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NBA AM: Evaluating the Hot and Cold Starts

Two weeks into the season, here are some hot starts worth noting and a few ice cold ones too.

Lang Greene

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We’re almost two weeks into the NBA season and there are more than a few blistering starts worth noting. On the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous players who are ice cold to begin the 2016-17 campaign.

With such a small sample size, there are bound to be members of this list that will flip flop positioning as the season roars on. However, let’s take a look at how the following 16 players have started the campaign. In all fairness to the NBA’s steep learning curve, rookies were not included during the compilation of this list.

Jeff Teague, Guard, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 Stats:
11.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 32% FG, 22% 3PT

The Pacers revamped their offense during the offseason and the acquisition of Teague was supposed to be a driving force of making it all connect on the floor. To start the season, Teague – in a contract year – has struggled to find a consistent rhythm in his perimeter game. The veteran has posted a decent assist line, but the Pacers will need more consistency from their floor general.

James Ennis, Guard-Forward, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Stats:
11.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 49% FG, 42% 3PT

The play of Ennis has been a positive for the Grizzlies as they wait for veteran wings Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons to be fully healthy. Ennis is flirting with a double-double while connecting on over 40 percent of his attempts from three-point range. Not bad at all for a role player.

Nick Young, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Stats:
12.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, one assist, 40% FG, 32% 3PT

Young was an afterthought on last year’s Lakers team, but new head coach Luke Walton has entrusted the veteran guard with 25 minutes per night in the rotation. So far the results have been largely positive, as the youth movement in Los Angeles has started to gain momentum early on.

Klay Thompson, Guard, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Stats:
15.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 38% FG, 20% 3PT

Thompson is seemingly another example of the sacrifices that must be made when adding elite-level talent to the roster. The presence of former league MVP Kevin Durant has forced the Warriors to play a bit differently to start the campaign and Thompson’s numbers have decreased during the early going.

Avery Bradley, Guard, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Stats:
20.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, four assists, 51% FG, 48% 3PT

Bradley has always been known as a strong perimeter defender, but the veteran guard has started the season on a 20-plus point-per-game tear. Bradley’s offensive emergence has helped ease the sting of four-time All-Star Al Horford’s absence from the lineup for a few games early on.

Myles Turner, Center, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 Stats:
17.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 55% FG

The signs of a possible Turner sophomoric breakout were clearly visible during his showing in last season’s playoffs. To start the season, the second-year big man is second on the Pacers in scoring and currently leads the team in rebounding.

Jahlil Okafor, Center, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Stats:
10.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, one block, 47% FG

The excitement surrounding center Joel Embiid has deflected the heat from Okafor’s extremely slow start to the season. Okafor led the Sixers in scoring last season (17.5), but he and center Nerlens Noel have been mentioned in the trade rumor mill in recent months.

George Hill, Guard, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Stats:
20 points, three rebounds, 4.3 assists, 52% FG, 44% 3PT

Entering the season with forward Gordon Hayward sidelined and forward Derrick Favors on a minute restriction, the Utah Jazz desperately needed someone to pick up the scoring slack. Hill, acquired by the team this past summer in a draft-day deal, did just that. Hill has established himself as a consistent double-figure scorer throughout his career, but not many expected this type of barrage from the veteran.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Center, Sacramento Kings
2016-17 Stats:
3.8 points, 1.2 rebounds, 48% FG

It may be a bit unfair to place Cauley-Stein on this list playing behind an All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins, but there was hope that the second-year player would take a significant leap with defensive-minded head coach Dave Joerger now calling the shots in Sac-Town. But it hasn’t come to fruition and Cauley-Stein is playing roughly six minutes less per contest compared to last year.

DeMar DeRozan, Guard, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Stats:
35.8 points, five rebounds, 2.6 assists, 55% FG, 13% 3PT

DeRozan’s start to the season has been a thing of beauty to watch develop, as the old timers say. DeRozan currently sports an incredibly high usage rate (38.3) for a Raptors team looking to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals. For more on DeRozan’s start, check out this recent breakdown of his play.

Harrison Barnes, Forward, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Stats:
18.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.2 3PM, 49% FG

Barnes was a member of Team USA’s Gold Medal triumph this past summer, but wasn’t a regular member of the rotation. The forward also struggled through a rough preseason shooting less than 30 percent from the field. However, with the games now counting, the wing is on pace for a career-year.

Sean Kilpatrick, Guard, Brooklyn Nets
2016-17 Stats:
17.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, two assists, 45% FG, 41% 3PT

It is shaping up to be a rebuilding year in Brooklyn, but the Nets may have found a member of their future framework in Kilpatrick. The guard currently ranks second on the team in scoring behind former All-Star center Brook Lopez.

Kemba Walker, Guard, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Stats:
24.4 points, three rebounds, 4.6 assists, 47% FG, 42% 3PT

There were many around the league who felt Walker was snubbed from the Eastern Conference’s All-Star team last season. Now it appears the veteran guard has started the season on a rampage, seeking to prove his worth to the voters (fans and coaches).

Hassan Whiteside, Center, Miami HEAT
2016-17 Stats:
20 points, 14.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 59% FG

Whiteside secured a near-$100 million deal in free agency this past summer, so it’s totally logical many people are taking a strong look at the center’s game to see if there is any drop-off. To date, if there have been changes it’s mostly positive, as the center is continuing to develop into a terror on the block.

J.J. Barea, Guard, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Stats:
16.4 points, three rebounds, 5.2 assists, 38% FG, 46% 3PT

No matter the situation, Barea quietly goes about his business like a true professional and contributes to the nightly rotation. To start the season, Barea is second on the Mavericks in scoring as the team adjusts to Dirk Nowitzki’s current injury woes.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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