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Lakers Were Creative with Yi Jianlian’s Contract

The Lakers got creative with Yi Jianlian’s incentive-based contract, which is trade-friendly.

Eric Pincus

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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers finally signed the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, inking forward Brandon Ingram to a $23.8 million rookie-scale contract.

Ingram was the last of his class to sign with a team, outside of the players who will spend at least a year overseas like Guerschon Yabusele (16th) and Ante Zizic (23rd) – both drafted by the Boston Celtics.

For the Lakers, the delay in the Ingram signing was about maximizing their cap space opportunistically.

Unsigned, Ingram took up $4.4 million of the Lakers’ cap space.  Now signed, he’ll make $5.3 million for the coming season.  That extra $880,280 in space marginally helped the Lakers in signing Chinese forward-center Yi Jianlian to a one-year, $8 million contract that is partially guaranteed.

The Lakers might have hoped to use their cap space in trade, but with Russell Westbrook opting to restructure and extend his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, few if any real options surfaced.

Earlier in the summer, the Lakers were able to use cap space to take on the contract of veteran point guard Jose Calderon from the Chicago Bulls along with a pair of second-round picks.

Unable to find a Westbrook blockbuster or another Calderon-like deal, the Lakers invested in Yi, who was the sixth overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007. Yi has been out of the league since 2012, but has thrived overseas in China.

Perhaps he can help the team on the floor, or by appealing to a massive Chinese market that held a strong affinity for the now-retired Kobe Bryant.

Regardless, the Lakers’ contract with Yi is very team friendly in structure – almost as if the franchise was looking to preserve the benefit of cap room, even after going over the $94.1 million line with Yi, Ingram and forward-center Tarik Black, who signed on Wednesday.

Black, as a restricted free agent, took up just $1.2 million of the Lakers’ space.  Now signed, he’ll earn $6.2 million for the coming season (the maximum allowed via Early Bird Rights).  He also has a second, non-guaranteed season at $6.7 million – making him another potentially valuable trade chip for the Lakers.

In the case of Yi, his base salary pays just the minimum for a player with five years of experience ($1.1 million).  In fact, his full $8 million salary is only guaranteed for $250,000.

The bulk of Yi’s contract is incentive-based.  The most a team can pay a player in an unlikely incentive is 15 percent of the base salary.  In Yi’s case, his entire salary, including the $6 million in bonuses, is considered likely by the NBA, opening the door for his uniquely-structured deal.

Additionally, teams cannot sign a player with date-based incentives, but the Lakers worked around that limitation by giving Yi bonuses based on number of games played.

If he plays in 20 games, he’ll receive a $2.3 million bonus.  Then at 40 games, he’ll get another $2.3 million, and then again at 59.

As a free-agent acquisition, the earliest Yi can be traded is Dec. 15, which is true of most of the team’s other signings like Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and Marcelo Huertas.  Because Black was paid via Early Bird Rights, receiving a raise greater than 20 percent, he cannot be dealt until Jan. 15.

Ingram cannot be traded for until Sep. 22 (30 days after signing with the team as a drafted player).  All other Lakers are trade eligible.

By Dec. 15, Yi’s salary will be guaranteed for $341,737, earning $6,701 a day starting on opening night for the NBA on Oct. 25.

If Yi does not play in 20 games and is traded on Dec. 15, the Lakers would be able to bring back up to $12.1 million in salary.  The incoming team could then waive Yi immediately at $341,737, shaving off $11.8 million off their cap.

Matching salaries in trades can be a challenge during the season, with most teams over the salary cap.

If, for example, the Sacramento Kings decided to part ways with DeMarcus Cousins – something they are not currently considering – the Lakers would be required to send out $11,957,900 in salary.

Theoretically, the Lakers would be able to reach that number by sending out Julius Randle, Anthony Brown and Yi ($12,141,756 combined).  Sacramento would need two open roster spots to make such a deal legal in-season.

That assumes quite a bit: That Cousins becomes available, that such an offer from the Lakers is a suitable return for the Kings, etc. – but the example is more about understanding the mechanics of Yi’s contract, than guessing specifically what return he might help generate in trade.

