We are in the dog days of the NBA offseason. Free agency money has essentially dried up, Team USA seems to be headed toward winning another gold medal, most players are enjoying their vacations and, if we’re being honest, many fans are prepping for the upcoming NFL season.
But even with the heat on the NBA front seemingly at a standstill, there are some players who are more than likely relentlessly working because they know deep down that they have something to prove heading into the 2016-17 campaign.
Today, we’ll take a look at some players who have a bit of extra motivation heading into next season. In this case, what’s fueling these each of these players is the critics and doubters of their individual game. Can they silence the skeptics next season?
Russell Westbrook, Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
On the surface it may seem somewhat odd to list Westbrook’s name on a something-to-prove list. After all, Westbrook is a multiple time All-Star selection, an All-NBA caliber talent and a nightly triple-double threat. If he keeps up his current trajectory for another few seasons, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame. Westbrook is that good.
But in Westbrook’s case, he enters this season as unquestionably the number one guy in Oklahoma City for the first time of his career. There have been many people around the league who have spent years pontificating on the notion Westbrook needed to tone down his game in order to let departed former MVP Kevin Durant thrive. Now, Westbrook won’t have those mental restraints with Durant headed to Golden State.
The fate of the Thunder is on the shoulders of Westbrook. Win, lose or draw, this is Westbrook’s show after eight seasons of sharing the spotlight. There’s a lot to prove for Westbrook in this case. Can he be an MVP-caliber player? Can he lead a team to the postseason on his back alone? Does he have the leadership qualities needed to keep things running smoothly in the locker room without Durant around?
The answers to all of these questions may undoubtedly be yes, but for the first time in his career Westbrook gets an opportunity to prove that.
Kyle Korver, Guard, Atlanta Hawks
We have stated this many times in this space over the years: Father Time is undefeated. Korver suffered through a wildly inconsistent 2016 campaign after making the All-Star game the previous year. The question everyone wants to know is, was Korver’s decline last season the product of his age (he’s now 35) or was it the product of coming into the season below 100 percent? Korver was hurt during the 2015 playoffs when guard Matthew Dellavedova dove into his ankle while chasing a loose ball. While Korver was able to begin the season in the starting lineup, most believe he wasn’t fully healthy after offseason surgery.
From the looks of the Hawks’ moves this offseason, it appears the franchise believes Korver’s decline in production was just a blip in the radar and not a sign of things to come. The team invested heavily in wing support in the draft and in free agency boosted their backup point guard depth.
So barring any moves heading into training camp, the starting shooting guard position is still Korver’s to lose.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ Duo of Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons
At this point, no one can accuse the Grizzlies’ front office of being cheapskates. Whether or not you believe the team’s moves put them in mix for a title is up for discussion, but the team left little doubt that they are willing to invest in being successful on the court. Memphis dug deep into their wallets this summer and made point guard Mike Conley the highest-played player in the league with a massive five-year, $150-plus million deal.
The team was also active externally by signing forward Chandler Parsons to a four-year deal worth nearly $100 million. In these two players, the Grizzlies invested nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over the lifetime of these deals. Now, the economics of the NBA have dramatically changed, but when you factor in that neither Conley nor Parsons have made it to the All-Star game in a combined 14 seasons, it was perfectly normal for people to raise their eyebrows in skepticism at these moves. Now is the time for Conley and Parsons to prove that they were worth it.
Timofey Mozgov, Center, Los Angeles Lakers
Mozgov kicked off free agency 2016 by agreeing to a four-year, $64 deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The contract instantly became one of the hottest early free-agency debate topics since there was disagreement over whether the veteran center was worth the money.
Part of the reason the critics were out in full force was because Mozgov had just spent the better part of the last two months of the 2016 campaign watching the Cleveland Cavaliers win their first NBA championship – from the bench.
From all accounts, Mozgov has continued to be a consummate teammate and a true professional throughout his tenure in the league. With the Lakers, Mozgov will get an opportunity to become a full-time starting center. It has been something he has wanted and it is a role he has produced decent numbers in when given the opportunity in years past.
Harrison Barnes, Forward, Dallas Mavericks
For years, Barnes has been branded with the “potential” label and, in Golden State, the label fit because he was behind guys such as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the pecking order. But now armed with a near $100 million contract, Barnes will be expected to deliver big-time production night in and night out in Dallas. It is time for Barnes to shed the potential label and produce at a high level.
With future Hall of Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki playing his last days in the league, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been desperately seeking the next transcendent player who can help Dirk keep Dallas relevant in the Western Conference. On the surface, Barnes has all of the tools to be that guy: Decent athleticism, good height, solid outside shot and a great understanding of the game.
The questions everyone wants to know is how much Barnes can improve his production? Can Barnes develop into being a solid number two guy? Can Barnes ultimately develop into an All-Star? Can Barnes eventually develop into a 20-point-per-game scorer?
These are questions that may not get all answered in 2017, but they are on every Mavericks’ fans mind when evaluating what’s next after Nowitzki. How good can Barnes be?
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN