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NBA AM: Miami Finding Diamonds in the Rough

Miami has succeeded at finding surprise contributors, such as Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson.

Cody Taylor

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Over the years, many NBA teams have taken full advantage of the D-League, using it to develop players and find talent. Some organizations – like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons among others – have utilized their respective D-League teams quite effectively over the years.

But perhaps the team that has leaned on its D-League affiliate the most has been the Miami HEAT.

It seems like the HEAT have been able to find players who either went undrafted or were taken in the second round and continuously mold them into significant contributors using their D-League squad (the Sioux Falls Skyforce) and franchise’s development program. And it’s not just that they’re uncovering end-of-bench players either; the HEAT have discovered meaningful, impact players this way.

Players like Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson all spent some time in the D-League and, at one point, didn’t have a huge role in the NBA. Now, they’ve each done very well for themselves.

We’re all familiar with Whiteside’s journey from a second-round draft pick who rarely played in the NBA, to playing in Lebanon and then the D-League, to reportedly agreeing to sign a max-deal with the HEAT.

Johnson went undrafted out of Fresno State and made a name for himself with the HEAT in Summer League two years ago. He eventually spent about a half a season with the Skyforce before earning a couple of 10-day contracts with the HEAT. The Brooklyn Nets reportedly just signed Johnson to a four-year, $50 million offer sheet. The HEAT have three days from Thursday to match that deal.

Meanwhile, Richardson was the HEAT’s second-round draft pick a year ago and played a big role for Miami as a rookie. He spent time with Sioux Falls, but ultimately ended up becoming a rotation player for Miami. His minutes increased in each month of the regular season, and he averaged 12 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals in 29 minutes per game during the month of February. He also shot 59 percent from three-point range that month.

A shoulder injury forced Johnson to undergo surgery in February, which allowed Richardson to earn more minutes and contribute – one hidden gem stepping in for another. Johnson played the majority of his time at shooting guard, but also played point guard at times. Richardson essentially took over Johnson’s role in the offense and really flourished in that spot.

Perhaps the biggest element that he brought to the floor was his three-point shooting. Miami is a team that has struggled shooting from long distance in recent years, and Richardson certainly filled that specific need. He shot 46 percent from three-point range on the season, which ranked first on the team, and he was second on the team in three-pointers made in the postseason with 17 (trailing only Luol Deng’s 24).

“I wasn’t really sure what to envision,” Richardson said of his rookie season. “I thought I would be in a developmental role a lot of the year. I was just trying to work on my game a lot at the beginning. After the All-Star break, I started getting minutes. All of the work I [did] just paid off.

“It definitely gave me a lot of confidence playing [in the postseason] against the people that we played against, under so much pressure. Out here [in Summer League], it kind of feel likes pick-up a little bit. Being able to come out here with my teammates and have some fun with them has been great.”

The latest under-the-radar find for the HEAT seems to be Briante Weber. The 6’2 guard went undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University last year and appeared with the Memphis Grizzlies and HEAT this past season. The HEAT brought him on board for depth purposes in the postseason and he’s still trying to prove that he belongs with Miami.

Despite not yet having a clear-cut role on the HEAT, Weber is beginning to turn heads during the Orlando Summer League. In three games, Weber is filling the stat sheet – averaging an impressive 6.3 points, six rebounds, five assists and 4.3 steals per game. His best performance came on Tuesday when he recorded nine points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals.

When asked about the HEAT’s scouting department, Richardson smiled.

“They’re good at their jobs,” Richardson said. “They’re good at what they do. A guy like Briante, who got hurt his senior year, a lot of people kind of wrote him off. They brought him in and he’s healthy again, and now he’s probably going to be on the court next year hurting teams. It’s their fault; our win, their loss.”

