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NBA AM: Unlikely Heroes To Start The 2017-18 Season

Lang Greene pays respect to the unlikely heroes on all 30 teams to start the 2017-18 season

Lang Greene

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The stars get paid the big bucks and dominate the headlines, but the production of role players is critical to the success of any team. Today, we’ll take a look at the unlikely heroes for every NBA team to start the 2017-18 season.

Aaron Gordon, Power Forward, Orlando Magic

The Magic (5-2) are currently in a three-way tie for best record in the league. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Whether the franchise can sustain the early pace is up for debate, but Gordon’s play isn’t. The forward is averaging 21 points, nine rebounds and 2.4 assists on 55 percent shooting from the floor. All are career-highs for the former fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Dwight Howard, Center, Charlotte Hornets

Ever since leaving the Orlando Magic, Howard hasn’t come close to his once dominant peak. A change of scenery to the Queen City may have sparked the former All-Star to another level. Howard is averaging 14.9 rebounds to start the campaign – which would be a career-high if he can sustain the pace.

Eric Gordon, Shooting Guard, Houston Rockets

Gordon was once considered one of the most promising shooting guard prospects in the league. However, injuries seemingly derailed his ascent. To start the season, the veteran is averaging 24.9 points per game while taking on a heavier offensive load with All-Star guard Chris Paul on the shelf.

Kyle Korver, Shooting Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers

Raise your hand if you projected that the best Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard this season would be Kyle Korver. Those of you with your hands raised are few and far between, but Korver has thoroughly outplayed future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade and former Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith to start the season.

Domantas Sabonis, Power Forward, Indiana Pacers

Sabonis played 81 games as a rookie last season, but was stuck on the depth chart behind veterans such as Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Taj Gibson. An offseason trade to Indiana has allowed Sabonis to showcase his game and to start the season he’s averaging 12.9 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes per game.

David West, Power Forward, Golden State Warriors

In 68 appearances last season, West scored in double figures just eight times. In eight games to start the 2017-18 campaign, the former All-Star has reached double figures twice and is shooting 68 percent from the floor. We know the Warriors are dominated at the top by Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green but what makes Golden State even more special is the contribution from its role players.

Ben Simmons, Guard-Forward, Philadelphia 76ers

Out of sight, out of mind. After missing all of his rookie season, Simmons has performed at elite levels right of out the cereal box averaging 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 53 percent shooting from the floor.

Kyle Kuzma, Small Forward, Los Angeles Lakers

If you pegged Kuzma as a summer league only sensation, you might be wrong. The rookie has earned a big role in the Lakers’ nightly rotation and through seven contests is averaging 14 points and five rebounds on 53 percent shooting from the field. Kuzma’s development is one of the main reasons veteran forward Luol Deng is buried on Los Angeles’ bench.

Tobias Harris, Small Forward, Detroit Pistons

Harris has been the Pistons’ best player to start the season and it isn’t close. The forward is currently averaging 20.5 points per game, which leads the team and is a career-high.

DeMarre Carroll, Small Forward, Brooklyn Nets

Carroll earned respect as a gritty and tough wing in two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. In the summer of 2015, Carroll signed a $60 million deal with Toronto and underwhelmed for two seasons before being traded to Brooklyn this past summer. So far, so good in New York with averages of 14 points per game and 42 percent accuracy from three-point range.

Marco Belinelli, Shooting Guard, Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks lost starting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to the New York Knicks in free agency this past summer, but the void has been replaced by Belinelli. The veteran is knocking down three three-pointers per game on 55 percent from distance and a career-high 14.6 points through seven contests.

Rodney Hood, Small Forward, Utah Jazz

Losing All-Star Gordon Hayward hurt Utah’s program, but the potential emergence of Hood has been a bright spot. The former Duke university product has emerged as the team’s go to scorer while shooting a career-high 49 percent from the floor.

