Five NBA Questions
Sometimes it’s interesting to get different perspectives when discussing these NBA topics, so this morning we asked three Basketball Insiders writers to answer five league-related questions. Joel Brigham, Jabari Davis and Steve Kyler all weighed in and here is what they had to say.
1. Who Has Been the Biggest Surprise Player for You?
While so many players have gone nuclear this year statistically, the one player who has surprised me the most, even more than Russell Westbrook’s triple-double average, has been James Harden leading the league in assists with 11.8 per game. He’s never averaged more than 7.5 assists per game at any other point in his career and, for the most part, it’s pretty unheard of for an older dog to come up with this kind of new trick. Harden has looked like an MVP this year, and his ball distribution has been a big reason why.
– Joel Brigham
It isn’t shocking given all of the promise, but the most pleasant surprise (or development) so far has been the progress of Giannis Antetokounmpo throughout the first quarter of the NBA’s regular season. It would have been very easy to write the Bucks off given the preseason injury to Khris Middleton and the fact that the Eastern Conference at least appeared to be improving significantly around them, but Milwaukee has shown to be a resilient bunch, and Antetokounmpo has been a major part of that.
At just 22 years old, the 6’11 point forward can effectively play any position on the court depending on the matchup and still only appears to be touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential. He’s up to 22.4 PPG (19th), 8.6 RPG (20th) and 6.1 APG (17th) on the year and the Bucks are exceeding expectations. Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns understandably get mentioned whenever the discussion of “starting a franchise around one guy” comes up, but Antetokounmpo is a guy that should be breaking into that conversation if he’s not already there.
– Jabari Davis
Solomon Hill of the New Orleans Pelicans has surprised me, and not in a good way. Whenever a player changes teams, you expect something of a learning curve. But fresh off a four-year $48 million contract this past summer, Hill has been downright dreadful as a Pelican. In 22 games logged this season, Hill is averaging a career low 5.2 points per game. He has registered double-figure scoring just twice all season and has recorded seven games with a zero field goal percentage. You can point to many things that are not working for the Pelicans, but Hill has turned into an almost disastrous signing.
– Steve Kyler
2. What Players Has Not Lived Up to Your Expectations?
Chandler Parsons was part of Memphis’ quarter-billion investment this past summer, but he’s only played in six games this season thanks to a knee injury. And even in the games he played, he averaged only 7.7 PPG. That’s a career-low and about half of his career average, so all that vitriol Mark Cuban had about Chandler’s exit can now be targeted at something or someone more deserving. Frankly, Mark Cuban is lucky he avoided investing all that money in a player who’s been arguably the league’s most disappointing through the first 20 games of the year.
– Joel Brigham
Although he appears to be putting it together a bit more of late, Bismack Biyombo hasn’t enjoyed quite the rollover success for his new team in Orlando many would have liked to see following a successful late-season and playoff stretch with the Toronto Raptors last season. His rebounding totals (8.3 RPG) have been impressive for a reserve player, but even more consistency and production would have been anticipated given the deal he signed this past summer.
Unless the plan was to pay a backup an average of $18 million per season over the next four years, it isn’t a stretch to assume Orlando’s front office has a larger role (eventually) in mind for the 24-year-old big man from Zaire. It will be interesting to see if GM Rob Hennigan is active on the trade market at some point this season or moving forward given the roster redundancy or if they ultimately like having the ability to bring in the versatile Biyombo behind Nikola Vucevic. For perspective, Vucevic has been effective and has another two years left on a very favorable deal (about $12.5 million per through 2018-19). That means the team has technically committed about twice as much money to Biyombo moving forward.
– Jabari Davis
Stanley Johnson of the Detroit Pistons gets the nod here. Part of Johnson’s problem is he can’t get out of Stan Van Gundy’s doghouse. There has been talk of needing to be more focused at practice and needing to play harder in games, so some of that is on Stanley. Johnson is immensely talented and shows flashes of being a special talent. Maybe Johnson needs a change of scenery to blossom. This was a year in which the expectations on Johnson were higher, especially after a solid Summer League. With 19 games logged and just 3.6 points per game, Johnson has hardly lived up to the hype and his 9.85 PER rating is downright disappointing.
