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NBA AM: Are The Lakers Still A Desired Destination?

Are the LA Lakers still a desirable free agent destination? Kobe Bryant thinks so, but will free agents?… Is Rajon Rondo ready to lead the Celtics?

Steve Kyler

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The Harsh Truth Of The Middle:  There is little doubt that where a player plays matters. As much as teams try and make it a money discussion there does come a time when money is not the only motivator, especially in free agency.

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant did his part yesterday to keep the pot stirring with regards to New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, suggesting that everyone wants to play in LA.

“Everybody wants to play in Los Angeles,” Bryant said with a chuckle. “I mean, New York’s a beautiful place, but don’t get me wrong, it’s colder than sh*t out here. Palm trees and beaches, obviously, are a little more appealing. But all jokes aside, I think that players, when that time comes, will have to make the best decision for them and their families. If he wants to call me for advice, later, as a friend, I’ll be more than happy to give it to him.”

If the last two offseasons have taught us anything, it’s that players often think about themselves during free agency and that leaving what appears to be an ideal situation for something else is the new normal in the NBA.

Proponents of big markets tend to over-look that while in Orlando Dwight Howard became a household name, garnered all of the major gems of the endorsement world and logged the most All-Star votes by a single player. Thunder forward Kevin Durant leads all NBA players including LeBron James in the number of commercial endorsements and more importantly television commercials featuring his likeness. He plays in one of the smaller NBA markets in the league.

»In Related: The 2014-2015 NBA Free Agent Class.

Who you are matters a lot more than where you are.

Market appeal is a factor, but it’s not nearly the factor that it was even 10 years ago because of the digitalization of sports media and the global appeal the NBA has.

Fans no longer consume NBA products based on what’s shown each week on national television. For years, that was the primary outlet for NBA stars, so being on one of the teams on national television mattered, it mattered a lot.

But with more emphasis on League Pass, prime time availability of non-local games and the ever increasing game night presence of outlets like NBA TV and the internet, the national game isn’t what it used to be.

Large market teams have deeper pockets, that’s for sure, but with a new economic system in the NBA leveling the playing field, major market teams don’t have the ability to outspend their lesser populated counter-parts. In fact those lesser teams have learned they have to overspend a little to get players and we have seen over the last few years teams outside the top ten in terms of media markets, spending more or giving bigger contracts than other teams, simply to get or retain talent.

We have also seen major market teams opt not to sign players for monetary reasons, something that was unheard of even five years ago.

It is naïve to believe money does not play a factor in where a player chooses to sign, but once the money becomes equal – or close to equal – that’s where lifestyle and the chance to really win factor in. Players, especially ones coming to a team as a free agent, talk about a franchise’s history or legacy, but almost none of them weigh that part of the equation when picking their next team. Where a team is going and what role they will play tends to trump everything.

It’s nice to talk about Anthony heading to the Lakers as a free agent, and he very well might. But the truth of the matter is he won’t be picking his next team because of palm trees and warm weather, he’ll be picking his next team because they can pay him a top tier rate and most importantly they can give him a real chance to win a championship.

»In Related: The Modern History of Trades In The NBA.

When it’s time to sit down and talk about where Anthony plays next, there will more than just the Knicks and Lakers sitting at the table and some of those situations may have palm trees and warm weather too.

The NBA landscape has changed, and we’ve seen dozens of cases where players have left one situation for another, and we have seen major players leave major markets.

It’s fun for someone who has played his entire career in LA to say “everyone wants to play in LA”, but is that really true? That will likely depend on how quickly the Lakers can rebuild themselves into a contender.

The Lakers have historically been a contender in more years than not and that has no doubt added to their appeal. But based on the construct of the roster today and the lack of youth and trade assets tomorrow, the Lakers might be less desirable than at any point in their history.

It will be interesting to see how free agents really look at the Lakers and if palm trees can really sway a major player LA’s way.

» ICYMI: Moke Hamilton caught up with Laker guard Kobe Bryant in New York this weekend. Kobe believes everyone wants to play in LA. Bill Ingram wonders is Rajon Rondo the answer to the Rockets championship puzzle? Nate Duncan and Tommy Beer go ‘Head-To-Head’ on who the third best team in the East really is. Moke Hamilton surveyed the Basketball Insiders team to find out who the 2014 All-Star Reserves might be. You can always find what you missed from our team here: http://www.basketballinsiders.com/category/nba-news/

Is Rondo Ready To Lead?:  It’s been an interesting week on the Rajon Rondo front for Boston. First Celtics president Danny Ainge revealed his team unsuccessfully tried to get Rondo to agree to a contract extension. Then Rondo countered saying he hoped to end his career in Boston.

As former Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made their return to Boston, now as members of the Brooklyn Nets, both gushed over their former guard and his new role as leader of the Celtics locker room.

“When we were here, I think he took notes,” Garnett said to Ben Watanabe of New England Sports Network. “[Saturday] night, when we were talking to him, we stressed setting the tone, being the example, even when he doesn’t want to. I always talk to him about being a professional, and as a professional you don’t get to pick and choose when you want to do that.”

The former teammate spent some time together on Saturday night, including a dinner, in which all three shared memories and experiences.

»In Related: The Boston Celtics Team Salary Page.

“I think he’s ready now,” Pierce said. “Rondo is mature. He understood what was coming and I think he’s ready. Before, he had me and Kevin to lean on. Now, he’s the guy. He’s the captain. He’s who everybody looks to for leadership. He’s grown. He’s matured. He’s seen the bottom, he’s seen the top and he’s got to understand this is his team to lead, through good and through bad. I think he understands that and he’s ready for that role. He’s ready to deal with it.”

The Celtics are clearly in rebuild mode, but for Garnett he thinks that Rondo can be part of getting the Celtics back to the playoffs and into contender status.

“It’s the pedigree of a champion,” Garnett said. “You don’t let losing become something usual. You keep the mentality up. Some are not going to follow, but most will. And Rondo’s ready. He’s very comfortable in his role here. I think he understood the transition once it was happening and he’s the type of person that has the type of mentality, with the personality, to do just that. He’ll be all right.”

Rondo logged a season high 30 minutes against the Nets last night, something head coach Brad Stevens said was part of the plan as he works his way back from an ACL tear last year.

The Celtics are currently 15-31 and have lost eight of their last ten games. If the season ended today, the Celtics would be in a three-way tie with Sacramento and Utah for the fourth worst record in the NBA.

»In Related: The Current NBA Standings.

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to insure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA

ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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