Despite not being projected as a top western conference team, the Los Angeles Lakers will garner much attention next season. Want proof? The Lakers are set to make a combined 35 national television appearances next season with only four teams having more appearances. The team is coming off a 26-56 season in which they were nearly the worst team in the league. However, with a few key roster changes, next year looks to be a key building year as the franchise continues to develop and position itself for future success.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Magic Johnson promised to restore the Los Angeles Lakers to their glory days when he was hired as the team’s president of basketball operations.
So far, the Hall of Famer has been slapped with tampering charges from the NBA in reference to the Lakers contact with Paul George, and has drafted a point guard with a father who seems hell-bent on dominating the news headlines.
However, Magic has positioned the Lakers to return to the good ol’ days following another lackluster season. Despite the talent of Lonzo Ball, a 19-year-old point guard will still more than likely struggle to win his team games. What he will do, though, is showcase his talent and playmaking ability for free agents when Los Angeles enters next summer with deep pockets. (Paul George already seems interested, how about you, LeBron?)
With Ball handling the rock, Brandon Ingram entering year two, and new management across the board, brighter days are ahead for the Hollywood franchise. They just need to get past next season’s below-average results.
4th place — Pacific Division
– Dennis Chambers
Amazingly, it seems that the Lakers and their fortunes have changed overnight. Lonzo Ball is entering the league with some heavy expectations, while Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have combined to give the front office an aura of respectability that has been missing for quite some time.
For the Lakers, though, the coming season is likely to be a long one. Aside from Ball, the acquisitions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez should help the team improve upon the 26 wins they clocked last season, but at the end of the day, the playoffs are an at-best and perhaps unrealistic goal.
Still, things appear to be headed in the right direction, so for Lakers fans, this coming season may be the last in the cellar—especially if the team is able to actually secure the services of LeBron James next summer.
I think the Suns are probably a notch below at this point, and the Kings have a respectable cast of characters, as well. The only two teams in the division that I can say are better off are the Clippers and Warriors, so a division-finish as high as third for the Lakers wouldn’t surprise me, especially with Luke Walton at the helm.
3rd Place — Pacific Division
— Moke Hamilton
With rumors already swirling loudly about their potential 2018 summer free agency pursuits, there are a few factors up for debate in Los Angeles this year. Do young guys like Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle remain building blocks for the future, or are they considered as pieces to help move salary and open up space for big names next summer? Does newly-acquired Brook Lopez play a legitimate on-court role, or was he mostly salary fodder to move on from Timo Mozgov’s contract? Just about the only thing we know for sure for this team on the court this season: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are going to get a lot of chances to show their potential and learn on the fly. How many wins the Lakers reach may ultimately depend on the larger direction management takes, but until starrier names sign on the dotted line next summer, these kids are the future. The Lakers should compete with the Suns for the bottom seed in the Pacific.
4th place — Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
To say anything less than, “The Los Angeles Lakers will win the 2017 NBA championship” is to draw the ire of Lakers fans worldwide, but here we go anyway: The Los Angeles Lakers will not win the 2017 NBA championship. In fact, they won’t even make the playoffs next spring. Lonzo Ball has been a lot of “fun” so far, but the core of this organization is still incredibly young, all of which is a good reminder that this season is, more than anything, a test run for the imminent arrival of max free agents next summer, as Magic attempts to turn Hollywood into a desirable free agency destination once again. There is plenty to love about this team as constructed, but the kids are still young and it probably will be quite a circus this season. With potentially bigger talent joining this group down the road, however, this circus could just be getting started.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
The Los Angeles Lakers had an interesting offseason. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelina traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov in exchange for Brook Lopez and the rights to the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (Kyle Kuzma). Trading Russell was the price of the last front office regime signing Mozgov to a deal that was considered an albatross from the moment it was agreed to. However, Russell was a divisive figure in the Lakers’ locker room and now the team can build around their new talented point guard of the future — Lonzo Ball. Ball has prodigious passing and playmaking talent and will likely make a positive impact early on in the season. This is a developmental season for the Lakers, so making the playoffs should not be the priority. Players like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. neeed to take another positive step forward in their respective development as the Lakers will be looking to attract the biggest free agents next offseason.
