To say the New Orleans Pelicans have fallen short of expectations since reaching the playoffs during the 2014-15 would be an understatement. If you’re looking to cast blame, you could easily point to their injury woes, head coaching change or roster upheavals.
The frustration of losing, especially in a smaller market, puts the microscope squarely on the Pelicans’ franchise player: Anthony Davis. The franchise has been here once before, during the Chris Paul era, and it ultimately led to a top-10 player forcing his way to Los Angeles.
So it’s perfectly natural, amidst all of the losses, that all eyes (and ears) are evaluating how Davis truly feels about his long-term future with the organization.
Earlier this week, Davis reiterated to The Vertical that he’s in it for the long haul and fully committed to seeing things through in New Orleans.
“My desire to win here is the same,” Davis told The Vertical. “I go out there and play. I don’t care what the record is. I just go out there and play. I have to lead this team and make sure my guys are always happy and high energy. I don’t care what people say about our team. They’re not in our locker room seeing us, not part of our group. That’s all white noise.
“I just try to control what I can: go out there and compete.”
Davis doubled down when asked if his commitment to the Pelicans has wavered as the losses continue to mount.
“No, no, never,” Davis said, according to the report.
These quotes, on the surface, should at the very least help Pelicans fans sleep a bit better at night, right? Well, if recent history involving some of the game’s biggest stars in a similar situation is any indication, the answer is a resounding no. More on this later.
Davis isn’t purposely being deceitful in his assessment of the current situation in New Orleans. In fact, these quotes are probably at the purest form with free agency for the big man nowhere in sight.
Here’s the deal…
Davis is in the first season of a five-year, $145 million contract extension signed in July 2015. The earliest he could become a free agent is the summer of 2020 by exercising a player option for the 2020-21 campaign. If there’s ever a time when you’d expect Davis to be locked in and fully invested in the franchise, it’s now. Period. Davis has no leverage in trade talks and publicly forcing one would damage his brand and he would instantly be criticized for bailing on a franchise prematurely.
Davis remaining committed to the process in New Orleans isn’t shocking given his lack of options and leverage. The important time for Davis to reiterate these feelings will be in 2018 or 2019 when his leverage grows with free agency looming.
We thought it would be a fun exercise to track down some early quotes from some of the league’s elite players that were once in Davis’ shoes… and then ultimately bolted in free agency. You will notice a similar theme play out.
LeBron James, free agency of 2010 (left Cleveland for Miami)
James was arguably the most sought after free agent in league history back in 2010 and his recruitment process, if we’re being honest, started years before the doors opened on July 1, 2010. Below are some of his quotes leading up to free agency and his commitment to staying the course in Cleveland.
June 2008 – Prior to Olympics (New York Daily News): “On draft day, I’m watching some of the younger guys coming into the league and they’re saying, ‘You know, teams are making trades (to sign) LeBron James in 2010.’ I just kind of laugh at that. I’m excited to be in Cleveland, and right now, I’m excited to be part of this Olympic team. It’s kind of funny to me.”
James signed a three-year extension worth $43 million in 2006 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The deal included a player option for the 2010-11 campaign, which he ultimately exercised. Most expected him to opt out of the final year to test free agency, but the Cavaliers offered another contract extension during the 2008-09 campaign. No one expected James to truly sign the extension as it wasn’t a benefit for him financially to do so, but his public quotes indicate the deal could be in play at season’s end.
December 2008 – Regarding possible contract extension (ESPN): “You play out this season of course; I will consider it. The direction we are headed is everything I expected and more. I definitely want to keep an open mind, I will look at everything. [The extension] is a good point. I think me and my group have pretty much made good decisions so far and we’ll look at the options and go from there.”
The last quote comes one month before his free agency began in 2010. James told Larry King on CNN the Cavaliers were in the lead to re-sign him. We all know how that played out one month later as James departed to Miami.
June 2010 – One month prior to free agency (CNN): “Absolutely,” James said when asked if Cleveland had the edge entering free agency. “Because, you know, this city, these fans, I mean, have given me a lot in these seven years. And, you know, for me, it’s comfortable. So I’ve got a lot of memories here. And – and so it does have an edge.”
LaMarcus Aldridge, free agency 2015 (left Portland for San Antonio)
Two years prior to Aldridge’s free agency, back in 2013, there were persistent rumors about the forward’s desire to be traded or play elsewhere. However, heading into training camp everyone toed the company line.
September 2013 – During Portland’s annual media day festivities (Oregon Live)s: “I’m here, I’m happy, I’m looking forward to the season. This team looks really good. We have a better bench. We have (Robin) Lopez, who’s a true center. So I think this year should be good for us.”
Blazers general manager doubled down on his star player’s stance during the same event, challenging anyone regarding the validity of any potential Aldridge unhappiness.
September 2013 – Neil Olshey at media discussing LaMarcus Aldridge: “Oh, dear God — would you guys get over it? Show me a media report where LaMarcus Aldridge said anything other than, ‘I hope the team improves, I’m excited about what we did, I want to get better, I want to win.’ Then we can have a conversation. Until then, let’s move on. OK? Is that possible?”
Kevin Durant, free agency 2016 (left Oklahoma City for Golden State)
Durant shocked many this past summer by bolting Oklahoma City. But after his MVP acceptance speech two years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find many people who believed his heart wouldn’t be with the Thunder for the long haul – let alone for only the next two years.
May 2014 – Durant’s MVP acceptance speech: “I enjoy being a part of something like this, knowing that when we come into the arena, they’re going to love you no matter what. They’re going to always feel the same way about us. You don’t want to take that for granted, because the grass is not always greener on the other side and you need to learn to appreciate these wonderful people here.”
Dwight Howard, free agency drama of 2011-13 (focusing on his tenure with Orlando)
Howard would ultimately demand a trade from the Orlando Magic, but not before the situation turned into a daily circus of notable quotes. Here are a couple below. Keep in mind, the first comes with Howard having two seasons remaining on his deal before he could exercise his early termination option to become a free agent.
September 2010 – Howard responding to whether he would sign an early contract extension: “I plan on being here forever.. I love Orlando.”
When pressed on whether he would sign the extension from the team, Howard became vague but doubled up on his stance of not leaving.
“I can’t answer that,” Howard said. “I mean, I love Orlando. I don’t want to leave.”
A few short months later, Howard’s tone changed slightly as he became annoyed by constant questions.
February 2011 – Howard asked about signing an extension in Orlando: “Yeah, I am annoyed. I can’t sign a contract this year. I can’t sign anywhere this summer, so why keep bringing it up? Why are people talking about me going any other place right now? Right now is about this season. It’s not about L.A., New York or whatever. I’m really tired of it. I don’t wanna be talking about where I’m gonna be playing basketball next or people in Orlando asking me ‘Are you going to leave us?'”
Howard would ultimately move on to the Los Angeles Lakers before bolting to Houston in free agency after just one season in L.A.
Transitioning back to the future of Anthony Davis, it’s clearly too soon to tell whether his words of commitment will stand the test of time. It’s possible he truly means what he says, it’s just not the first time we’ve heard pledges of loyalty like this. If the departures of recent stars tell us anything, it’s that there’s a big difference in how the language changes once a player gets more leverage and can see the free agency period on the horizon.
How this will impact Davis as we get into 2018 and 2019 remains to be seen.
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.