If executed on Dec 15, and the Kings waived Yi immediately after this pretend trade became official (upon players clearing physicals), Sacramento would clear over $12.5 million off their books for the current season.

That assumes Yi does not reach his 20-game milestone, which would come on Nov. 30 in Chicago against the Bulls.

If Yi is a regular part of the Lakers’ rotation, playing in every game, his salary would be $2.6 million guaranteed on Dec. 15. – still a $10.2 million savings for the Kings, in the above example.

The earliest Yi can reach 40 games is on Jan. 6, when the Lakers host the Miami HEAT.  By then, he will have earned $489,153 of his base salary, plus $4.6 million in bonuses, for a total of $5.1 million.

On Jan. 10, all non-guaranteed salaries lock in across the NBA.  Traded after that milestone, but before playing 59 games, Yi will have locked in $5.7 million.

The NBA has yet to announce the trade deadline for the 2016-17 season, which is normally the 17th Thursday of the season, or Feb. 16.  Given the All-Star Game is on Feb.19, the deadline could be delayed until Feb. 23.

The earliest Yi’s final $2.3 million bonus can kick in is on Feb. 24, when the Lakers visit the Oklahoma City Thunder.

That doesn’t look coincidental.

It doesn’t mean the Lakers signed Yi to trade him, but it’s certainly a consideration.  If he, instead, can quickly become a positive contributor on the floor, the Lakers will happily take that return on their $8 million investment.

Guessing which of the Lakers’ potential trade targets becomes available is a fool’s errand, especially in August.

The Lakers may also have no interest in dealing Randle.

That said, the Lakers have the flexibility to make deals this season, with Calderon’s expiring $7.7 million contract, Black’s non-guaranteed second year and a number of young, developing players that may appeal to trade suitors before the deadline.

Additionally, the Lakers have yet to sign rookie forward Zach Auguste, who has agreed to terms with the franchise.  The Lakers were happy with what they saw with Auguste in Las Vegas, as part of their summer league squad.

Presently, the Lakers have 15 guaranteed players.  Auguste may be facing an uphill battle to make the roster, unless the team makes room.

To date, the Lakers have not been able to find a taker for Nick Young in trade.  Young, who has fallen out of favor over the past couple of seasons with the franchise, will earn $5.4 million for the coming season with a player option for $5.7 million the following year.

The Lakers have until the end of August to waive and stretch out Young’s $11.1 million salary over the next five years (at $2.2 million a season).

Given the team is already over the cap at $99.3 million, there’s no obvious incentive to stretch Young before September.

If the team chooses instead to waive him after August, they can stretch his final year over three seasons at $1.9 million.  Or the team may just hold onto him to start the season, looking for trade opportunities before the deadline.

The Lakers can also choose to waive him without stretching his salary, eating up that full $5.7 million for next season (less any money Young might be willing to give up in buyout).

The obvious goal is to find a trade that sheds his salary altogether, but to date, the Lakers have not found a market for the perimeter scorer.

Finally, the Lakers project to have as much as $31.7 million in cap space next summer.  That assumes a $102 million salary cap, and that the Lakers do not have their first-round pick, which will go to the Philadelphia 76ers if not in the top three (still owed for the Steve Nash trade).

It also presumes the Lakers pick up rookie-scale options on D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Randle – and that the team can get Young completely off their books before next July.

The options are a lock; the Young salary is a bit more precarious.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Pacific Division

Surprises can be disappointing, but can disappointments be surprising? Basketball Insiders looks at three unexpectedly slow starts within the Pacific Division.

Ben Nadeau

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When Basketball Insiders’ writers were tasked with discerning the most unexpected surprises of the early season aughts, the Pacific Division couldn’t hold its own metaphorical tongue. As a result, most of the chosen entries acted instead like a stern parent trying to ground a rule-foregoing child — well, we’re not upset, we’re just surprisingly disappointed, you know?

Two weeks later, it’s no longer a shock as to why the Golden State Warriors remain poor — injuries, shooting their championship banners into space, etc. — or how the Sacramento Kings haven’t made new in-roads toward reclaiming their spot as popular water cooler fodder — but it also makes this piece, an article about disappointments, a bit trickier to navigate.