3rd Place — Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player – Brook Lopez
Three of the top five offensive players from last season (Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young) no longer hold a spot on this year’s roster. Brook Lopez was brought in via trade when the Lakers unloaded Timofey Mozgov’s contract, which required moving Russell. Lopez has averaged over 20 points a game the last two seasons (20.5 and 20.6) and has been accustomed to being the focal point of the offense for some time with the Nets. Expect Lopez to continue flexing his muscle down low as one the league’s true centers capable of effectively scoring in the post, as well as stretching the floor with his three-point shooting. Doing so will do wonders for a Lakers offense that often lacked proper spacing in recent seasons. Although his time with the Lakers may be brief (Lopez is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season), expect the Lakers to lean on Lopez for consistent offensive production.
Top Defensive Player – Brook Lopez
The Lakers have a lot of young talent, but they don’t necessarily have a lockdown defender on the roster. Though he isn’t known as a top defensive center, Lopez is capable of providing solid rim protection and making opponents think twice about driving into the lane. With a player of Lopez’s size and intelligence anchoring the defense, look for the Lakers to utilize small ball line-ups around him to funnel drives to Lopez, who blocked 1.6 blocks per game last season (8th in the league). However, it’s worth remembering that the Lakers are coming off a year in which they ranked 30th of 30 teams on defense. With that in mind, don’t expect a huge leap forward on this end of the court this season.
Top Playmaker – Lonzo Ball
Lonzo Ball is one of the most talked about rookie in years. With no shortage of hype, the basketball world will be watching to see if his play on the court can match the hype. Despite this and the pressure of playing for the Lakers, Ball has a chance as the starting point guard to use his pinpoint passing and excellent court vision to quickly become the Lakers’ top playmaker. How well Ball physically holds up to the rigors of his first NBA season will determine how effective he can be in this role this season. True rookies, even with ample playing time, don’t often make great contributions in their inaugural season. Expect Ball to be the exception.
Top Clutch Player – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The absence of Lou Williams and, to a lesser extent, D’Angelo Russell hurts in this category. With Williams, Russell and Young off the team, look for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to try and fill the shoes here. KCP is on a one-year deal and will want to make the most of his season with the Lakers, so look for him to be aggressive, especially on offense. With a good free throw percentage (83.2), three-point percentage (35.0) and improved ability to move the ball (career high 2.5 assists last season), expect the Lakers to trust KCP in high-pressure late game situations. Brandon Ingram could also step into this role potentially. However, Ingram’s shooting and ability to generate separation from his defenders consistently will need to improve for this to happen.
The Unheralded Player – Julius Randle
Entering his fourth year, forward Julius Randle continues to improve and has the opportunity to make huge strides this season. Randle is in great shape and wanted the league to take notice of his offseason workouts. Randle has already demonstrated that he is capable of doing serious damage offensively near the rim and in transition. He also shown that he has the strength to be physical with bigger, more experience players on both ends of the court. Also, as mentioned above, the improved spacing provided by Lopez and the emphasis on passing, through the addition of Ball and Coach Luke Walton’s offense, should benefit Randle greatly. Randle stands to improve as a shooter, which would open up his game even more. Time will tell how far Randle has developed in that department. Expect Randle to turn the corner this season and show that he is worth investing in as a long-term piece for this Lakers team.
Best New Addition – Lonzo Ball
While Lopez will likely make the biggest impact immediately, Ball is the key addition to the franchise. With him, the team has a foundational piece to build around and grow alongside the team’s other young players. In addition, Ball’s ability, willingness and desire to make those around him better through his passing and playmaking abilities will endear him to teammates and fans alike.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the perfect kind of signing for the Lakers. He is on a one-year contract, which provides the Lakers with flexibility when they have the chance to potentially sign big name players (e.g., Paul George) next offseason. KCP brings outside shooting, an emerging ability to run the pick and roll and defensive impact and consistency. Don’t be surprised if KCP puts in maximum effort this season and hits a new gear considering he is looking for the long-term contract that eluded him this offseason.
2. Lakers Management
President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka deserve credit. Their front office has managed a team with a promising core and supplemented that with expiring contracts and loads of cap space. The signings of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng were disastrous, but they happened under the last regime and unloading Mozgov’s salary should pay off somewhat quickly, despite the loss of Russell. After making some savvy moves, the pair is positioned to make some serious acquisitions next offseason, which could catapult the Lakers back into contention for the first time in years. If the team strikes out, look for Lakers management to continue investing in and bolstering the young core of talent while maintaining long term cap flexibility.
