One of the toughest places to emerge from in professional sports is the proverbial basement. There are franchises across the league that have spent years and even up to a decade at times languishing outside the land of relevancy. Fan bases during these periods of drought have likely endured a combination of the following: botched rebuilding plans, front office upheavals, numerous coaching changes and failed draft picks while living in the basement.
But every now and then a team is able to elevate from the deeper depths of the league and join the ranks of relevancy. To start the 2017-18 campaign there are five teams that have been mired in seemingly endless rebuilds where their respective fan bases have anticipated the next draft lottery and crop of collegiate and international prospects more than the regular season opening tip.
Whether these teams can keep up their current pace and earn their first playoff berth in years is another story altogether, but through the early going these teams are showing the potential and the upward trajectory that may ultimately lead to them playing in late April, May and eventually June.
While it’s still very early, let’s take a look at teams on pace to leave the basement this season:
2017-18 record: 6-4
2016-17 record: 29-53
Last Playoff Appearance: 2012
After a fiery start, the Orlando Magic had the best record in the league at one point right out of the gates. While the team has dropped their last two contests, the team is showing signs of life under head coach Frank Vogel, who had similar success resurrecting the Indiana Pacers a few years back. Those Pacers teams, led by All-Star Paul George, former All-Stars Roy Hibbert and David West and a blossoming Lance Stephenson, became perennial thorns in the side of the LeBron James led Miami HEAT for a few seasons.
This year’s Magic team doesn’t possess the same type of star power that Vogel had at his disposal with the Pacers, but the unit is a scrappy bunch that plays with a chip on their shoulders. Forward Aaron Gordon is on pace for a career season and center Nikola Vucevic has rebounded from an inconsistent campaign last season. The Magic are on pace to arrive a bit ahead of schedule this season and secure a playoff berth.
2017-18 record: 6-4
2016-17 record: 28-54
Last Playoff Appearance: 2012
Are you trusting the process yet? The Philadelphia 76ers are a team with plenty of upside. But to get to this point, the franchise’s fan base had to endure years of campaigns full of losing and uncertainty surrounding their young leading talent. To start the season, the team is above .500 and look like they potentially have two franchise level players in center Joel Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons.
It’s just a matter of time before the 76ers completely emerge from the basement and become annual playoff fixtures. Whether that is this season or not remains to be seen, but the team has a capable set of veterans around their young talent and still haven’t fully benefited from No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz as the rookie is currently battling a shoulder injury.
It’s fair to mention that Embiid and Simmons have both missed full seasons in the past due the injury, however, if Philadelphia’s health holds up then trusting the process over the years would have proved to be a pretty solid investment.
New York Knicks
2017-18 record: 6-4
2016-17 record: 31-51
Last Playoff Appearance: 2013
It’s definitely too early to start singing any rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” but we can spread a little news about this year’s team.
Third-year big man Kristaps Porzingis has moved himself into the All-Star discussion after a blistering start where he’s averaging 30 points per game to begin the season. It’s not often that the departure of a future Hall-of-Famer would help a player develop quicker, but in the case of Porzingis, removing the security blanket of Carmelo Anthony has thrust him into a larger leadership role – and he has thrived without missing a beat.
Offseason free-agent signing Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a solid addition to the team’s backcourt despite some initial reservations about the size of his new contract. Keep in mind, it is still very early in the season and the Knicks have been largely dependent on Porzingis each night to keep them in games, so any type of slippage or injury to the big man would derail a lot of their progress. But for now, Knicks fans finally have a reason to smile when thinking about their future.
2017-18 record: 7-3
2016-17 record: 31-51
Last Playoff Appearance: 2004
Heading into last season, many pegged the Timberwolves to be a sleeper team in the Western Conference due to the highest expectations on Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins being paired with head coach Tom Thibodeau, who found plenty of success during his years at the helm of the Chicago Bulls.
Those expectations proved to be too lofty as Minnesota sputtered to a 31-51 record, disappointing many in the process. The team was very aggressive during this past offseason. Minnesota acquired All-Star guard Jimmy Butler via trade, and signed veterans Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford in free agency.
The new additions around Anthony-Towns and Wiggins have been a blessing as the squad has raced out to a 7-3 record to begin the campaign. Minnesota hasn’t appeared in the playoffs since 2004, a streak that could be coming to an end shortly.
New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 record: 6-5
2016-17 record: 34-48
Last Playoff Appearance: 2015, only one appearance since 2012
The Pelicans appeared to be on the verge of relevancy in 2015 when All-Star forward Anthony Davis led the team to a playoff berth and a spirited outing versus the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
That seems like ages ago.
The past two seasons have been a struggle as Davis and the rest of his teammates have battled a combination of devastating injuries and off the court life events. Last season, the club acquired All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and, while the chemistry and cohesion between him and Davis was slow to take shape, we’re beginning to see how dominant the pair can be when clicking on all cylinders.
Yes, the Pelicans have questions in their back court and are probably sitting on a few bloated contracts they would like to move on from in order to get more high-end talent into their program, but no one can deny that the team led by Cousins and Davis are on the right track to get back into the land of the relevancy.
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint, and typically has a way of identifying the real versus pretenders. The Denver Nuggets is another franchise to keep an eye on as they look to emerge from their respective rebuild. We’ll check back in on this list near the All-Star break.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.
Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.
Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.
Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.
That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.
Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.
Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.
“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.
“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”
In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.
What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.
From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.
There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.
So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.
Instead, he did the opposite.
“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.
“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.
Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.
Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.
Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.
I think not.
Death, taxes and the Spurs.
So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.
Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.
But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.
NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly
Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.
It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.
“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”
Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.
At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.
“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.
Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.
“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”
Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.
His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.
“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”
“Yep,” Bazemore replied.
“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”
Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.
“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”
With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.
Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.