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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 3 Picks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series by looking at who among the third overall picks since 2009 have been hits, misses and in-between.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series!

We’ve already gone over how the first and second overall pick have fared since 2009, so naturally, the next pick up is the third overall pick. Like with the first two, we categorize these players by if they are hits, misses, in the middle, or role players. We’ve also laid down the criteria for what defines a player as a “hit”.

On paper, if you had a choice between having the second overall pick and the third overall pick in the draft, you’d pick second, right? By doing simple math, it gives you higher odds of getting a franchise-changing talent, or it should. But, if you look at the history of the third overall picks and compare them to the second overall picks since 2009, you’ll see that the third overall pick has not only brought more star players into the league, but the quality of star players have been better from pick No. 3 than from No. 2.

That may sound like a hot take, but if you take a look at who falls under what category for those taken third and compare them to those taken second, you might see a difference.

The Hits

James Harden – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2009

When you’re one of the top candidates for MVP for five out of the last six years, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a hit. Harden’s game may not be too fun to watch for other fanbases, but there’s no denying that the man controls the game when he’s got the ball in his hands.

Harden is one of the very few players in the league that will find a way to score by the most ridiculous of means. He’s also one of the very few players who has to be watched every single second he is on the floor — because the second he gets any semblance of daylight, he is gone. Watching Harden take free throws can bore the mind, but a man who does everything to get points on the board deserves respect and should be appreciated.

Harden has done so much that there isn’t much left for him to prove. Well, except getting that one monkey off his back: winning a championship. Harden’s had his chances over the last several years, and they’ve slipped through his fingers. With the Golden State Warriors down for the count, and should this season resume, this is a golden chance for him to finally guide his team to the promised land. Harden has had some unremarkable playoff performances over the past few years. This is his chance to put that behind him.

Lastly, stop making fun of his defense. Harden has low-key become a stout defender since the Houston Rockets’ ceiling took another jump. If you’re still giving him grief over that, then you haven’t been watching.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards – 2012

John Wall recovering from two consecutive serious injuries has been the pits for the Washington Wizards, but at least there’s been an upside to all of it this season — Bradley Beal’s ascension, or better yet, further ascension: 30.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.5 rebounds are phenomenal numbers no matter what team you’re on. Wall being out obviously, and sadly, brings more downsides. Case in point — because the Wizards are a tick below average at best, it didn’t get Beal an All-Star nod.

We already knew Beal was a hit since pretty much the year he entered the league. What we didn’t know was just how good he could be. Again, the Wizards aren’t good, which can build up the argument that his numbers are a classic case of good stats/bad team syndrome. Whether it is or isn’t, Beal has at least proven that he’s more than just a sharpshooter.

The scoring abilities are impressive, but the playmaking abilities might be the most surprising wrinkle. Playing next to a floor general as good as Wall probably did prevent Beal from showing how good of a passer he is, but now that he’s running the show, he is putting up assist numbers we didn’t think he could. Not to mention he’s doing that with a worse crew than Wall had when the Wizards were an Eastern Conference powerhouse.

Beal was definitely worth the pick when Washington took him. We know from these last two seasons that he was a bigger hit than we could have dreamed of.

Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers – 2014

This writer already wrote about why Embiid’s a gem. Come on guys, who didn’t know that?

Instead of repeating what’s already been said, let’s go over a fun NBA what-if that no one seems to talk about: What if Joel Embiid hadn’t gotten hurt during his pre-draft workout? Before the 2014 draft, Embiid was believed to be the consensus number one pick. Suffering a stress fracture before the draft combined with his illustrious history of injuries scared teams away from taking Embiid.

But say that never happens. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the number one pick that year. Do they trade the pick plus Anthony Bennett for Kevin Love knowing that LeBron James was on his way back? If they do, how do the Minnesota Timberwolves fare with Embiid? How good would they have been with Embiid instead of Andrew Wiggins? More importantly, do they take Karl-Anthony Towns the next year if they still had the first pick in 2015?

Even crazier, what if the Milwaukee Bucks had taken Embiid? Granted that wasn’t going to happen since the team had extended Larry Sanders the year before, but imagine if it did! The combination of the Greek Freak and Embiid would be an amazing combo on paper, but how well it would work would depend on how Milwaukee would compensate for the porous floor spacing between the two.

