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.
NBA PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers
The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.
If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.
In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.
“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”
What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.
Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.
Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.
Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.
Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future
Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.
Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”
Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.
There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.
Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago
After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.
Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.
Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.
Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.
But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.
Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.
For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.
So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.
It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.
His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.
Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.
That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.
Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.
Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.
Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.
NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized
Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.
With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?
Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.
“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”
Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.
“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”
Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.
“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”
Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.
For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.
By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.
How Dwight Howard ranks in scoring efficiency among players with at least 70 post up possessions this season: pic.twitter.com/lVYRfkIQhP
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) November 22, 2017
Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.
“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”
Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.
“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”
With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.