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NBA AM: Miami HEAT 2017-18 Season Preview

With their sights set on returning to the playoffs, Basketball Insiders previews the 2017-18 Miami HEAT.

Basketball Insiders

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The Miami HEAT were one of the best stories in the NBA last season. For a team that fell just short of the playoffs, the HEAT certainly played as well as any team in the league in the second half of the year.

Of course, it wasn’t pretty during the first half of the season. The team went 11-30 during their first 41 games and were practically written off by most experts. But this group stayed together and continued to chip away and would compile a 30-11 record in the second half of the season to narrowly miss the playoffs.

This HEAT team opted to bring back most of its free agents this summer and they feel confident with this group moving forward. Will it be enough to return to the postseason?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Miami HEAT.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When Pat Riley is pulling the strings for your organization, anything is possible.

At least, that was the sentiment this summer when the HEAT organization was hopeful that it had a chance at landing prized free agent Gordon Hayward. Ultimately, Hayward wound up in Boston, but that probably won’t keep the HEAT out of this season’s playoffs.

With a healthy Dion Waiters alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, Miami has a formidable cast to make a run at the playoff spot they missed ever so slightly last season. Missing the playoffs last year did, however, allow Miami to land Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky Wildcat impressed in the summer league and should prove as a valuable reserve during his rookie season.

A weakened Eastern Conference plus an improved HEAT team looks to surely equal a playoff appearance this season.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Miami HEAT overachieved last year, finishing the season .500 and only missing the playoffs because the also .500 Chicago Bulls owned a tiebreaker. They invested significant cash in bringing back essentially the same team for another go and will probably play middling basketball. Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo are nice additions, but not necessarily the kind of star power that pushes a team into the next echelon of competition. Simply by removing some of last year’s competition, though, Miami should be a lower-half playoff seed. Even if they overachieve again this season, their ceiling is probably 47 or 48 wins.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with a respectable (and surprising) 41-41 record, by virtue of losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls, the HEAT was forced to watch last season’s playoffs from the confines of South Florida. After walking away from the draft with Bam Adebayo and signing Kelly Olynyk, though, Erik Spoelstra has a few more tools in the box to keep building.

With an identity and a foundational core that features Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and the re-signed Dion Waiters, the HEAT should rightfully enter the season with renewed hopes of returning to the postseason, especially with the considerable steps back that a few of the teams that finished above them last season have taken. If things break right in Miami and the team is able to stay relatively healthy, a finish as high as fifth in the conference isn’t out of the question. I’d probably still put the Bucks in that fifth seed, but they play the games for a reason… And when the games are played, rest assured, the HEAT will show up and put up a fight for the division crown down in the Southeast.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

After a strong stretch run to close the 2016-17 season, the HEAT will try to capture that magic for an entire year. Miami committed big money to guys like James Johnson and Dion Waiters, plus newcomer Kelly Olynyk, and they’ll need something close to that strong post-All-Star showing from their group to justify essentially locking this in as their team. They’ll continue to run out an offense strong on spacing, captained by Goran Dragic at the point. They’ll rely on Erik Spoelstra’s strong team defensive scheme, something new draftee Bam Adebayo should only help with. A big question will be how much Justise Winslow has to give after a shoulder injury last season—a strong showing could have the HEAT surprising some teams, while a disappointing performance could see them fighting just to make the playoffs in the East. Assuming the median outcome, they should finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeast.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Miami HEAT had limited options in terms of what do with their roster this offseason. Give the HEAT credit for investing in the core of players that overachieved last year, though. Sure, James Johnson’s deal will probably look bad after a year or two, and Dion Waiters will always be a risky player to invest in, nevertheless, with a strong culture in Miami and head coach Erik Spoelstra leading the way, this team has the tools to surprise the league again.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic

As the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, Dragic projects to again be the top offensive player this season. Perhaps it was Dwyane Wade leaving, but Dragic appeared to be more comfortable on the offensive end as the team’s primary ball handler last season.

Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season while shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range. He was afforded the opportunity to run the offense at a faster pace, which best suits his style of play.

In a time where three-point shooting comes at a premium, Dragic certainly has lived up to expectations. He was instrumental for the HEAT all season long and it seems reasonable to believe he’ll continue to be one of the team’s most valuable players.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Whiteside as the team’s top defensive player. He averaged a career-high 17 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season. Whiteside led the league in rebounds and finished fourth in blocks.

Much of what allowed the HEAT to boast a top-five defense last season was having Whiteside down in the paint. While his blocks were down last season from the year before, his presence in the paint still makes things difficult for the opposing players to get clean looks.