Still, there are silver linings around every corner and these frustrations may not be so forever — it’s not even time to cut the Thanksgiving turkey, after all. With a little readjustment, health and new contributions, these players and teams can stop disappointing their imaginary parents and get back on the path toward NBA bliss.

The Rejuvenation of Marquese Chriss Was A Grift

During the preseason, Marquese Chriss — noted dunker-at-times — jumped and scored a couple of easy buckets against the Los Angeles Lakers, enough, presumably, for the internet to announce his rearrival. Quick to point fingers, the Phoenix Suns took heat for an inability to train up the athletic prospect, while the Golden State Warriors were praised for finding another diamond in the rough. Hell, even Draymond Green got in on the action.

“He’s been in some pretty tough situations,” Green told Wes Goldberg of The Mercury News. “No one ever blames the situation, though. It’s always the kid. No one ever blames these s—ty franchises. They always want to blame the kid. It’s not always the kid’s fault.

“. . . So I’m happy he’s got another opportunity to show what he can really do. Because he’s a prime example.”

And yet, through 12 games, Chriss has done next-to-nothing. Even with the glut of injuries the Warriors have seen already — particularly so to Kevon Looney and Green — the youngster has failed to leave his mark. With 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, on a team that’s 2-10, and over just 15 minutes per contest — no such resurrection has been found. Of course, that doesn’t mean Green was wrong about those ready to write off talented athletes at a moment’s notice. It does, however, suggest that Chriss is nowhere near an ascendancy.

Build A Bridge, Get Over It

Last summer, the Phoenix Suns made Mikal Bridges the No. 10 overall pick in hopes of adding a defensive punch that made him a staple at Villanova. Instead, now in the midst of an unexpectedly stellar team start, it’s Bridges’ offense that has held him back. The 23-year-old played all 82 games for the Suns in 2018-19, tallying averages of 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists over 29.5 minutes per contest. This time around, however, Bridges has seen his minutes drop by one-third and he remains the franchise’s biggest question mark moving forward.

In short, Bridges has little-to-no range and, frankly, it’s getting worse. As a rookie, just over half (55.6 percent) of Bridges’ shots were three-pointers — a distance that he converted on at a 33.5 percent clip. Through the first 10 games of 2019-20, the former Wildcat has struggled from deep and sits at 20 percent on just 1.5 attempts per game. From 0-to-3 feet, Bridges has seen his shot tendencies jump from 27.7 to 45.2 percent between seasons. Moreover, he’s yet to make a single shot between 10 feet and the three-point line.

With the Suns’ defensive rating currently in the middle of the pack, they’ve been less inclined to play Bridges. Given Ricky Rubio’s deficiencies as a reliable three-point shooter, forcing Bridges into the lineup gets even harder. Utilizing one offensive weapon without a deep threat is a choice (particularly so when it’s of Rubio’s playmaking variety), but two at once becomes an ignored handicap.

Furthermore, Phoenix has officially become a modern, deep-shooting outfit and only seven other franchises have converted on more three-pointers so far this season. So, if you can’t shoot three-pointers, the Suns may have significantly less room than usual — sorry, Mikal!

Krusing for Kuzma

When the Los Angeles Lakers made their long-awaited splash for Anthony Davis, they only had one major goal in mind: Holding onto Kyle Kuzma.

Kuzma, 24, was untouchable throughout negotiations, and the Lakers often touted him as a potential third star alongside LeBron James and a would-be Davis. Troubled by a preseason ankle ailment, it’s been slow-goings for Kuzma upon his return to the hardwood. Through seven games, the forward has averaged just 13.7 points and 4.1 rebounds on 28 percent from three-point range. Stunningly, Kuzma has notched 0.3 assists to 1.5 turnovers per game too, further spotlighting the difficulty of finding his place as a demoted third option.

Naturally, the third-year up-and-comer will need some time to readjust — both from the injury and his new teammates — but how much?

