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NBA AM: The Pelicans’ Quest to Build a Contender

The New Orleans Pelicans have the league’s next superstar. Can they put the pieces around him to contend?

Nate Duncan

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The Pelicans’ Quest to Build a Contender

With the ascension of Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans are suddenly at the forefront of the NBA discussion. By box score statistics, Davis has been playing about as well as any player possibly can over the 12 games to start the season. He has a 35.9 PER, 62 true shooting percentage, and is blocking 7.4 percent of opponents’ two-pointers. The Pels outscore opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor, and get murdered to the tune of -14.0 points/100 when he sits, per NBA.com. All of those numbers are almost certain to regress, if only because no player in NBA history has ever eclipsed a 32 PER over a full season, and the 10 seasons over 31 all belong to LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Regardless, the Pelicans may already have the best player in the NBA on their hands, one who might be the favorite for MVP without accounting for team performance.

But it is that team performance that must worry Pelicans fans. Despite Davis’ otherworldly and likely unsustainable heroics, the Pels are only 7-6, good for 10th place in the brutal Western Conference. While they have done well with Omer Asik out of the lineup during their recent road trip, Eric Gordon is now out indefinitely with a torn labrum. Missing even one starter can be fatal for the Pels, as only Davis, Asik, Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson have any kind of track record as productive NBA players on this roster. At fourth in offense and 15th in defense through 12 games per Nylon Calculus, New Orleans has the overall statistical resume of a lower-rung playoff team. Yet even if the Pels can sneak into the playoffs as a lower seed, I don’t think anyone sees this core as a future championship contender. Holiday, Evans and Gordon add up to basically an average perimeter starting group despite raking in eight figures a year each in annual value over their contracts. They are all old enough that we should not expect massive improvements at this point. Evans is (rightly) starting at the three, but that is because there is not an NBA-quality small forward on the roster. He is not an adequate long-term solution at the position if the Pelicans are to improve defensively.

The Pels could potentially look to upgrade at coach from Monty Williams, although there is no guarantee that is a panacea. His rotations have been questioned at times,* and he needs to find a way to make a team with Asik and Davis outstanding defensively. But Williams is well-liked by his players and by all accounts an extremely high-character coach, so moving on from him may not be something the team is willing to contemplate unless they really crater.

*For example, with only three decent perimeter players on the roster, one should be on the floor at all times. And if the three good big guys are healthy, there’s little reason to play anyone else up front.

Regardless of the coach, it is hard to imagine that this team has the talent on the perimeter to truly be a championship contender. So this team needs a personnel upgrade. How can they do it? Here is a projection of the Pels’ current salary situation. Note that Gordon is almost certain to exercise his 2015-16 player option for $15.5 million.

Pels Current

The main offseason priority will be re-signing Omer Asik. The Turkish center is one of the league’s best rim-protectors, and re-signing him will be imperative if the Pels hope to compete in the near-term. They can exceed the cap to re-sign him using Bird rights,* but if they do so it will likely be the end of any major additions. Unfortunately, if he leaves they will have only about $10 million in cap room. A contract starting at $10 million likely will not be enough in this market to sign a replacement player of Asik’s quality, especially if the Pels want him to commit past 2016 when the cap is set to explode to as much as $90 million. He would likely require a four- or five-year commitment starting at around $12 million per season with the maximum 7.5 percent annual raises.

Moreover, re-signing Asik will keep the Pelicans over the cap, allowing use of the $5.5 million mid-level exception (MLE) and $2.1 million bi-annual exception (BAE). If they have to replace Asik, they will have only the $2.8 million Room Exception and minimum contracts with which to work.

*No doubt the Pels would love to reach an extension agreement with Asik now, but that is impossible because only contracts of four or more years can be extended—and those only after the third anniversary of the signing of the contract. Asik is finishing a three-year, $25 million deal signed as an offer sheet with the Rockets in the summer of 2012, so he will have to become a free agent.

Re-signing Asik will also be an organizational priority because they surrendered a protected first-round pick to the Rockets to acquire him. That pick is top-three and top 20-30 protected, so it will almost certainly be conveyed this year unless the Pels really turn it on to finish with over 50 wins. That means 2015 will likely mark the third consecutive year New Orleans has not used its first-round pick.* The lack of picks in recent years is a big reason the Pels have such little depth. More importantly, it is the reason they have little hope of attaining the necessary improvement through internal development. Aside from Davis, they really have no young players who could realistically become a key part of a Pelicans contender.**

* To refresh, they traded their 2013 pick (number six overall—Nerlens Noel) and their 2014 pick (number 10 overall—Elfrid Payton) to Philadelphia for Holiday.

**Some might note that Austin Rivers has been better this year, but he had about as bad a first two years as an NBA player can have. That led to the decline of his fourth-year option, so he will be a free agent at the end of the year. If by chance he plays well enough to look like part of the future, the Pels will be limited to offering him a contract for what he would have made in his fourth year, about $3.1 million. Due to his performance and the fact he will likely leave if he improves significantly, he cannot be projected as a rotation piece going forward.