Kyle Anderson, Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs

Anderson has been an all-around contributor for the Spurs since entering the league, but he never averaged more than 16 minutes in any of his first three seasons. To begin this season, Anderson is averaging 26 minutes per night and pulling 7.1 rebounds while chipping in 7.9 points. The numbers aren’t mind boggling, but he’s been consistent and will make it tough for head coach Gregg Popovich to keep him out of the rotation once All-Star Kawhi Leonard returns from injury.

Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Denver Nuggets

Mudiay had a rocky sophomore campaign and lost his starting job to veteran Jameer Nelson. But he’s rebounded in year three and despite a five minute decline in minutes is putting up roughly the same numbers (11 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists) from his days as a starter.  Mudiay has had trouble consistently knocking down shots, but you have to give credit for producing with a continual decline in minutes.

De’Aaron Fox, Point Guard, Sacramento Kings

The fifth pick of the 2017 draft is turning out to be a player, averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and five assists per contest. Fox has been fearless and rather composed for a rookie as evident by his current 2.6 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.

Yogi Farrell, Combo Guard, Dallas Mavericks

Farrell was a feel good story for the Mavericks last season in the backcourt, but the drafting of Dennis Smith Jr. seemingly relegated Farrell to bench duties. However, that hasn’t been the case as Farrell is averaging 30 minutes per contest and scoring 11.9 points each outing.

Dillon Brooks, Small Forward, Memphis Grizzlies

Second round picks rarely pan out, let alone become first year contributors from day one. But Brooks has carved out a nightly role (28 minutes per game) and has performed very well across the board for a Memphis team with playoff aspirations.

Steven Adams, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder

All eyes are on Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George in Oklahoma City and rightfully so. But Adams is on pace for a career-year with averages of 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds on 68 percent shooting.

Kyle O’Quinn, Center, New York Knicks

O’Quinn grabbed double-digit rebounds in 10 out of 79 games last season. So far, he’s accomplished this three times in six games. O’Quinn isn’t going to win any popularity contests, but he’s a role player willing to do the dirty work.

Kelly Olynyk, Power Forward, Miami HEAT

New contract. New uniform. More production. Such is the case for Olynyk in Miami. The forward is averaging a career-high 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. But also shooting a career-best 55 percent from the floor.

Ian Clark, Combo Guard, New Orleans Pelicans

Clark spent the past two seasons with a minor role on a title contender. The Pelicans aren’t on that level just yet, but that may be best for a young player looking to carve their niche in the league. To date, Clark is averaging a career-high in minutes (22.6) three-pointers made per game (1.4) and points (7.9).

Terry Rozier, Point Guard, Boston Celtics

It isn’t easy to be recognized while sharing a backcourt with guys such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart over the past few seasons, but Rozier continues to earn minutes in the rotation. Rozier’s current averages in points (9.4), rebounds (5.4), assists (2.3) and three-point percentage (35 percent) are all career-highs in year three.

Jamal Crawford, Shooting Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves

Second on the Timberwolves in three-pointers made. Third on the team in assists. Fifth on the squad in scoring. Crawford, 37, still isn’t showing his age in a standout career.

 Lauri Markkanen, Power Forward, Chicago Bulls

Sometimes an opportunity arises from an unexpected turn of events. For Markkanen, currently averaging 32 minutes per game as a rookie, the opportunity arose from a scuffle among teammates Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis in practice. Mirotic is on the shelf with a fractured jaw and Portis is serving a suspension for his role in the fracas. Markkanen is putting up 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Patrick Beverley, Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers

Beverley is not a top 10 point guard. He isn’t flashy. But Beverly is an elite defender and a tough competitor that doesn’t take nights off. Despite losing All-Star Chris Paul this summer, the Clippers are still in good shape and part of the reason is Beverley’s presence.

Al-Farouq Aminu, Small Forward, Portland Trail Blazers

Aminu had a career year in 2016 during his first season in Portland, but battled injuries in 2017 which led to a disappointing campaign. However, Aminu appears to have rebounded early on and is connecting on 42 percent of his three pointers (career-high) and is a nightly double-double threat.

As we move toward Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year, it’ll be interesting to see which players are able to keep up with the pace they’ve set for themselves in the early going.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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