Luckily, thanks in part to strong contributions from Dwight Howard, Danny Green and others, the Lakers haven’t needed Kuzma to find his footing right away. At 9-2, Los Angeles has exceeded all expectations thus far — but one beast still looms: minutes. Before Wednesday’s game, James and Davis ranked as No. 9 and No. 10 in the league with 35.3 minutes each per game. Given Davis’ extensive injury history and the miles on James’ body that type of allocation is not sustainable — especially not if the Lakers want to come out of the battle-tested Western Conference in May. If Los Angeles wants to rest its two superstars without the frequent worry of falling behind or surrendering leads, that onus falls almost exclusively on a Kuzma-centered glow-up.

The Lakers are championship contenders already, but they won’t reach their highest gear until Kuzma does — so fingers crossed.

Kuzma, Bridges and Chriss all entered the season with heightened expectations — both on a large and small scale — as they appeared key to future successes. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all. If it’s any consolation, their respective franchises haven’t been floundering without them — or at all — so there’s plenty of breathing room between now and April. Once held as a division with an overabundance of talent is suddenly down to just three viable postseason teams.

While Chriss may be stuck in no man’s land out in Golden State, Kuzma and Bridges have the talent to turn things around — their teams will certainly depend on it.

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NBA Daily: Beilein Ball Resonating With Confident Cavaliers

Why are the Cleveland Cavaliers off to a better start than many had anticipated? Spencer Davies takes an in-depth look at a few of the reasons.

Spencer Davies

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After rolling the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to the tune of a 108-87 final score, it wasn’t the Cleveland Cavaliers who received praise.

Instead, local and national pundits destroyed the defeated franchise that got blown out on its home floor by a “hapless” rebuilding team. Of course, when you play in such a sizable market, haven’t had real success in nearly a decade and put forth an unacceptable effort for your fans, that should be expected.

But maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers shouldn’t be considered as “directionless” as some may have thought before the season started. Maybe, just maybe, this is a team that has heard the noise and wants to stick it to those who have laughed. And maybe, just maybe, other teams shouldn’t take them so lightly because of that.

At the 10-game mark of the current campaign, Cleveland has a 4-6 record. With a pair of victories at home and on the road, the efforts have stayed consistent and the resilience has remained — regardless of where the games have been played. There’s been a game-to-game progression, with head coach John Beilein taking out small victories from each one.

For an organization reinventing itself with a new coaching staff, this kind of competitive start is welcomed. The question to ask is whether or not it is sustainable to continue at this pace, which if accomplished would result somewhere around a 30-win year.

That is looking ahead, though. Staying in the now, the Cavaliers are oozing with confidence and having fun — and there are many reasons why.

Leaders Lead

Raise your hand if you thought Tristan Thompson would Cleveland’s top two-way player before the season started. Bueller?

In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been an implausible prediction; few expected *this* kind of production, however. Beilein is running his offense through Thompson and Kevin Love, his veteran big men, and they’ve bought in. They are at the peak of the team list in passes made and top three in assists.

While Thompson and Love dominate the two-man game on their own, it’s the impact they make on the others that stands out. Of the nine teammates they’ve shared the court with, eight of them have a plus-8.7 net rating or higher, per NBA.com. Jordan Clarkson is the only player with a negative net — and even if that’s the case, his true shooting percentage is a blazing 72.1 percent playing with them.

Each member of the Cavaliers’ championship frontcourt duo brings something different.

Love is more of your stretch-four type that spreads the floor and positions himself on the block. He’s been a little off from distance and turning the ball over more than usual, but his 51.7 percent conversion rate in post-up situations is good for the best in the NBA (min. 40 possessions). Defensively, he’s been outstanding guarding the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. That whole gobbling-up-defensive-rebounds thing is important, too.

Thompson is the middle man who has his back to the basket, hands off and creates for others by using his body like a brick wall — in fact, he is averaging 5.6 screens and 12.3 points created off of those per game, both ranking in the league’s top five. For the majority of his career, he has been a cleanup man on the offensive side and a reliable presence as a defender. Maintaining that reputation, he’s taken his game to new heights thus far.