Whiteside finished fourth in the league in defensive rating (99.9), fourth in defensive win shares (5.3) and fifth in block percentage. He held opponents to 51 percent shooting within six feet of the rim. To put that into context, Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green held opponents to 48.3 percent shooting at the same distance.

Whiteside squashed any doubt about how he’d perform after signing a monster contract summer. Now, it’s time to show that he can maintain his dominance on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

Without Dwyane Wade in the picture, Dragic proved to be a great leader for the HEAT on the court. He benefited by the opportunity to get out and run last season and was very effective getting his teammates involved.

Dragic has proven over his nine years in the NBA that he can be very good at attacking the basket and kicking out to the open man when needed. As we’ll cover in the next section, he led the team with 81 total points in clutch situations and came up with several big plays throughout the season.

When the HEAT needed a big play, the team could count on Dragic to make it.

Top Clutch Player: Tyler Johnson

While we could have highlighted Dragic here, we are going to take a look at Johnson during clutch moments last season.

Of course, we can’t forget when Dion Waiters hit the game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors with .6 seconds left to continue the team’s 13-game winning streak. Memes were created with Waiters’ pose following the shot, t-shirts were made and Twitter exploded after it. It was arguably one of the top moments of the season for the HEAT.

As Waiters came up with the shot of the year against the Warriors, Johnson was quietly one of the team’s best clutch performers last season. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Johnson ranked as the team’s second-best player in these moments.

While Dragic led the team with 81 total points last season in clutch situations, Johnson was second on the team with 67 points. He shot 44.9 percent (22-of-49) from the field and 45 percent (9-of-20) from three-point range in clutch situations.

Johnson’s percentages were actually slightly better than Dragic’s and he was the team’s top three-point shooter during these moments. Many HEAT fans may remember his performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he scored eight of his 24 total points during overtime to help the team to a key win.

For the HEAT, having all three of these players in Dragic, Johnson and Waiters on the roster has been very beneficial. An argument can be made for each player as the team’s best clutch player and it’s likely a good problem to have for head coach Erik Spoelstra.

The Unheralded Player: Udonis Haslem

Each year, we highlight players in this category that don’t receive nearly as much love as they should. Haslem is a perfect candidate for this title and it isn’t even close.

Haslem serves as the team’s captain and is the leader in the locker room. While Haslem hasn’t played much over the past couple of seasons, he serves a much larger role than that. Haslem is the HEAT’s voice and heart and soul of the team. The leadership that he brings to the team is clearly very valuable to the HEAT to bring him back for a 15th season.

Ask any current or former HEAT player what Haslem means to the team and it likely won’t take long before they mention his leadership skills, toughness and professionalism. It speaks volumes for his character for the team to bring him back for another season.

As the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, Haslem has become a strong mentor for the team’s younger players. He even spoke to members of the summer league team on exactly what it means to be a part of the HEAT culture.

It’s obvious that Haslem has earned a place among the franchise’s all-time greats and he’s back for at least one more season.

Best New Addition: Kelly Olynyk

Given that the HEAT opted to retain most of its roster, the best new addition candidates basically came down to Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo. While Adebayo certainly has potential, we opted to highlight Olynyk here.

Now, the decision to sign Olynyk to a four-year, $51.2 million contract was a bit out of left field, but his addition figures to help bolster the team’s frontcourt depth. With the addition of Olynyk, the team now has Hassan Whiteside, Olynyk and Adebayo on the depth chart in the frontcourt.

Olynyk figures to be a welcomed addition to the team given his ability to space the floor, which is something the HEAT have lacked in recent years. He averaged nine points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists per game last season for the Boston Celtics while shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range.

HEAT fans may remember one signature performance by Olynyk during last season’s playoffs. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Olynyk recorded 26 points, four rebounds and four assists on 10-of-14 shooting from the floor to help the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While those sort of performances may not happen regularly, Olynyk has proven that he can be an effective scorer off of the bench or as a starter.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

It is becoming a yearly tradition to highlight head coach Spoelstra for the HEAT. It was easy to disregard the accomplishments he had with the Big Three, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that he can coach very well no matter who is on the team.

Coaching a roster that didn’t boast too many household names, Spoelstra nearly led one of the best comebacks in regular season history. As the team once sat at 11-30 last season, it would have been easy for the team to throw in the towel and begin looking ahead to the offseason. In fact, many believed the HEAT were better off tanking and positioning themselves for a better draft pick.

Instead, Spoelstra stuck the course and so did his players. After beginning with a lowly 11-30 record, the team finished by going 30-11 in the second half of the season. It was the best second-half record ever by a team that missed the playoffs. Many even believed he had a legitimate argument to win Coach of the Year–he finished second.