Even worse, while re-signing Asik would allow the Pels to retain their exceptions, acquiring a quality starter is rather difficult with those at this point. Unfortunately, as the cap grows those exceptions do not grow with it, as those were negotiated under previous CBAs. The type of player one can attract with those exceptions is much worse than a few years ago, when the cap was stagnant and fewer teams had cap room with which to trump the exceptions. What’s more, Asik’s cap hold (essentially a placeholder for the salary he is projected to sign for) is large enough that the Pels cannot add any further talent before re-signing him.

So 2015-16 will likely see the Pelicans with the same cast, plus another wing rotation player or two acquired with their exceptions. It is hard to imagine that squad moving beyond a ceiling of lower-run playoff team next year unless the West gets significantly worse or Holiday or Evans unexpectedly ascends to All-Star status.

So the Pels would have to target the summer of 2016, when Gordon comes off the books and the cap could be up to $90 million. The problem is that Davis’ five-year designated player max extension, which would be agreed to in the summer of 2015, will kick in by then. Ordinarily a player with four years of experience is limited to the “25 percent” max.* But Davis will very likely benefit from the Derrick Rose rule, which allows a max player to receive up to 30 percent of the cap if he 1) is voted MVP, 2) is voted in as an All-Star starter twice, or 3) makes two All-NBA teams in his first four years. Teams sometimes try to obtain a discount on this 30 percent max, but with a player as good as Davis the Pels would likely be foolish to seek any such concession.

*It is known as the “25 percent max” from previous CBAs, but it is now about 23.5 percent of the cap. The “30 percent max” is actually about 28.3 percent of the cap.

Davis’ 2016-17 salary is therefore projected at a cool $25.4 million if the cap is $90 million. Throw in re-signing Ryan Anderson (who will have a $12.7 million cap hold), the players signed for the MLE and BAE in the summer of 2015, and the 2016 first-rounder, and the Pels likely will not have cap space for a difference-maker even in the halcyon summer of 2016. They would project at only around $5 million in space.

Pels Re-sign Asik

What’s worse, New Orleans would need to replace Gordon, who while overpaid is still a competent two guard when healthy. It is difficult to imagine the Pels coming out of that summer with a potential championship contender as Davis approaches his prime.

With staying the course unlikely to yield a contender, the Pels will have to get creative. One option might be doubling down on the future asset expenditures in the summer of 2015. Once the 2015 pick is conveyed to Houston, New Orleans can try trading its 2016 pick for the privilege of offloading Gordon’s contract a year early. That maneuver would leave it with around $12 million in cap space even after re-signing Asik.

Trade Gordon

They might focus on a 3-and-D wing like Danny Green, another quality backup wing and a reasonable backup point guard with the $2.8 million Room Exception. That still is not necessarily a championship contender, but with the right coaching one could construct a scenario in which that team becomes a dominant defense and still scores effectively enough to get into the mix with a few breaks. Of course, giving up a first-rounder four straight years is extremely concerning, but New Orleans’ management may decide more high-risk strategies are needed since they are already pot-committed.

Another potential strategy is even more fraught with disaster: New Orleans could wait to sign Davis until the summer of 2016 rather than giving him a maximum extension immediately, while swearing up and down to Davis and his representation that he would be taken care of with a five-year max once their free agency moves were complete. The benefit would be having his $14.1 million cap hold on the books instead of his $25.4 million salary. If they avoided using the MLE and BAE in the summer of 2015 for longer than one-year deals, the Pels could garner up to $23.7 million in cap space in the summer of 2016 by waiting to re-sign Davis until after they acquire free agents.

Davis Cap Hold

The risks would be astronomical though, because Davis would be a restricted free agent. If he were alienated, he could sign a three-year, third-year player option Chandler Parsons-style offer sheet and potentially leave New Orleans after the 2018 season once they matched. Potentially losing him three years too early to facilitate free agent signings would be quite the gambit, and one that would probably require an unrealistic amount of trust between the parties.

These scenarios do not represent the entire universe of alternatives.  And it is difficult to project any NBA scenario two years out.  But they do illustrate the type of gymnastics that will likely be required to add star talent around Davis. At one point New Orleans could have played it conservatively, sought to build around Davis in the draft, then added the missing pieces in free agency before the draft picks got expensive. Instead, they obtained those more expensive pieces in trades, used their free agent room in the process and lost the draft picks in the trades. Now, they have solid but expensive veteran talent, but no cheap depth and no apparent potential for acquiring a second star to pair with Davis in the foreseeable future. While we marvel at Davis’ incredible skills, we must also face the reality that assembling a contender around him could prove difficult indeed.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram

By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.

Jake Rauchbach

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For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.

Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.

For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.

However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.

Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.

Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.

Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.

“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.

As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.

Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics

As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.

According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.

Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.

A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?

A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.

Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.

Energy Psychology – Player Development

As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.

Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.

Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.

Younger Players & The G-League

Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.

For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.

The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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