Over the last two summers, Thompson has put an emphasis on fine-tuning his handle. We’re seeing that work pay off in games. Whether it’s been in isolation situations or even running the break, he’s taken good care of the basketball and made things happen.

As a scorer, the touch on his jump hook is as impressive as anybody’s. And of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that he’s knocked down three triples and recorded the first multi-three game of his career in Philadelphia.

With these two playing at the level they have, the trade chatter will only get louder as the days pass. Why wouldn’t it? Thompson is in a contract year making strides we’ve never seen before, and Love is an All-Star big man who can provide size and spacing — a commodity that’s currently scarce in the market — to a team trying to add that missing piece. It’s completely feasible that Cleveland’s front office hears an offer it can’t refuse and goes that route, too.

Be that as it may, keeping them around might be the smartest play. Nobody likes to be in basketball purgatory, but what some seem to forget about a rebuild is there has to be a voice in the locker room that knows the ins and outs of the league. Going full speed ahead with guys who have little experience and nobody to lean on won’t help them learn. It’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to accomplish — giving valuable minutes to guys who haven’t had much time at this level and showing them hands-on what it takes to win.

The importance of that winning feeling for development cannot be understated. Thompson and Love have stepped up as those vocal leaders who have essentially played the player-coach role in all of this. Beilein knew he would have to count on that as even he makes his transition to the NBA, and they’ve delivered on that promise.

A postgame quote by rookie guard Kevin Porter Jr. after a win in Washington says it all.

“Without them, we wouldn’t win a single game,” Porter said. “They’re our head of the snake and they just keep us all level-headed… They just pave the way for all of us.”

Running With The Young Bull

Ask Collin Sexton how much a year of NBA experience can do for you. At this point last November, there were many — including teammates — piling onto the former Alabama guard for a plethora of reasons. He was taking ill-advised shots, driving into trees without finishing and getting minced by nearly everyone he was tasked with defending. There was pressure to be ready with a mixed roster of leftover glory and young guys on their second or third chances — and he wasn’t quite there.

Fast-forward to now, carrying over momentum from the second half of his rookie season, and Sexton’s play has indicated that a sophomore surge may be in store in lieu of the dreaded common slump. Combine the fact that his work ethic is second to none and Beilein’s staff has put him in a position to succeed, and that’s a recipe for success.

Let’s start with the defensive end, an area Sexton struggled mightily with during his first year. Beilein believes he’s grasping his assignments’ tendencies better, along with the opponents’ different styles of play. Having once gone below screens in pick-and-roll situations frequently before, the Cavaliers are having him rather fight through and go over them now, at times denying handoffs and causing disruption to the ball-handler.

Sexton put on muscle this summer to adhere to said strategy, and he’s gotten results from it. Using NBA.com’s matchup data, he has held his opponents he’s guarded for at least three minutes to 38.7 percent from the field. Among those assignments were All-Star guards Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 2-for-9 from the field. In addition, Knicks rookie RJ Barrett turned it over three times and was held scoreless by the feisty 20-year-old.

Though he’s done well closing out on shooters, he still needs work defending handoffs. Still, the drive and determination of Sexton won’t allow him to back down from any challenge — and that’s the kind of attitude it takes to become a reliable defender in the NBA.

Switching gears to offense, Sexton hasn’t lost an ounce of aggressiveness, he’s just smarter about it. Slowly, but surely, he’s cutting down those overdrives where he puts himself in no man’s land, turns it over and gift wraps points going the other way, occurrences that Beilein refers to as 50/50 plays.

By letting the game come to him, Sexton is understanding the opportunities that are presented by moving without the ball and thriving off his dual-threat game. His 1.58 points per possession average on spot-ups is good for No. 1 in The Association (min. two possessions), so opponents are going to close out hard when he’s taking threes. Using his quickness, he’s a slight pump fake away from zooming into the paint and either finishing or finding a teammate.

Remember those long twos last season? Those are essentially gone. Sexton is much more cognizant of his shot selection and, now that he’s positioned on the elbow, can operate more smoothly within a free-flowing system. It’s definitely worth mentioning his growth on fastbreaks, too, scenarios in which he used to often outrun himself and get into trouble. He’s still the same blur of speed — just more aware of his surroundings.