3. Brook Lopez
As explained above, Lopez should quickly become an anchor for this team on both ends of the court. He may not be a perfect fit in the small-ball era of the NBA, but Lopez is still a very productive player. His ability to knock down three-pointers is a nice bonus that should pay off in a significant way – especially if Coach Walton can find creative ways to utilize it within the team’s offense.
4. Luke Walton
Remember the remarkable streak of success that Coach Walton experienced when manning the helm for the Golden State Warriors during their record breaking season in 2015-16? It certainly feels like a long time ago. Despite the fact that the Lakers went 26-56 last season, Walton immediately brought a new sense of cohesion to the Lakers. Walton is a player’s coach and quickly worked to establish a bond and sense of trust between himself and his players. The team is young and played inconsistently last season, but the positive change in culture was apparent. Coach Walton also continues to implement a modern offense, which has helped bring the Lakers into the modern era of NBA basketball. If the Lakers win more games than they are projected to this season, Walton’s coaching will likely be a big reason why.
– James Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Lakers have been clear that their primary goal is to open two maximum-salary slots in the summer of 2018. While they’re not quite there yet, moving off the contract of Jordan Clarkson via trade, letting Julius Randle walk as an unrestricted free agent and stretching the final two years of Luol Deng’s contract would put the Lakers at roughly $70 million in space next year (with a $102 million cap projection). Trading Deng could help the Lakers keep one of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez, Clarkson or Randle, while still maintaining room for two max players.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are expected to use their $4.3 million Room Exception before the season on forward Shabazz Muhammad. Once completed, Los Angeles will have 15 players under guaranteed contract, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Vander Blue, Briante Weber, Stephen Zimmerman and V.J. Beachem. The Lakers do not have a first-round pick next June. Per the Stepien Rule, the Lakers cannot trade their 2019 first until after the 2018 NBA Draft.
– Eric Pincus
Youth, financial flexibility and perspective. The Lakers have one of the best cores of young talent in the NBA. Developing these foundational players is what matters most for this team, especially considering how much financial flexibility the team will likely have next offseason. The Lakers understand that they aren’t going to win a championship this season and could even miss the playoffs again. However, if their core players all show great improvement and signs of being future stars, the team could make a serious pitch to big time free agents next summer. Keeping this perspective in mind will help the team overcome the crushing weight of expectations in L.A. and will help to keep their collective eye on what matters most moving forward.
– James Blancarte
Defense. The Lakers ranked dead last in defense last season. Despite adding Lopez, the team will continue to rely on a number of young, developing players, which doesn’t bode well on this end of the court. Expect the team defense to move up a few spots with Lopez manning the middle, but not by much.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Should Lakers fans have realistic hope that the team can be competitive enough to make the playoffs?
In short, they should not. Despite all of the positives mentioned above, the Lakers youthful core is too inexperienced to be truly competitive. The western conference is as strong as ever and the Lakers simply don’t have the veteran talent, depth or experience to be a serious playoff contender next season.
– James Blancarte
NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts
Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.
It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.
We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.
“Defense? What’s that?”
Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.
It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.
Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high
Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good
There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.
In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.
In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.
Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.
What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.
Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions
Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.
Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:
- An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
- One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
- A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
- A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)
Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.
Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.
About That Last Spot In The West
Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.
Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.
The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.
It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.
After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.
Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.
What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?
NBA Daily: With Thibodeau In Town, What’s Next for Knicks?
The New York Knicks reached an agreement to make Tom Thibodeau their new head coach. Drew Maresca examines what’s next for the Knicks and coach Thibodeau.
The New York Knicks have hit the reset button a number of times since 2010, when then-general manager Donnie Walsh and former head coach Mike D’Antoni attempted to lure LeBron James to Broadway. Since then, they’ve had numerous leadership changes and, more pressingly, six head coaches (Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and Mike Miller). Well, let’s make that seven. The Knicks announced this week that they’ve arrived at a five-year agreement with the 2011 Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau is a polarizing figure, with supporters believing he’s a savior and cynics feeling he suboptimal at talent development and guilty of running players ragged. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing at all for the Knicks.
Thibodeau is a career basketball guy that is familiar with the bright lights of New York. He was brought in as a Knicks assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy, where he remained on hand for most of Don Chaney’s tenure, too. But that’s not all. Thibodeau started out as an assistant coach under Bill Musselman in Minnesota. He was also an assistant for John Lucas in San Antonio and Philadelphia, and he joined Doc Rivers in Boston as an associate head coach for three seasons.