– Steve Kyler
3. What Team Has Not Lived Up to Your Expectations?
As someone who thought the Indiana Pacers would be one of the East’s best teams, seeing them flounder just south of .500 through the first quarter of the season has been terribly frustrating. While Paul George has dealt with some early-season injuries, Jeff Teague hasn’t been the big-time scorer they hoped he would be and the team just hasn’t come together under Nate McMillan. This group looks weird and disjointed, and they’ll be lucky just to make the playoffs this year, let alone win a series.
– Joel Brigham
A legitimate case could be made for the Indiana Pacers (10-11) and even the Atlanta Hawks (on a 1-9 stretch following a 9-2 start), but it has to be the Minnesota Timberwolves. They were just about everyone’s ‘darling’ squad coming into the season, and while a transition period was certainly anticipated given the new direction under Tom Thibodeau, let’s just say they haven’t shown quite the collective growth that might have been expected.
In retrospect, some of their early struggles should have been anticipated given the age of the core, but you still might expect a more defined defensive identity or at least signs of significant improvement on that end from their wing talent. Given Thibodeau’s penchant for the defensive end, you know being the 23rd-ranked team in terms of defensive efficiency and 28th overall in opponent’s shooting percentage is not sitting well. Perhaps some veteran depth in the locker room and huddle might be the answer?
– Jabari Davis
The Washington Wizards should be substantially better than their 6-13 record. The chemistry of the team is just off. The bench is almost dreadful, and unfortunately, it does not look like something that will right itself. The good news is the Wizards are just 3.5 games out of the playoff picture so a strong run of games could put them in the hunt. But given how good this team should have been coming into the season, the Wizards have been a big disappointment.
– Steve Kyler
4. You Can Make One Trade, What’s It Look Like?
The Philadelphia 76ers trade Nerlens Noel to the Chicago Bulls for Nikola Mirotic. Chicago’s bench has been brutal, and while Noel doesn’t help with the offense, he does bolster the frontcourt in the second unit where currently there isn’t a whole lot of talent that can contribute. Chicago wouldn’t lose much in Mirotic, who has regressed considerably this year, and the contracts are pretty comparable. Philadelphia clears up their logjam at center and brings in a 25-year-old stretch four that still could very well figure it out, while Chicago gets depth for its bench and a pretty talented defensive player itching for a fresh start.
– Joel Brigham
It wouldn’t be able to take place until after January 15th due to a recently signed deal, but a deal centered around Bradley Beal for Nikola Vucevic (+ Jodie Meeks’ expiring deal) could make sense for both teams once Beal can be moved. Washington is 6-13 and headed absolutely nowhere once again this season even with the transition to Coach Brooks’ new system. Although it is still relatively early in his tenure, John Wall is in the midst of his third consecutive frustrating season and certainly doesn’t seem eager or willing to continue struggling. The move would open things up a bit more for the Wizards from a financial standpoint over the next few years and give Wall a big man that has proven he can score and rebound at a high level. It would also balance things out for Orlando, open time up for the aforementioned Biyombo and obviously give them the type of wing scorer the organization has coveted for some time.
– Jabari Davis
If we’re making a trade, let’s make a trade. There are a few problems that need solving, so this deal attempts to do both. There is a massive logjam of similar players in Philadelphia, Orlando and Denver. The Kings also have a couple of guys that would like out, so let’s fix all of that with one deal.
So, the Philadelphia 76ers send out Nerlens Noel (to Denver) and Robert Covington (to Sacramento). The Orlando Magic send out Nikola Vucevic (to Philadelphia) and C.J. Watson (to Sacramento). The Nuggets send out Emmanuel Mudiay (to Philadelphia) and Wilson Chandler (to Sacramento) while the Kings send out Rudy Gay (to Orlando), Omri Casspi (to Orlando) and Skal Labissière (to Denver).