Sometimes, as the coach has said before, doing less is more.

Cleveland is finding out the type of guard he is — a point guard who scores or a scorer who can be a point guard. What we’re witnessing suggests the latter and, unlike what his critics say, that’s just fine. Beilein has been in Sexton’s ear about being an efficient player, so regardless of his assist count at face value — he’s created the fourth-most points on the team, by the way — the Young Bull has answered the bell.

A Wolf Comes In For Backup

Jordan Clarkson is one of the most dependable scorers in the NBA. Beilein was an instant fan of Clarkson from the onset of training camp. He’s a player who hunts and will be aggressive in everything he does on the floor, which is a “wolf mentality” according to the Cavaliers’ coach.

You wouldn’t think it by the reaction he gets on social media, which seems a little unfair when you dig deeper into what he brings to the table. Clarkson has been a streaky guy for the majority of his career, but the work he’s put in to get better and contribute in multiple facets should be commended.

Did you know Clarkson’s 51 potential assists are the second-most on the team behind Darius Garland? According to Cleaning The Glass, he has a 17.9 assist percentage.

How about his average of 0.396 points per touch leading Cleveland far-and-away, just like his 6.4 points per drive? Everyone needs that guy who can go out and get a bucket — and that’s exactly what Clarkson does.

Yes, he can be a bit overzealous at times and a gambler on the defensive end — and it can hurt — but that’s in the nature of a wolf. He’s made more good decisions than bad, rarely turns the ball over and paces a second unit that desperately needs a boost in the offense department.

With the bench, Matthew Dellavedova needs to be better. Larry Nance Jr. has improved as a shooter, yet needs to take the defensive challenge more consistently. Porter is figuring out his niche. All of this probably goes smoother if John Henson or Ante Zizic reenter the mix to stop everybody from playing up a position.

While Garland has shown flashes of brilliance, he is still finding his footing as Sexton had to last year, and Cedi Osman has to be more reliable on both ends.

There’s no question that there’s work to be done. Being in the close games that they’ve been in, executing in crucial situations has to be a focus.

But Cleveland is jelling as well as it ever has as one cohesive, structured group. The old sports cliche is you win as a team and lose as a team, but that saying couldn’t be truer in this case.

Touches are about equal all-around. The ball is moving. There hasn’t been a game yet where the outcome has been decided before the fourth quarter, a normal staple of rebuilding organizations that take bumps and bruises.

Are 10 games enough of a sample size to determine what’ll happen in the next 72? Probably not.

Is it fair to say it gives a glimpse of what the team’s identity could look like down the road? Most definitely.

Beilein Ball is only in its beginning stages.

Cleveland is eager to find out what the next step looks like.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southwest Division

In continuing the disappointment series for Basketball Insiders, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the Southwest Division and their current woes.

Jordan Hicks

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The NBA season is still very much in its infancy and yet storylines have already begun to develop around the league. Certain teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, are playing up to their pre-conceived expectations. Others, much like the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans, appear as if they could be in for somewhat of a long season. Either way, there is still plenty of time for things to change — but will they?

Continuing our early-season disappointments series, it’s time to look at various aspects of the Southwest Division and highlight the ways the specific situation could turn around down the line. Whether it’s the Pelicans slow start or the Houston Rockets’ lack of defense, the Southwest has clearly left quite a bit to be desired. Let’s take a look at the previously mentioned, as well as a few other divisional setbacks and see what we can uncover.

Pelicans’ Slow Start

To what can we accurately attribute New Orlean’s horribly slow start? Considering the fact that many considered them a West playoff bubble team, it’s been disappointing beyond belief. It would be easy to point a finger at the absence of Zion Williamson. He was electric in the preseason and was a major reason the Pelicans were expected to compete. But laying all the blame there would be too easy.

The fact of the matter is that New Orleans has just been playing poor basketball. Their best player, Jrue Holiday, has been off to an alarmingly rough start. He’s shooting just 23.3 percent from three on over five attempts per night and his efficient field goal percentage is 40.5 percent. Those are both career lows by a country mile.