He ascended to the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11, where he remained for five seasons. In addition to winning a Coach of the Year in his first season as head coach (2010-11), he also coached a league MVP (Derrick Rose, 2010-11) and a Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah, 2013-14). He also won 64.7 percent of regular-season games and his team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11; like the Jeff Van Gundy-led Knicks teams he was a part of earlier in his career, Thibodeau’s Bulls teams probably would have won at least one championship if it weren’t for their overlapping with LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.
Thibodeau left Chicago before the 2016-17 season to take over as president of basketball operations and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But as coaches often do, Thibodeau struggled to strike a balance between maintaining flexibility for the future and adding talent for the present. But most of his failures in Minnesota were front office-related, and he is still revered by many of his former players including Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. Van Gundy also remains a big Thibodeau fan.
“This idea that Tom (Thibodeau) doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach,” Van Gundy said on a recent ESPN NBA restart conference call.
But what does Thibodeau do for New York? Most importantly, he legitimizes New York basketball. Thibodeau is widely viewed as a basketball savant. But lots of great coaches and executives have come in New York with promises of resetting the culture and turning the team around. Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson and David Fizdale all tried and failed, as did Phil Jackson (as team president). Can Thibodeau succeed where so many other greats have failed? Maybe. Eventually, someone has to get it right – why not Thibodeau? To do so, Thibodeau must prepare to succeed in the following five areas.
Selecting The Staff
Rumors have swirled about who might join Thibodeau on New York’s bench. Generally speaking, assistant coaches don’t move the needle with regards to national news — but this is New York, the proverbial lightning rod of the NBA.
There is a legitimate reason to get excited about the Knicks’ new coach, though. Team president Leon Rose and Thibodeau allegedly agree on the front office’s involvement in fleshing out the coaching staff, and there is major internal support for a return of former head (and assistant) coach Mike Woodson. There are also rumors about Mike Miller, interim coach, being retained. Woodson is viewed, like Thibodeau, as a defensive specialist, and Miller won serious brownie points as a result of his record relative to his predecessor and his ability to connect with the roster.
Other candidates could include former Thibodeau assistants like Andy Greer, Ed Pinckney and Jerry Sichting.
Getting Familiar With The Roster
First of all, it’s not as though Thibodeau isn’t already extremely versed in the Knicks’ strengths and weaknesses. He was rumored to be pouring over film last weekend before receiving word that an agreement had been reached. And that’s nothing new to Thibodeau, who allegedly stayed up as late as 4 A.M. watching film with coach Mike Krzyzewski in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.
But reviewing film and understanding players’ limitations are worlds apart. The idea of his overseeing the team in a second bubble for the eight teams who failed to qualify for the NBA’s 2019-20 restart would be alluring. But despite the early success of NBA’s Orlando bubble, it’s unlikely they risk the potential negative PR that would coincide with positive tests for eight worst teams in the league.
But a full-on bubble might not be the only way for Thibodeau to begin coaching before the offseason. According to the Charlotte Observer, the NBA and NBPA are expected to come to an agreement that would enable the eight teams who are excluded from the season’s return to begin workouts soon. In fact, individual workouts with coaches could begin as soon as early August, meaning that all that stands between Thibodeau and his soon-to-be players is a formal announcement.
Develop The Young Core
Thibodeau’s effect on the younger guys has been a polarizing topic of late. Many believe he’ll demand too much of them, hurting their confidence and diminishing future returns by leaning too heavily on them. Ironically, former coach David Fizdale was criticized for playing the team’s young core for too few minutes. But that sentiment is not echoed amongst coaches around the league. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns head coach and former New York Knicks first-round pick, feels that he’ll have a positive effect.
“I kind of laugh at all these people that say he can’t develop younger players and that he just wears his teams out,” Williams, who worked with Thibodeau on Team USA for a number of years, said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Look at the success with his programs and his teams and the results bear witness. You talk to guys who played for Thibs, they love him.”
While Thibodeau’s effect will probably vary player-to-player, he will almost certainly favor two very important young guys – Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina.
Robinson, who averaged only 20.6 minutes per game as a rookie and only 23.1 in 2019-20, will certainly see more playing time under Thibodeau, who is notorious for playing his best heavy minutes; Noah averaged at least 30.4 minutes per game while playing for Thibodeau in Chicago and he topped out at just over 36 MPG.
