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NBA AM: Gentry, Hoiberg Fall Flat In Year One

Alvin Gentry and Fred Hoiberg fell flat in year one while dealing with the same issue as their predecessors.

Lang Greene

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Did Chicago and New Orleans make the right hires last summer?

Sometimes change is needed in order to improve. Sometimes those changes can lead to an immediate improvement. For instance, Steve Kerr taking over for Mark Jackson in Golden State. However, sometimes changes can lead to more questions than answers.

Such is the plight of head coaches Alvin Gentry (New Orleans) and Fred Hoiberg (Chicago). Both coaches are wrapping up their first year at the helm of their respective franchise and both will be watching the playoffs from home. Keep in mind, both franchises made the playoffs last season. They each had their own set of obstacles contributing to the unfavorable results and backward progress this season.

But considering why these guys were hired, to push their clubs over the hump, the lack of success leaves no room for excuses.

The Pelicans were absolutely ravaged by injuries early and often throughout the campaign, while Bulls also had their bouts battling the injury bug too. But what makes the disappointment of Gentry and Hoiberg opening campaigns sting the most is the fact that their predecessors, Monty Williams and Tom Thibodeau, navigated the same obstacles and successfully reached the playoffs.

Make no mistake, the Pelicans have been known for injuries over the past four seasons. Superstar Anthony Davis has yet to play in 70 NBA regular season games in any of his four campaigns. Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans have been known to miss significant time over the last few seasons. However, Williams was able to overcome those injury woes and reach the playoffs, winning 45 games last season. Williams appeared to have plenty of momentum to finish what he started to build, but the club opted to hire Gentry, who was fresh off of a championship season with the Golden State Warriors as their assistant coach.

But Gentry has not been able to recapture the magic from Williams’ last season in New Orleans faced with injuries. Now, the dynamic of a team and the league changes each season so this is not meant to be an apples-to-apples comparison. But the Pelicans faced plenty of adversity last season and somehow got the job done, while Gentry is still figuring things out in his new position.

Thibodeau won plenty of games in Chicago and was also coming off of a playoff season. But his relationship soured with the Bulls’ front office and that ultimately led to a change.  Hoiberg was fresh off of some promising seasons at Iowa State University and the franchise thought the change would put the Bulls over the top. However, Hoiberg spent most of the campaign dealing with injuries to Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol. But to be fair, if you go back to Thibodeau’s tenure you would quickly realize that the departed coach faced plenty of injury problems as well and never missed the postseason while at the helm in Chicago.

The Bulls (41-40) face plenty of questions this summer with Gasol likely to test free agency and Noah an unrestricted free agent as well. It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of rumors circulating that Butler and Rose cannot co-exist together in the same backcourt – overstated or not.

At the end of the day, Gentry and Hoiberg may be the right men for their respective jobs. But the early returns, while facing some of the same obstacles as their predecessors, seemingly indicates both have fallen flat in year one. However, the NBA is fluid and things can change on a dime. But as of now, we have more questions than answers when evaluating if Chicago and New Orleans made the right choice in their head coaching search last summer.

Why do people spend time defending greatness?

As the Golden State Warriors attempt to secure the best regular season in NBA history, a question has emerged.

Why must we continue to defend greatness?

Recently, members from the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team have been very vocal in the press about how their 72-game winning unit would fare against the Warriors, who are poised to eclipse their mark some 20 years later. Some of these players (including Scottie Pippen) have said that their Bulls unit would have swept the upstart Warriors without breaking a sweat. While it sounds ludicrous to consider, many past players have also jumped on the bandwagon to disrespect the current greatness of Golden State.

So why must we defend the honor of that Bulls unit? And, if we must defend the honor of that Chicago team, why do we have to completely discredit the Warriors in the process? After all, the Warriors brought their “A” games every single night over an entire season, winning 70-plus games in the process.

The reason is simple.

Much like former high school jocks go back to their alma mater and tell the new generation about war stories from yesteryear and their individual greatness, former professional athletes are no different. You can make an argument that fans are the same.

No one wants their heroes or portions of their early days of fanhood questioned. That’s what makes the Warriors’ ascent so uncomfortable for most. However, there’s room at the top for more than one team.

Consider this: The Bulls’ 72-game winning season came on the heels of losing in the playoffs the year before to the Orlando Magic. That Bulls team entered the campaign with a chip on their shoulder, trying to reclaim their spot on top of the throne. On the flip side, the 2106 Warriors are coming off of a title-winning season and have taken everyone’s best shot night in and night out as the top dogs. This is what makes the Warriors’ quest for 73 victories so incredible. The team isn’t sneaking up on anyone. The secret has been out. They are the defending champions, receiving everyone’s “A” game and have fully embraced the challenge. They aren’t worn out from the extra games or complacent after last year’s championship. The Bulls unit, 20 years ago, was not coming off of a title-winning campaign with the pressure of being the defending champions.

But in the Bulls’ defense, Hall of Fame forward Dennis Rodman missed 18 games during that record-setting season. If you remember, Rodman led the league in rebounding back in 1996 and was named to the All-NBA Defensive Team. Think about this: Rodman was a key contributor for the Bulls and he missed 20 percent of the season, yet the team still reeled off 72 wins.

In contrast, the Warriors have been able to avoid the injury bug to their top players. While role players such as Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli have battled an assortment of injuries, the team’s top players Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have all played over 70 games this season.

The question of who would win a mythical series between both units should be the topic of plenty water cooler debates. And these will be a fun to be to talk about for years to come. But there would be no easy sweeps, as members of those old Bulls units would have you believe. As great as the Bulls were during their six NBA title winning seasons during the 90s, those teams never swept anyone in the NBA Finals.  The 1995-96 Bulls team were taken to six games in the Finals by the then Seattle SuperSonics led by Gary Payton Shawn Kemp. Last season’s Warriors, on the other hand, eked out a six-game Finals victory over an injury-ravaged Cleveland Cavaliers team last June.

At the end of the day, lines in the sands will be drawn. But you shouldn’t spend too much time defending the greatness of the 1996 Bulls nor should you spend your time debating silly comments and justifying the greatness of the 2016 Warriors.

Because greatness is. Greatness is. Greatness just is and needs no defending.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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