The Utah Jazz have to feel good about themselves. Even through all the adversity and all their struggles early on this season, they’ve established a good culture for their team. They currently have one of the most promising young scorers in the league as well as the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year – not to mention this year’s biggest All-Star snub.
Having Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is all well and good, but what’s most important for the Jazz is that they have surrounded those two with glue guys who know their roles and help the team win. Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver among others form a more-than-solid foundation that should give Utah a bright future.
It should only get better from here for Utah for two specific reasons
1. They have the assets to get better from here with their cap situation, which they might take advantage of before the trade deadline.
2. Mitchell and Gobert are embracing the culture in Salt Lake City, a town that has the obvious disadvantage of being in a small market compared to its counterparts.
The Jazz should feel fortunate because teams in small markets can pay a hefty price if they don’t surround their star talent with players who can help them win.
Just ask the New Orleans Pelicans.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week and don’t have a clue of what’s been going on, Anthony Davis has alerted the Pelicans that he will not be signing an extension this summer and has requested a trade.
Nobody should blame Davis for this. In the almost seven years he’s been in New Orleans, the team has made the playoffs only twice, and have exactly one playoff series win despite Davis evolving into one of the league’s most fearsome players in that time.
The conclusion to draw from this was that the Pelicans failed to build a good team around Davis. Upon further review, this is true albeit only to a certain extent.
New Orleans definitely made some moves that look pretty boneheaded in hindsight. Drafting Austin Rivers, trading a first-round pick for Omer Asik then re-signing him to an albatross contract and overpaying Solomon Hill on a long-term deal did not work in their favor.
Even if those moves failed, it’s not like the Pelicans surrounded Davis with complete scrubs. They brought in Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo to name a few players with respectable reputations to put it lightly.
Emphasis needs to be put on Gordon. Once upon a time, Eric Gordon was one of the most promising young guards in the league. As the centerpiece of the return that New Orleans received for Chris Paul, Gordon was supposed to be Davis’ partner-in-crime. Then, persistent injuries plagued Gordon for most of his tenure. By the time he moved past them, he never got his old self back.
His fall from grace and his eventual redemption in Houston are two stories that don’t get talked about enough around NBA interwebs, but this writer digresses. Point being, Gordon on paper was supposed to be Davis’ No. 2. Injuries sadly derailed his All-Star potential.
Guys getting hurt also just seemed to be a running theme in the Big Easy. Gordon, Holiday and Evans all spent a good portion of their time on the team on the shelf because they were nursing injuries. Cousins had to be the most tragic out of the bunch, as his Achilles injury leaves fans wondering what could have been. The team may have managed just fine without him, but a player with his profile leaves so much to the imagination.
New Orleans didn’t do a perfect job surrounding Davis with talent, but they made more good moves than bad. The fact that they didn’t have much success may be more of a result of injuries than ineptitude.
It doesn’t matter though because, in the end, if you’re a small market team with an all-time talent on the roster, you have a limited timeframe to create a winning team until you potentially face a trade request. In Davis’ case, everyone kept their eyes peeled on him and the Pelicans until it finally happened. Saddest of all, this is deja vu for New Orleans.
They faced this same crisis when Chris Paul asked for a trade back in 2011. What’s worse is that Davis was supposed to be the segue away from the CP3 era. Instead, it’s just lather, rinse, repeat for them.
Getting back to the Jazz, Utah has built a good enough that they most likely won’t have to deal with the same situation that the Pelicans currently have with “The Brow”. However, just because they’ve formed a good foundation does not promise glory at the highest level. What’s worse is that small market teams like them that have built good-not-great teams really can struggle to tear them down if things don’t work out.
Just ask the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizz are another team that should be in the trade rumor mill for the next couple of days. This season hasn’t gone as well as planned for Memphis. They’re 21-33 and have fallen further and further away from the playoff race. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol are now available in trade talks and rebuilding appears to be the only option now.
Grit-and-Grind is nearing its end, and many are asking why it took the Grizzlies until now to trade their franchise cornerstones when trading them years earlier would have fetched them more value.
The answer is pretty simple: Because building a good team in Memphis is not easy to do. To get where they were in Memphis required a lot of savvy moves. People fault the Pelicans for trading all of their picks for win-now players, but the Grizzlies provide a perfect counterpoint to that. While they were building the Grit-and-Grind era, the Grizzlies had four top-eight picks in the NBA draft from 2006-2009, and they whiffed on three of them.
Mike Conley Jr proved to be the only success story coming out of the draft for Memphis, while Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet all flopped. Gay and Mayo weren’t bad players. It’s just that the Grizzlies played at their peak after those two departed.
Besides Conley, the Grizzlies made some savvy moves to get where they were. They acquired Marc Gasol’s draft rights when they traded Pau to the Lakers. At the time, Gasol was mid-second round pick who wasn’t really known for anything besides being Pau’s brother. They then acquired Zach Randolph in what was basically a salary dump trade. At the time, Randolph’s value was at its absolute lowest and many questioned if he was a winning player. They then signed Tony Allen in free agency. At the time, Allen was a backup wing who had just found his niche in the NBA.
Because the quartet of Conley, Gasol, Randolph and Allen worked out so much better than anyone could have anticipated, together they created the best basketball the Grizzlies franchise had ever seen.
Everything gradually went sour over time. Randolph and Allen got old. Gasol and Conley suffered serious recurring injuries. The team bet on the wrong horse both in trades – Jeff Green – and in free agency – Chandler Parsons – in their search for that last piece. The last time Memphis did damage in the playoffs was in 2015 when they battled the Warriors in the second round. They haven’t come close to that since.
Getting that team together took time and it took some crafty moves. Tearing that all down is tough because lottery picks are no guarantee – You don’t get a Jaren Jackson Jr. type every year – and marquee free agents aren’t lining up to go to small markets unless the team in that small market has a good product by its name.
When and if the Grizzlies rebuild, it’s probably going to take a long while to get back to where they were, which is exactly why they’ve avoided that route until they had no other choice.
Utah’s done well for themselves because they’ve risen above some of the limitations of being a small market team. That does not mean that they are out of the woods. If the supporting cast around Mitchell and Gobert falters, that could lead to some trouble. It doesn’t look that way at the moment at all, but even if they become a Western Conference contender, there’s no telling if they can manage to get over the hump. If they don’t, they may not know when to pull the plug.
The public usually loves to root for the little guy, but the little guy always has its disadvantages. All in all, what’s happening to both the Pelicans and the Grizzlies is another chilling reminder that being in a small market can be the pits.
NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis
The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.
It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.
Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.
Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.
The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.
Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.
That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.
Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?
That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.
In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.
Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:
With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.
The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.
Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.
There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.
Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.
Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.
For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?
If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.
If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.
Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.
If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.
Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.
It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.
Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.
Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).
Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.
There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.
High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA
Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff.
As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.
Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.
There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.
Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:
Best Practices & Key Considerations
Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.
This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.
Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)
If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.
In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.
- Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
- Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
- The Dallas Mavericks, the Temple University Men’s Basketball Program, and Ironi Ness-Ziona Basketball Club of the Israeli Super League (FIBA Europe Cup) have all employed this set-up with success. Embedding a High-Performance Coach reinforces credibility and shows players that the team means business regarding the integration of the mental side of the game within the overall team dynamic.
- Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
- Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.
In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.
Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.
There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.
There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.
The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.
One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets
James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.
James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.
Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.
There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.
And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.
Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.
Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.
Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.
The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.
The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.
Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.
Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.
On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.
The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.
There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.
Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.
PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar
PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh
Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.
Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.
Offseason Grade: B+