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Basketball Insiders’ NBA Christmas Wishes

Christmas finally comes this weekend, so the Basketball Insiders team talks about their NBA wishes.

Joel Brigham

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When Derrick Rose was about seven years old, the only thing he asked for from Santa Claus was a yo-yo. He didn’t get one, though. Instead, he got several of them, and while he once joked that those yo-yos were the most excited he ever got over a childhood Christmas gift, he also admitted that he broke every single one of them the first day he got them.

Chances are pretty good that the types of gifts he’s getting as an adult are considerably more complex and expensive, but that a former league MVP and nine-figure earner could have been so tickled at one point over the magic of a yo-yo (and that he would be so excited to talk about it during a pregame interview once upon a time) shows just how fantastic the holiday season can be.

In a lot of ways, the NBA season “really starts” on Christmas day, where we get a great slate of marquee matchups, some truly lovely alternate holiday uniforms and a shift away from football season to the time of year when basketball truly is king.

We’ll get those great games, but the Basketball Insiders crew decided to ask for just a little bit more from the Hoops Gods this holiday season. Here’s a quick rundown of our writing staff’s NBA Christmas wish lists:

“My Christmas wish is for the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers to face off in the playoffs. It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but it would be fun to finally get the Hallway Series. The Lakers feature a lot of young talent and are managed by a young, energetic coach in Luke Walton, and the purple and gold would obviously be severe underdogs. Still, it would be fun to match these teams up against one another for a seven-game series.”
-Jesse Blancarte

“More than anything else, I’d like to see the Sacramento Kings bite the bullet and trade both Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. Gay would probably play a good role in Oklahoma City next to Russell Westbrook, so long as he controlled his shot selection. Westbrook needs more firepower on that team and landing Gay would probably give the Thunder a shot at matching up with the Warriors in the playoffs. I know… it’s not that likely, but it’s called a Christmas WISH list for a reason. And while we’re at it, can we just have the Kings send DeMarcus Cousins to the Wizards for Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and a pick? Does that trade make way too much sense to not happen? They’d have to match salaries, yes, but I’m sure Vlade and Grunfeld could figure that part out. It’s why they’re paid the big bucks.”
-Moke Hamilton

“Things are going sour for Nerlens Noel in Philly, it’s time for a trade.
I hope he gets more playing time, takes those braids out and brings back the fade.
I wish Blake Griffin gets healthy and gets over what ails his knee.
If he doesn’t, it will be season 12 and no Conference Finals for CP3.
Father Time is undefeated, look what he’s doing to Luol Deng.
At season’s end I want nothing more to see if Steph and Durant can take out the “Kang.”
-Lang “Clement Clarke Moore” Greene

“One thing I want for Christmas: the Blazers making a run at a rim protector. They entered the year with a team built on continuity and youth. Most were expecting the Blazers to be better defensively, due to the simple fact that they’d had success in the playoffs and were bound to improve, as they were very young. Unfortunately, they’ve regressed. Over the offseason, the team went out and tried to get Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside and others, but they fell short on landing the big rim protector that was needed. Now, there are reports that Festus Ezeli is unlikely to play this year due to ongoing issues with his knee. If there was one thing I’d like to see, it would be a Trail Blazers trade involving a rim-protecting center. It’s not likely, and not even something I’d necessarily agree with. But I’d like to see how much better they could potentially be after that kind of move.”
-Oliver Maroney

“What I most want for Christmas is for Russell Westbrook to remain 100 percent healthy for the entire season. If anything happens – minor or otherwise – the Thunder are in a huge heap o’ trouble! Let’s not even think about that scenario and just continue with how things have been going. And if it’s not too much to ask… maybe have the remaining Thunder players show some real and lasting improvement right before the playoffs begin.”
-Susan Bible

“Can a brother just get a nice slate of games for Christmas Day? I’m not asking for much… I promise. Can I get 40 points from Kristaps Porzingis in a barn-burner against the Boston Celtics at MSG, Finals Game 8 from Golden State-Cleveland, a showdown (on both sides of the court) between Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, an all-out track meet from Oklahoma City-Minnesota and a double-OT thriller from the L.A. Clippers and L.A. Lakers? That’s not too much to ask for, is it?”
-Jabari Davis

“The one thing I’d like to have for Christmas this year is for Joel Embiid and Jeremy Lin to remain on the court the rest of the season. Embiid makes every Sixers game a must-watch despite the team’s woeful record. He’s showing why he drew comparisons to a young Hakeem Olajuwon, and it’s been a joy to watch his individual progress. Meanwhile, Lin makes Brooklyn a more competitive team. I want to see what he can do as a full-time starter with coach Kenny Atkinson, the man who helped develop ‘Linsanity’ in New York.”
-Michael Scotto

“I would love to see the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder matched up in the first round of the playoffs. As of this writing, Golden State is the No. 1 seed and Oklahoma City is the No. 7 seed, so it may actually be one of the more realistic items on this wish list. I just want to watch a full series of Super Saiyan Russell Westbrook against his former teammate, Kevin Durant. Who doesn’t want to see that?”
-Alex Kennedy

“To be perfectly honest, I’ve already gotten my NBA Christmas wish, which was to cover All-Star Weekend in New Orleans this winter. I’ve actually never been to the Big Easy before but have been obsessed with it since binging Treme a couple of years ago. The food and the music would be worth the trip alone, but all the NBA action and a weekend with Steve Kyler and Moke Hamilton? Feel free to tweet me your envy. Since that one’s already granted, I want to watch a dunk contest that features Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Larry Nance, Jr. and Aaron Gordon. While it doesn’t sound like Wiggins will ever compete in it, the other three absolutely could go at it this February. If not Wiggins, I’d settle for one last go at it from Vince Carter. Can you imagine? Also, I’d like Stance to send me one pair of every single sock they make. I don’t ask for much, but I do ask for all of the socks. And anyway, what’s Christmas without stockings?”
-Joel Brigham

What are your NBA holiday wishes? Feel free to leave any of them in the comments section below or tweet at any of us with some more ideas. Hopefully it leads to some fun hoops chat so we can stay positive ahead of Christmas. We’ll save the heated Reddit debates for sometime in early 2017.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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