Weber is a player who seems to understand where he stands in the league. He’s approaching Summer League this year as a guy who’s trying to steal a roster spot away from someone else. He knows that a successful showing in the Summer League will go a long way toward securing a place (and defined role) on the team. If his Summer League performances are any indication, he can add depth in the backcourt and make his presence felt all over the court with his scoring, passing, rebounding and defending.

“[My confidence is] through the roof,” Weber said. “I never lack confidence in any area of basketball. This is a game that I’ve been playing since I was 2 years old, so I never lack confidence.

“I’m not on a big-time contract. I’m here to show that I should play in this league. I’m capable of playing in this league and I can play for a long time. [I also want] to showcase my talent to other teams, just in case Miami lets me go.”

The HEAT’s organizational infrastructure and its success are well-documented to this point. With HEAT President Pat Riley in charge of assembling the roster, Miami has consistently been a playoff team (and typically a contender) under his watch. Of course, adding the “Big Three” a few years ago further added to his credibility as a front office executive.

Beyond Riley, the team has head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has proven to be among the best sideline generals in the league. Spoelstra has often been commended for his work ethic and ability to prepare his players for each game. His road to head coach started as a video coordinator under Stan Van Gundy and he eventually worked his way up to head coach a few years ago (so, yes, he’s another diamond in the rough whom Miami discovered).

The team’s great group of veterans have done a great job welcoming in younger players and helping them get acclimated. With Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic and Udonis Haslem among others in the locker room, rookies and second-year players have learned many valuable lessons (on and off the court) as they try to maximize their potential.

“I think the biggest thing is you just see those guys and how they perform as professionals in all aspects – whether it’s getting to the gym early, getting the treatment, getting shots late,” Justise Winslow said. “That’s something that I think has helped me and a reason why I’m extremely happy with my situation and stepping into somewhere that was a playoff-contending team.

“Those guys help me in every sense of becoming a professional. Those guys have helped me with my work ethic and little things [like that]. When it comes to playoffs, those guys have been through hundreds of games so it definitely benefited me having those guys on my side.”

Looking at how the HEAT have performed in recent years, it’s no surprise that they’ve been so successful. Even after the team lost LeBron James two years ago, they still managed to play well. They narrowly missed the playoffs the year after James left, and they were one game away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals this past season (despite being without Bosh).

Given the way the HEAT’s summer has gone thus far, they might have to rely on the trio of Winslow, Richardson and Weber a lot more next season. The HEAT have just five players guaranteed on the roster for next season as of right now. They lost veterans Luol Deng and Joe Johnson to free agency so far, and may lose Tyler Johnson if they opt not to match his large offer sheet from the Nets.

As things stand currently, the HEAT have just Bosh, Whiteside, Dragic, Josh McRoberts and Winslow on guaranteed deals for next season. It’s unclear at this time when (or if) Bosh can resume basketball activities due to his blood clotting issues. Meanwhile, Richardson and Weber are both on non-guaranteed deals for next season.

Right now, all eyes are on Wade to see if he’ll continue his career in Miami. There is some uncertainty at the moment regarding his future, as he was reportedly upset with the team’s initial one-year, $10 million offer and will meet with other teams beginning today. The Denver Nuggets, for example, will meet with Wade on Wednesday and are reportedly offering a two-year, $52 million deal.

Miami increased their offer to a two-year, $40 million contract but it may be too little, too late. It remains to be seen if Wade will leave for more money (or if he’s just using other teams for negotiating purposes), but it should be a bit concerning for HEAT fans that Wade is no longer just flirting with other teams but actually meeting face to face with them.

It seems reasonable to assume that the HEAT will guarantee Richardson and Weber next season given their bargain contracts ($874,636 each), especially now that the team may have to allocate more money than they initially expected to retain Wade. It’s very possible that this HEAT team looks completely different next season, but it’s still very early in the offseason so it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet.

Regardless of which players return on the roster next season, it seems likely given Miami’s track record that they’ll be able to find more under-the-radar talent in the D-League and elsewhere.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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