In the end, the 76ers come out with Vucevic and Mudiay, better fitting pieces to the roster they have and a strong option at point guard going forward. There is still some duplication at the center position, but Vucevic could play more of a stretch four role in Philly, and his deal is very team friendly.
The Magic end up with Gay and Casspi; both bring offense. Both would basically be one-year rentals but would give the Magic two true small forwards, both of whom can score the ball.
The Nuggets would thin out the point guard position and concede that Mudiay might not be the guy and let Jamal Murray run the show. They would get back Noel and Labissière and shed Chandler. The Nuggets get some defense and shot blocking, although they’d still have a logjam in the front court, the pieces might be better long-term especially if the Nuggets could extract a draft pick from every team involved for helping make this deal work. For the Kings, they get a lot of value out of two guys that want to leave and a rookie they don’t need. Chandler is playing very well as of late and is under contract. Watson gives them another option at point guard and Covington (while injured today) gives them a tremendous outside shooter.
If you are going to make a trade, why not make a big one? This deal is not ideal for the Nuggets, but what it would do is set them up for a run through the lottery and maybe a shot at a much better fitting group of guys.
– Steve Kyler
5. What Player Is Over-Hyped?
While he started the season on fire, DeMar DeRozan has come crashing back down to earth over the course of the last several games and is showing more of the inconsistency he’s exhibited over the course of his career. We all saw how he completely disappeared in the playoff games that mattered a season ago, and his $139 million contract this past summer was supposed to represent his movement into the league’s upper echelon. He can be an elite scorer, but he’s just as inconsistent as he’s ever been.
– Joel Brigham
These questions are never fun, but following the amount of buzz he received coming out of college and some of the more favorable comparisons bestowed upon him, thus far, Jahlil Okafor has been overhyped. That isn’t, necessarily, a knock against him on a personal level. The fact that he was being mentioned in the same breath as greats like Tim Duncan (offensive skill set) and there was an actual debate (by some) as to whether he should have been the top selection over Karl-Anthony Towns (although, no one will admit this now). Okafor’s inability to assert himself on a team with plenty of opportunities to shine (like the Philadelphia 76ers) is at the very least a bit of a concern.
– Jabari Davis
Without trying to bring the wrath of Laker Nation upon me and admitting he’s a 19-year-old rookie, can we pump the brakes just a touch on Brandon Ingram now? With 23 NBA games under his belt, he’s averaging eight points a game, shooting 36.4 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three. He has a PER of 7.86 and just six games with double-figure scoring. Now seriously, I get it. He’s a baby in his NBA career, but if you rewind to the draft, he was drawing a comparison to Kevin Durant, and that he’d be the instant game changer for whatever team got him. He is a very nice player, with lots of upside and potential, but the hype around Ingram was never based in reality. It was always based on this fantasy concept that because he looked like Durant, he’d play like Durant. The Lakers are taking it slow with Ingram, as they should. In time, he has the skill set to potentially be a special player, but now that there is some reality to the equation, maybe we can ease back on how great Ingram is going to be until he actually is great. Just a suggestion.
– Steve Kyler
Don’t agree? Have a different answer to the question, we’d love to hear what you think. Drop your responses in the comment section below.
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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers
The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.
The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.
For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.
The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.
“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.
General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.
“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”
Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.
“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.
When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.
“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”
Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.
“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.
Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.
“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”
Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.
“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”
Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.
“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”
Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting
Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.
“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”
With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.
“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.
Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.
“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.
For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.
“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”
Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.
“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.
Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.
“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.
Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.
“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.
When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.
“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.
“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”
The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’
Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?
In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.
Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.
While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.
The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.
After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.
The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.
And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.
But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.
This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.
Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.
However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.
Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?
Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.
There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.
It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.
And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.
Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.
NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?
Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?
The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.
In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.
Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.
He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.
In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.
That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?
Here are three possibilities:
Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.
Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.
He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.
Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.
Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.
He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.
This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.
He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.
In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.
With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.
In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.