Now as we all know, Embiid went to Philly and has embraced himself as the poster boy of “The Process.” Reminiscing on what could have been is pointless, but man it’s fun. The fact that the league’s outlook could be seismically different had he landed elsewhere only serves as more evidence of just how amazing Embiid is.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics – 2016

The Celtics were heavily booed when it was announced that they had used the third pick on California alum Jaylen Brown. Part of that was because fans wanted them to trade the pick in hopes of getting a star no matter what. Part of it was that no one really knew what to expect from Brown since the 2016 draft was viewed as a crapshoot outside of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Four years later, it’s pretty clear the Celtics nailed the pick.

Outside of that period last year where he looked flat-out lost on the court, Brown has gradually improved his game every year he’s been in Boston. This year has easily been his best year at the pro. His tighter handle, higher IQ and more refined scoring abilities gave him a lot of All-Star consideration. So much so that he had a case for being the biggest snub.

Add that to him already being a reliable shooter, an airtight defender, and of course, his outstanding hops, and it has made him one of the league’s most promising wings. The NBA values guys who can stretch the floor as well as defend multiple positions. Brown’s skill set brings those qualities to the table. His scoring prowess along with those things should put him in All-Star consideration for the next several years. We still don’t even know if he’s hit his peak yet either.

His ceiling is not on the level of a superstar, but more like a capable second or third option on a championship-caliber team. Lucky for Boston, they don’t need him to be because that guy came the next year at the exact same spot.

Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics – 2017

Remember when everyone thought Boston was crazy for trading Markelle Fultz to their division rival for Tatum? Let that be a reminder folks: NBA teams know more than we do. Of course, nobody knew what was going to happen to Fultz, but that’s neither here nor there.

Tatum is the new face of Celtics basketball. We already believed that when we saw him put up one of the most impressive individual playoff campaigns by a rookie. Sure, the next season was not as pretty as we thought it would be, but the future superstar many believed Tatum could be has finally arrived.

Having an incredibly lanky body on top of excellent body control would make anyone a difficult cover on the floor. In Tatum’s case, his shooting abilities, especially one-on-one, make him that much tougher of a cover all-around. Boston knew that if they were going to take that next step towards contention, Tatum’s evolution would be what would get them there. Before the season was halted, Tatum’s evolution was most definitely imminent.

Oh, and his offensive evolution has completely overshadowed that his defense has also come along quite nicely this season. For years now, the infamous Celtics-Nets trade from 2013 has been talked about as one of the most lopsided trades ever agreed to. “The Jays” have made that more apparent than ever.

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks – 2018

Usually when your franchise loses the best player it ever had, it should take a fair amount of time to get it back to where it was when he was in his prime. Usually. Especially when that player was one of the best 20-30 players to ever play the game of basketball. For the Mavericks, it’s taken literally no time at all. That’s because from the ashes that were the Dirk Nowitzki era came the new and very bright Luka era.

The Slovenian Wonder took no time putting the league on notice. Look at his shooting percentages from anywhere inside the three-point line. He can score from just about anywhere in that parameter and can take over a game at any point. Luka’s averaging a cool 29/9/9, and he’s only 21. His rookie year was no fluke. Luka Doncic is a superstar in the making.

It also usually takes time for a young player’s talent to translate into team success. Not Luka, though. Dallas has been in the playoff race from day one of this season, and we all know the best is yet to come from both him and the rest of the Mavericks squad.

Watching Luka, it seems unbelievable that two teams would actually pass up on him, but it should be pointed out Luka’s unimpressive athleticism made him be viewed as largely a boom-or-bust prospect. Two years later, he has proven himself to be very much a boom, and it may not be long before the rest of the league becomes a barren wasteland because of it.

The Misses

Jahlil Okafor – Philadelphia 76ers – 2015

Poor Jahlil. It’s not his fault that he came into the NBA just as guys like him were starting to get phased out of the league. It’s also not his fault that he was drafted by a team that had no intention of developing him unless all other plans fell through. As fun as it is to see the league become as fun and entertaining as it currently is, it’s disheartening to see Okafor, a player once deemed a superstar prospect just half a decade ago, barely hanging on to stay in the NBA.

What’s happened to Okafor since he’s had a national audience is something we may never see again. Back in 2014, he was slated as a franchise player. The league’s next great big man. He is now barely a rotation player on a fringe playoff team.

Some highly-touted prospects disappoint in the way of turning into journeymen, but usually, that’s either because they didn’t have the work ethic and/or the talent to live up to their potential. Okafor’s guilty of having some major holes in his game, but unlike say, Anthony Bennett, you can clearly see that he has NBA-caliber skills to his game. When those skills aren’t as valued anymore — compounded with his noticeable defensive shortcomings — the harsh reality is that he’s never going to live up to the expectations once placed on him.