But Robinson’s abilities are impossible to ignore, so fans and analysts alike have been mystified by his lack of playing time – although some of that can be chalked up to his propensity to foul and play defense with his hands once out of position. However, Robison set the single-season record for field goal percentage in 2019-20 (74.2 percent) and he averaged 3.6 blocks per-36 minutes over his two-year career. He closes out on three-point shooters better than just about anyone in the game today, and he’s a nightmare to defend in the screen-and-roll. He will almost certainly become one of Thibodeau’s favorite players — and that doesn’t even take into consideration his improved ball-handling that’s been on display via his Instagram account.
Ntilikina has a less impressive resume but has almost as much potential as Robinson. Thibodeau hasn’t had many guards like Ntilikina; in fact, there aren’t many guards like the Frenchman around, period. The 6-foot-4 point guard is a pass-first guard whose defensive presence is incredibly impressive. He boasts a 7-foot-1 wingspan and is absolutely fearless on the defensive end of the floor. He needs to play more confidently and consistently on offense, but he’s demonstrated serious improvements there, too; Ntilikina shot a career-high 32.1 percent on three-point attempts this season, while also posting career highs in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) and points (6.0).
Like Robinson, Ntilikina suffered from inconsistent playing time, receiving only 20.8 minutes per game in 2019-20. But that too could change, especially considering his humble attitude and approach.
But Ntilikina is almost too gifted and smart to fail. His closest comparison — granted it’s a favorable one — is probably Marcus Smart. Smart showed serious improvements this season, but Thibodeau was already enamored with his skillset in 2018, when he gushed over him in a pre-game press conference.
“He’s tough, he guards people, he’ll get to a loose ball and hit the floor,’ Thibodeau said. “He’ll get to an offensive rebound, he allows them to do a lot of switching, he’ll guard big guys, small guys, doesn’t matter.”
Hopefully, Thibodeau is equally impressed with Ntilikina – in which case, the Ntilikina-hive can look forward to serious improvements.
The 2020 NBA Draft
This one’s the easiest since it’s more reactive for Thibodeau than anything else. The Knicks are in desperate need of talent at a number of positions. Fortunately, the Knicks finished with the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Assuming they don’t move in the lottery, they’ll pick behind the likes of the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully, most teams above them have a point guard. In fact, the only team slotted ahead of them who hasn’t drafted one (or more) point guards in recent drafts or doesn’t already possess a franchise point guard is the Detroit Pistons.
Sadly, the 2020 NBA Draft appears to lack a generational talent like Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson. And with NBA franchises inevitably facing fiscal pressure from COVID-19, most teams will be open to the idea of moving back to a lower-profile draft slot. But the Knicks don’t have the same monetary struggles as most teams. This could be their best shot at moving up to secure LeMelo Ball, who is reportedly number one on their draft board.
Does Ball mesh with Thibodeau? Who knows. But generally, Thibodeau is not overly welcoming of rookies – namely, he doesn’t play them much. In his career as a head coach, he’s played his rookies: 12.1 minutes per game (Omer Asik), 8.5 MPG (Jimmy Butler), 8.2 (Marquis Teague), 16 (Tony Snell), 20.2 (Nikola Mirotic), 17.1 (Kris Dunn), 4.0 (Justin Patton) and 16.8 (Keita Bates-Diop).
But while his track record pertaining to playing rookies isn’t great, he’s had solid alternatives in both Chicago and Minnesota. There won’t be as many in New York. So while he might not love the idea of leaning on rookies, he might not have a choice, either.
Luring Productive Veterans
Lastly, Thibodeau will be a major part of recruiting pitches to star free agents. Now, attracting a star player shouldn’t dictate who is selected as a team’s head coach – and the Knicks finally got this right. They could have gone with Jason Kidd in hopes of attracting his former player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But they instead went with the more established and respected candidate in Thibodeau.
While Thibodeau has much to prove as Knicks head coach, he, too, has in-roads with numerous star players. Remember, Thibodeau was close to a number of stars as an assistant coach for the 2016 Olympic team. The team’s main roster featured very few soon-to-be free agents – but fear not Knicks fans, the broader talent pool included Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal.
