than he has been in some time and will not need aggressive load management this upcoming season. If Leonard is closer to full strength than he has been in the last few seasons, we could see an uptick in his defensive impact this upcoming season. This is especially true considering that George can pick up some of Leonard’s responsibilities on offense and the Clippers have a deep team that can fill in for Leonard and keep his minutes in check.

Top Playmaker: Lou Williams

A strong case can be made that this designation should go to Paul George but he gets plenty of praise throughout this preview and Williams has a strong case to make as well, so we are going with Williams on this one. Many may think that Williams is just a high-end chucker coming off the bench for the Clippers, but that sells Williams short.

First, Williams averaged more assists per game (5.4) last season than George (4.1) and Leonard (3.3) in less minutes per game (26.6) and dished out 7.3 assists per 36 minutes last season. Second, Williams forms a devastating pick-and-roll game with Montrezl Harrell and is able to either score out of this set, drop easy dimes to Harrell or find open shooters consistently. Third, Williams is such an explosive offensive player and reliable shooter that the attention he draws in isolation often creates breathing room for teammates. With all of this in mind, we are confident in giving Williams the nod for top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

Paul George has proven himself to be a clutch player throughout his career, but Leonard set himself apart during the 2018-19 postseason.

Despite being labeled a system player early in his career, Leonard has established himself as an elite offensive force and is now able to get almost any shot he wants in isolation. Also, in case there’s any doubt, let’s recall Leonard’s series-winning jumper over Joel Embiid in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. If Leonard had not hit that extremely difficult shot, the Raptors could have been eliminated in the second round and been prevented from winning its first NBA championship.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Beverley

On most nights, Patrick Beverley will probably be matched up against a point guard that is widely considered to be a better overall player. But here’s the thing – on this particular Clippers team, Beverley is arguably the perfect fit at starting point guard. Beverley is one of the most aggressive and effective defensive point guards in the league, is able to play off the ball and has developed into a very reliable shooter.

With George and Leonard needing the ball in their hands often, Beverley will have plenty of opportunities to work off the ball and spread the floor with his shooting. Additionally, Beverley has set the tone on defense for the Clippers in the past and is now teamed up with two of the best overall wing defenders in the league. The Clippers have the chance to be an elite defensive team this upcoming season, and Beverley will be an integral part of that dynamic, though he’s unlikely to get the kind of credit George and Leonard will.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard just led the Toronto Raptors to its first NBA Championship, earned the Finals MVP award and was the most coveted free agent this offseason. In any other offseason, George would have likely been the best new addition for the Clippers or likely any other team. But in this case, George was the lure to get Leonard on board. Leonard is arguably the best overall player in the NBA, and even his harshest critics wouldn’t list him outside of the top four.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Doc Rivers and the Front Office

There is plenty of praise for George and Leonard throughout this preview, so we will use this section to highlight some of the other Clippers we like. Let’s start with head coach Doc Rivers and the team’s collective front office. Rivers had his team playing at a high level last season and made some noise in the first round despite not having a single star player. Additionally, in a column by Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times, Rivers stated that during the team’s meeting with Leonard, Kawhi told Rivers, “I want to play for you.”

Rivers credits the entire front office and Lawrence Frank in particular for putting in the work throughout the last year to be in a strong position to convince Leonard to sign with the Clippers. The Clippers’ front office has made smart, disciplined moves throughout the last few years to have had the trade assets to land George and the roster to convince Leonard he could win at the highest levels in LA.

2. Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell was a top candidate for last season’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, but was edged out by teammate and pick-and-roll partner Lou Williams. Last season, Harrell and Williams became the highest-scoring bench duo in NBA history. Harrell posted 16.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.3 blocks in just 26.3 minutes per game. The big man is well-equipped to be a high-energy force off the bench, especially when he is in a rhythm with Williams.

Harrell has developed into a dynamic pick-and-roll partner, aggressive finisher at the rim and underrated post player. Harrell is also aggressive on defense, but his lack of size does often put him at a disadvantage against some of the bigger post players in the league, like Joel Embiid. Harrell isn’t necessarily a liability on defense, but he isn’t a defensive anchor or elite rim protector either. Nevertheless, Harrell is a big-time contributor for the Clippers and will at times be the most impactful player on the court for LA this upcoming season, even with George and Leonard also on the court.