Brandon Ingram has been playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 25.9 points on very efficient shooting, and yet he’s second-worst (to Holiday) in plus-minus at negative-7.3.

It’s hard to point out exactly what it is that is causing them to lose games, but they have the second-worst defensive rating in the league — and that’s as good a place to start as any. They no longer have Anthony Davis’ length under the rim and the only true defensive force they have in the paint, Derrick Favors, is barely cracking 15 minutes a night.

Williamson’s return from injury in a few weeks should improve their play on both ends of the floor — but head coach Alvin Gentry will need to fix this defense if they want to start seeing more wins.

James Harden + Russell Westbrook’s Efficiency Woes

The Rockets are sitting at 7-3, but they haven’t looked too impressive.

James Harden leads the league in scoring but is doing so by shooting a career-low percentage from three and his worst mark from the field since his rookie year. Russell Westbrook is shooting an abysmal 21.4 percent from three, a career-low, yet he’s shooting a career-high from the field as a whole, which is certainly strange.

The efficiency issues don’t solely stop at Harden and Westbrook. Eric Gordon is shooting 30.9 percent from the field, an entire 10 percent below any other season average he’s had.

Unfortunately, and expectedly, their issues don’t stop on the offensive end. Houston has given up 118.4 points per game to opponents, ahead of only four other teams in the league. The Rockets rank 20th in defensive rating as the fast-paced offense and overall age of the roster has certainly influenced that stagnation.

The one silver lining is that they still lead the NBA in scoring despite their efficiency issues. If their shooting averages start to increase — as you should expect them to — their offense could become a problem for the rest very quickly.

Kristaps Porzingis Struggling

Surprisingly, Kristaps Porzingis was actually pulled out of the Dallas Mavericks lineup during crunch-time against the Boston Celtics. He even lost to the New York Knicks in his first return to Madison Square Garden and looked bad doing so. Overall, his fit with Luka Doncic has been awkward at best.

And yet, the Mavericks are 6-4.

Porzingis started hot by scoring over 20 in each of his first three contests, but he’s put up just one such contest over their last seven games and has lacked plenty of physicality on the defensive end.

In that game against the Celtics, he mustered just 20 minutes, netting just four points on 1-for-11 from the field.

There have been 14 players to average at least three post-up possessions per game this season and Porzingis is dead-last in there at 0.55.

Let’s look at the bright side: He’s playing alongside arguably the best, young player in the league in Luka Doncic. Moreover, Porzingis is playing in his first season since tragically tearing a ligament in his knee just weeks before his first All-Star Game. It was expected that he’d struggle early. So the fact that he’s still averaging over 18 points per game isn’t exactly a negative.

If he can find his game — or, more importantly, a tad more competitiveness — the Mavericks could be a real threat to make the playoffs.

The Memphis Grizzlies’ Minutes Distribution

This one is pretty bizarre. For all the young talent on their roster, guess who is leading the team in minutes? Jae Crowder. Guess who is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes per game? Jae Crowder. Guess, then, which players are averaging well under 25 minutes per game? Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones and Kyle Anderson.

Jaren Jackson Jr. barely cracks 26 minutes and Ja Morant creeps out over 27.

What is up with this? Obviously, the Grizzlies aren’t trying to make the playoffs this season, but wouldn’t it be in their best interest to play their young studs? Perhaps there is a deeper plan to all this, but if so, it clearly doesn’t make any sense.

There are still plenty of games to be had, so perhaps Memphis’ front office wants to save their key player’s legs for down the stretch. Still, there’s honestly no rhyme or reason for doing this when their team is so young and uninjured.

It really can’t be mentioned enough that these disappointments could all be completely dispelled, some within a few weeks. At only about 10-to-11 games into the campaign, the amount of reliable data out there isn’t necessarily accurate.

Will the Rockets start making their shots? Will Ja Morant get more minutes? Can Williamson change the narrative around the Pelicans? Only time will tell for these pertinent questions and many more. But if we’ve learned anything over the history of the league, it’s that puzzling stories and frustrations can change in an instant.

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