The team is hoping they can ride that momentum into the 2017-18 season and it seems reasonable to believe they’ll pick up right where they left off.

2. James Johnson

The HEAT prioritized retaining most of its roster this offseason and most fans were delighted to see a new contract for Johnson. After having a career year, Johnson made the decision to hand him a new four-year, $60 million contract an easy one.

In 76 games last season, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. It was by far the best season of his eight-year career after having stops in Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento and Memphis.

The team signed Johnson to a one-year, $4 million deal last offseason and it’s safe to say he exceeded expectations by a longshot. He committed to himself by getting better on the court and off of the court. He transformed his body by dropping nearly 40 pounds of weight and nearly eight percent of body fat thanks to the HEAT’s training staff.

Based on his progress and improvements during his first season with the HEAT, we expect Johnson to become a valuable piece to this team.

3. Josh Richardson

Richardson is just the latest in a long line of success stories in the NBA. As a former second-round pick by the HEAT two years ago, it was reported earlier this week that he has agreed to a four-year, $42 million contract extension with the team.

Although Richardson was hampered by injuries last season, the HEAT have seen enough in him that they believe he can continue to develop and become a meaningful player in the future. In 53 games last season, Richardson averaged a career-high 10.2 points.

Richardson has proven to be one of the team’s best shooters. During his rookie campaign two years ago, he shot 46.1 percent from three-point range. He struggled shooting last season after converting on just 33 percent of his three-point shots, but that dip in shooting could be due to dealing with knee, ankle and foot injuries.

He did show flashes of great play during the final month of the regular season. In six April games, Richardson averaged 15 points, 3.2 rebounds and three assists while converting on 53 percent of his three-point attempts. It should be fun to see his progress should he stay healthy this year.

4. Dion Waiters

Waiters has already established himself as a fan favorite after just one season in Miami. Of course, it helps that he hit a game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. His pose after hitting that shot has been plastered on memes, t-shirts and social media. It’s safe to say that HEAT nation has fully embraced him.

Waiters opted to sign a one-year, $2 million contract with the team last year, in essence, betting on himself. It worked. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $52 million contract.

Last season, the guard turned in nearly his best season to date after averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 46 games. He also shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. As he begins his second year in Miami, look for him to continue to make the highlight reels and stir it up on social media.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

Miami went under the salary cap this summer to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to multi-year deals. The HEAT still own their $4.3 million Room Exception but may be invested already in a full roster of 15 (with 13 guaranteed players plus two partials in Rodney McGruder and Okaro White).

Next summer, Miami projects to be over the cap with heavy investments in Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and their recent signings. Before November, the HEAT need to pick up Justise Winslow’s 2018-19 team option.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The HEAT had excellent chemistry on and off of the court last season. With the additions of several new players last season, it seems remarkable.

They showed this strength during the team’s improbable second-half run. Multiple players stepped up during this stretch to help the team rise up in the Eastern Conference. Some teams may have opted to give up once they went 11-30, but this group stayed together and nearly made the playoffs.

Based off of the success the team had in the second-half of last season, the front office opted to bring back the majority of their free agents. They re-signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson, while they opted to keep Wayne Ellington on the roster, as well.

The team now has a ton of depth and appears to be in good shape for next season.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

If you look at this HEAT team on paper, they don’t project to have many weaknesses. The offense ranked 16th in the league in efficiency. The defense was ranked inside the top five and head coach Erik Spoelstra is widely regarded as one of the best head coaches in the game.

But one area in which can be seen as a weakness could be the team’s lack of superstar talent. While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are certainly good players, they’re not superstars. The HEAT have serviceable players at each position, but is it enough to get them deep into the playoffs?

Many have wondered if this HEAT team will be able to duplicate its second-half success with its current roster. Of course, the team has certainly tried to sign some of the league’s top free agents over the years, but have come up just short in doing so.

The HEAT figure to be in the race for a playoff berth all season long, but the lack of superstar talent could be what ultimately prevents them from making a deep playoff run.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

After keeping its core together, will that be enough to make a run at the playoffs?

In what many project to be a weaker Eastern Conference this season, the HEAT will find themselves back in the postseason this year. They came up a tiebreaker with the Chicago Bulls short from making the playoffs last season and likely would have been a problem for the Boston Celtics in the first round. Now, they’re armed with a few more weapons and have depth all across the board. It’s not a matter of if they make the playoffs, but rather a matter of how high they can climb up the standings and whether or not they have what it takes to advance.

— Cody Taylor

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

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