3. Landry Shamet

Remember how we mentioned that the Clippers’ front office has been making smart, disciplined trades over the last few seasons? One such example includes the Clippers trading Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanović and Mike Scott to the Philadelphia 76ers last season in exchange for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet – as well as Philadelphia’s own protected 2020 first-round pick, the Miami HEAT’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick and the Detroit Pistons’ 2021 and 2023 second-round picks. The Clippers used some of these acquired assets in subsequent deals, such as the trade for Paul George. LA also flipped Muscala for starting center Ivica Zubac.

Shamet turned out to be a nice prize in this deal as well. Shamet quickly earned the starting shooting guard position and established himself as a knock down shooter from distance (45 percent on six three-point attempts per game). Shamet is a bit undersized to guard some of the more physical shooting guards in the league, but is an overall effective defensive guard and was unexpectedly effective guarding Stephen Curry in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs.

At just 22 years old, Shamet is well-equipped to fill the role that JJ Redick played so well for several seasons with the Clippers. Shamet is skilled at coming off of screens and getting three-pointers off quickly. He is also skilled as a secondary playmaker off the dribble. With George and Leonard now in the starting lineup with him, Shamet should be able to get cleaner looks more consistently and may have more room to operate off the dribble when teams overload their defensive attention on George and Leonard.

4. JaMychal Green

JaMychal Green has a strong case for the unheralded player designation as well, but we gave that to Patrick Beverley, so we will highlight Green here. Green is a versatile forward who can play both as a power forward and as a small-ball center who can stretch the floor. This is a particularly important role for the Clippers this upcoming season since it’s unclear whether Zubac can matchup against lethal three-point shooting teams like the Houston Rockets.

Doc Rivers went away from Zubac in the 2018-19 playoffs against the Golden State Warriors and turned to Green as an alternative option. Green filled in admirably, knocking down big shots against the Warriors and effectively guarding in space and at the rim as the team’s small-ball center. Additionally, Green will have to fill in and play more minutes throughout the season whenever George and Leonard are resting or injured. Don’t be surprised if Green ends up playing a big role for the Clippers this upcoming season, especially in the postseason.

– Jesse Blancarte

STRENGTHS

Defense and depth. With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley all in the starting lineup, the Clippers have the talent to be an elite defensive team. Ivica Zubac will need to improve as a defensive anchor and rim protector at the center position, but there is reason to believe he has the tools to make that leap this upcoming season. Moreover, the Clippers have few, if any, players in the rotation who can be considered defensive liabilities outside of Lou Williams. When the game matters most, opposing teams are going to find it difficult to get a clutch bucket against this team.

Additionally, the Clippers have exceptional depth. Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, Rodney McGruder, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Montrezl Harrell, Mo Harkless, Patrick Patterson, Iviza Zubac and JaMychal Green are all established players who can play at least 14 minutes of quality ball each night. The Clippers also have young, talented players who could develop into reliable rotation players as early as this season, including Jerome Robinson, Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Injuries.

Paul George may miss the beginning of the upcoming season after undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders earlier this year. Kawhi Leonard missed most of the 2017-18 season and 22 regular-season games last season, in part, because of the injury issues related to his right quad. Patrick Beverley missed most of the 2017-18 season due to a knee injury that required microfracture surgery (though Beverley notably played in 78 regular-season games last season). Landry Shamet has had foot issues in the past, which required surgery as well.

Any significant injuries to either George or Leonard will knock the Clippers down from a title favorite to legitimate title contenders, though the same can essentially be said for any team if one of their respective star players goes down with an injury. Fortunately for the Clippers, the team has depth at every position and can use that depth to manage the minutes for the team’s top players.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Clippers effectively integrate Leonard and George into the team’s existing structure and win it all this season?

The Clippers pushed their chips into the middle of the table and went all in to win championships as early as this upcoming season. LA is banking on Leonard and George turning into one of, if not the most devastating star duo in the league. Leonard and George’s respective skill sets overlap in significant ways, but both stars have demonstrated an ability to play with other star players in the past. Both players also face injury issues that will be closely monitored by the Clippers’ medical and training staff throughout the upcoming season.

Having said all of that, the Clippers have the coaching, talent, depth, experience and star power to win the title this upcoming season. Other teams will push the Clippers and will stand in their way, but there is plenty of reason to believe the Clippers are the favorites to win it all this upcoming season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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