That’s not to say that any of them are likely to join the Knicks – but all of them have recently been connected to New York in some way, shape or form. Thibodeau would obviously love to add any of those stars to a roster in need of star power, but beyond trading for Paul – which might not be an option depending on how Oklahoma City performs in the 2020 NBA Playoffs – these are all unlikely to happen in 2020. Davis looks like a sure thing to re-sign with the Lakers, Beal is signed through 2023 and would have to request a trade as he is signed through at least 2024 (with a player option for 2024-25).
But Oladipo is possible as he’ll enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. The Pacers could try to move him rather than losing him for nothing if he’s deemed to be a flight risk. Would the Knicks be able to build a package strong enough to garner consideration? Would the Maryland native verbalize a desire to come to New York? There are too many unknowns to posit a guess, but odds that the Knicks secure a star free agent are better now than they were before adding Thibodeau as head coach.
Knicks fans are a notoriously an impatient bunch. Unfortunately for them, it will be a long climb back into contention. But there are positives: The roster isn’t inundated with bloated salaries and stars who are past their prime, instead featuring a good deal of youth and flexibility.
That’s a good start – but from here, it’s on Thibodeau, Leon Rose and company. Hopefully, they picked the right guy.
NBA Daily: LeBron James; Anthony Davis Resume Mantle as NBA’s Best Duo
David Yapkowitz revisits a thrilling first night back in the NBA, all thanks to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
It’s been about four months since the Los Angeles Lakers last took the court. The team was sitting in first place in the Western Conference and ready to use the second half of the season to prep for what they hoped would be a championship run when the NBA halted all operations due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
After not knowing if the league would resume play at all this season, the Lakers returned to the court in the NBA’s restart against their crosstown rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.
All season long, the Lakers’ star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis looked like the best one-two punch in the league and, against the Clippers, they certainly picked up right where they left off.
With Avery Bradley deciding to opt-out of the restart and Rajon Rondo out six to eight weeks with a thumb injury, James took over as the starting point guard to do what he does best. He helped control the tempo of the game and allowed himself to act as a facilitator, getting his teammates easy scoring opportunities.
As the game progressed, James became more assertive offensively and had what would ultimately end up being the game-winner as he rebounded his own missed shot and tipped the ball in around Clipper defenders.
“I love having the ball in my hands late game when it’s a tie game, being up. For me, it’s just trying to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow from Marcus Morris, but they didn’t call it,” James said after the game. “Like you were told when you were a kid playing basketball if there’s no whistle you keep playing on. I was able to follow my own shot and put us up for good.”
James didn’t shoot particularly well, only 31.6 percent from the floor, but he did finish with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists. He also clamped up defensively on a couple of possessions against both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The long-time megastar has been one of the frontrunners for the Most Valuable Player Award this year and, in his 17th NBA season, he’s showed no signs of slowing down. He’s putting up 25.7 points on 49.8 percent shooting from the field, 7.9 rebounds and a career-high 10.6 assists. Already down two capable ball-handlers and playmakers in Bradley and Rondo, James is going to be shouldering a lot more of the on-ball duties.
Thankfully for him then, he’s got a good running mate in Davis.
Davis got the Lakers going and n command early with his energy around the rim and his size and quickness going against the Clippers’ bigs. He also spearheaded a comeback in the third quarter when the Clippers took a double-digit lead.
He finished the game with 34 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists and his aggressiveness was rewarded with 17 free-throw attempts. On the season, he’s putting up 26.7 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field, 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
But aside from his offensive output, one of the ways he’s been most valuable to the Lakers is defensive versatility. Davis is naturally a shot blocker and deterrent in the paint. But he also has the footspeed and discipline to match up with wings on the perimeter.
Against the Clippers, Davis started out guarding Leonard on the perimeter. He’s quite possibly the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. While he did pick up some early fouls, if he’s able to match up at times with either Leonard or George, that could bode incredibly well for the Lakers chances in a potential playoff series.
“We wanted to make sure we came out and executed on the offensive end,” Davis told reporters. “It felt like a real game to me, two teams battling. Obviously, it’s always a good game between us two teams. We knew they were going to make a run. They made their run and got up eleven, we just kept playing, picked it up defensively, and then we started making shots on the offensive end.”
Despite the win, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel still feels like this team has an extra gear they have not yet reached, a level of play that they displayed early in the season.
“To me, it feels like we have a long way to go to reach the habits we were playing with when we entered the hiatus,” Vogel mentioned Thursday. “Obviously we did enough to get the win, but we have a lot of work to do.”
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