Even with all that’s happened to him, Okafor’s fought his way to keep a place in the league. That is nice to see, but former third overall picks shouldn’t be fighting just to stay in the NBA in their fifth NBA season. If they do, they’re undoubtedly a bust.

The Middle of the Road

RJ Barrett – New York Knicks – 2019

There hasn’t been much to look forward to in New York for quite some time. This season has been more of the same. The brightest spot among others is the promising play of RJ Barrett. Before Zion Williamson and Ja Morant lit up the world, Barrett was the slated top prospect in his class for a reason, and he honestly has looked like a building block on the court.

He hasn’t lit the world on fire in his first season in New York, but he has shown that he has a bag of tricks on the offensive end. Averaging a cool 14/5/2.5 his first season in the league is impressive enough. It’s better than what Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina did their first year in the league, or really any year they’ve been in the league in general. There is room to grow, too. He’ll need to improve his deep ball if he wants opponents to take him seriously as an all-around scorer.

He has the time to develop into something more, and he should get more scoring opportunities over the next couple of years. Time will tell if this he’ll be a hit or if he’ll be a role player. Now, please, New York, don’t screw this up as you did with the last good prospect you had.

The Role Players

Derrick Favors – New Jersey Nets – 2010

Favors may go down as the most underrated player of the 2010s. After a brief stint playing with the Nets, Favors was traded to the Utah Jazz, where he was outshined by the likes of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. After those two bolted, Favors was soon outshined by Rudy Gobert. Had he just played on a team where he wasn’t behind a big man better than him, Favors may have had a better reputation around the league.

Favors has never been one to put up incredible statistics, but he’s been a well-liked teammates and can pick up the slack if a more prominent big on the team goes down — watch the Clippers-Jazz series from 2017 for reference — and he sticks to what he’s good at.

He’s an excellent defender, can gobble up the boards – he’s averaging almost 10 boards this season, a career-high – and he’s even capable of the highlight dunk. If there’s one player whose career deserves a do-over, it’s Fave. He came into the NBA oozing with raw potential. He hasn’t disappointed entirely, but maybe he could have done more had he played for a team that asked more from him.

Enes Kanter – Utah Jazz – 2011

It’s funny how earlier we talked about how guys like Jahlil Okafor are virtually extinct in the NBA because offensively-dominant post players with defensive issues have proven to be of little use in the league’s current climate. Kanter is pretty much in the same ballpark as Okafor, so why does Kanter get regarded as a role player while Okafor gets the bust label? Because one is a dominant rebounder, and the other is far from it.

That seems like a pretty oversimplified generalization, but it’s true. Kanter has been somewhat of a disappointment seeing how his defense is so bad that one of his coaches infamously said, “can’t play Kanter” during the playoffs because of it. Still, on top of his offensive finesse, he’s been one of the league’s most dominant rebounders when he’s in the game.

Even with his flaws, what Kanter is good at makes him a nuisance. He has a knack for getting offensive rebounds and putting the ball back in. His toughness on the inside also draws a lot of and-ones, too. The laughable defense, most obviously in the pick and roll, does limit how impactful he can be on the floor, but Kanter all in all carries his weight.

Just don’t play him against the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Otto Porter Jr. – Washington Wizards – 2013

Even though Porter became a high-end complementary at best, calling him a role player, which would make him fail in comparison to some of the other guys on here, sells him kind of short. Would it sound better if it was said that Porter was the third-best player picked in the top 10 in the 2013 draft? Let it be known that 2013 had one of the worst classes ever, and Porter had very little to do with it.

When he’s on the floor, Porter is one of the better three-and-D wings in the league. His length can be bothersome for opponents on the floor because he’s tough to get by as much as his shot is tough to block. He’s also been a valuable contributor for good teams, much like he was Washington before the team slowly disintegrated. Is he overpaid? Of course he is, but he certainly hasn’t been one of those players who takes his money and runs.

Asking if Porter will get $27 million in the open market again is pretty laughable. He’s a fantastic player especially with what the NBA asks from its complementary players, but he’s not a star. All things considered, he’s an ideal third/fourth option on a team with title aspirations. That’s far from bad for a third overall pick.

As you can see, the third pick has brought forth plenty of good young talent. When you compare how the third overall picks have done to the second picks since 2009, it really does feel like No. 3 has outclassed No. 2. This hasn’t been a recent development if you look even further.

Deron Williams definitely had a better career than Marvin Williams. Carmelo Anthony badly outclassed Darko Milicic. Chauncey Billups did a lot more than Keith Van Horn did. We could keep going but it would take a while.

It’s like they say: Three is a magic number.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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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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