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: Wesley Matthews Adapting To Bucks
Spencer Davies has a one-on-one chat with Milwaukee Bucks veteran Wesley Matthews about his recent offensive success, last season’s hectic few months and how he’s adjusted to his new team.
Adapt or perish.
That has been an all-too-familiar saying for over a century. It can be applied to anything in life that comes somebody’s way, whether it’s by a change of circumstance, an unexpected curveball out of nowhere or a new challenge ahead somebody did expect to happen.
Wesley Matthews makes a living out of adjusting.
Just this time last year, the veteran guard was playing in his third season for the middling Dallas Mavericks. One month into 2019, he was traded to the New York Knicks when his old ball club decided to strike a massive trade to create the future international duo of Kristaps Porzings and Luka Doncic.
Matthews’ stay in the Big Apple was short-lived — two games, to be precise. From that point, the Knicks agreed to buy him out so he could sign with a competing playoff team. Looking for a solution to fill the void left by Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers came calling, and he got his wish. He finished the year and postseason in Indianapolis before becoming a free agent in the summer.
In discussing those crazy last few months, Matthews downplayed any sort of difficulty it had on him as a player.
“It’s just basketball,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, different organizations, different schemes, different technical things just as far as on-court. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. There’s two baskets. There’s 10 people playing at a time. Three refs. One ball. The basket’s 10 feet high. Same rules. [We’ve] been playing this game since we were three, four years old.”
The 2019 offseason brought about a fresh start. In search of a way to build around Giannis Antetokounmpo with some old pieces gone elsewhere, the Milwaukee Bucks came to terms with Matthews on a two-year contract, including a player option for next year.
Considering his past as a standout athlete at James Madison Memorial High School about 90 minutes down the road in Wisconsin, the decision was easy.
“I put in the work in the offseason, trained to be ready for any kind of situation I may face,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “As far as coming back home, coming back to Milwaukee — the opportunity just presented itself. There was a role and a need on both sides, and I’m happy to be home.”
For the Bucks, the feeling is mutual. Sporting an 18-3 record and outscoring their opponents by over 12 points per game, they are off to the hottest start among their peers.
According to Cleaning The Glass, they boast the top net rating (plus-11.7) and effective field goal percentage (55.8), plus the second-best offensive (114.3) and defensive rating (102.6) in the entire NBA. That’s what happens when you consistently get stops and get out in transition the way they have.
But even with all the success that Milwaukee has had in the first quarter of the season, Matthews sees something different standing out.
“Honestly, the ones that we let go, that we let get away,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “This team is obviously built to succeed on both ends of the court. Obviously, having Giannis is a tremendous asset to us. But a lot of ups and a lot of downs, even within the wins. [There are] ways to get better and an opportunity to continue to get better as the season goes on.”
Despite the point differential they’ve established, Matthews is referring to the losses — and even the victories — where the Bucks have had slippage. Whether it’s a few lackadaisical possessions in a row or a whole quarter, there have been a number of instances in which the team has allowed its opposition to make big runs and crack into a lead that should have left no doubt.
Take a recent trip to Northeast Ohio as an example. Going into halftime, Milwaukee had a commanding 20-point lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it wasn’t a particularly close game as the score indicated. But the home squad responded loudly in the third quarter, nailing 10 threes en route to 42 points.
It was a comfortable advantage that was cut down to a single possession game in the final period. Still, the Bucks maintained their composure and found a way to win in a raucous Friday night environment on the road.
Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer sees situations like these as teaching moments.
“We’ve had more close games,” Budenholzer said. “Last year, it felt like at times we were going long stretches without a close game. So hopefully, we’re learning how to execute down the stretch, play smarter down the stretch. Sometimes we haven’t, but you learn when you don’t.
“I’ve been impressed with the guys coming back. I think there’s a focus in wanting to get better, improve and I think you’re seeing it on the court.”
Speaking of improving, Matthews fits that bill. After an initial month of ups and downs on the offensive end of the floor, including an unusual night of zero attempts from the floor in Chicago, the decade-long vet has found his footing.
Since Nov. 20, Matthews has registered double-digit scoring efforts in six of eight games. During that stretch, he’s averaging 11.3 points per game on 45.2 percent from distance. Per NBA.com, the Bucks have been scoring 120.6 points per 100 possessions in that time, which is an increase of 10 before then.
Budenholzer figures that some of the slow start had to do with getting used to a new environment, but that’s not the only reason. More opportunities to get involved have been there as of late because his teammates are starting to understand where he’s going to be.
“I think he’s getting a little more comfortable finding some opportunities to cut, slash and backdoor people for some easy layups,” Budenholzer said. “Getting some free throws and he’s shooting the three-ball better. So you do those things and all of a sudden you’re getting to double figures quickly.”
Matthews chalks it up to the spacing of Budenholzer’s system that allows him to operate. However, again, he didn’t make much of the shooting woes due to the team’s success.
“It’s the early part of the season, you know? Obviously, it’s just getting familiar with a new team,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Guys getting familiar with me, me getting familiar with them. Different positions, different areas.
“I mean, sports is like life. Everything changes, always. You have to adapt. You have to evolve. You have to grow. You have to get comfortable. So if shooting from the three is the thing that I’m struggling with…I’m comfortable with those going up.”
Matthews hangs his hat on the defensive end. He’s savvy in guarding his assignment and has been for quite some time. While he doesn’t defend many isolations, opponents are scoring just 0.27 points per possession on such occasions. He does an excellent job shutting down ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll too, ranking in the 98th percentile in the league, per NBA.com.
And yet, Matthews always desires more.
“Doing everything. Slashing, getting to the paint, making the right plays,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “If three-point shooting is what’s going down, then it’s just a matter of time before those start to fall.”
Matthews has been a staple in the Association for a while now. Most recall his breakout with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent half of his career defining what an ideal three-and-D wing should be. Unfortunately, that final season came to a crashing halt when he sustained a season-ending torn left Achilles in March 2015. The Pacific Northwest’s favorite “Iron Man” who played through the majority of his injuries could no longer do so.
That was the end of Matthews’ tenure with the Blazers. From that point on, he had to rehab and battle to get back to form. He admits that it took time to do so returning quickly from the setback, but when asked by Basketball Insiders if he feels the same physically now as he did then, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I feel great. I feel like [I’m] defending like the old me, moving like the old me. Feel good.”
There you have it. Whether it’s been coming back from a major injury, switching teams or getting acclimated to a new system, Matthews has always been able to handle it.
Not many players are able to stick around in the NBA for 10 years. In spite of the obstacles thrown his way, Matthews has done more than that.
“I’m adaptable,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. As long as they don’t change the shape of the ball and the rim, I’ll be fine.”
After all, it’s just basketball.
NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 12/3/2019
A new name forces his way into the top-five, as other candidates’ cases for NBA Defensive Player of the Year rise and fall based on small early-season sample sizes. Jack Winters revisits DPOY Watch in the first week of December.
Inevitable early-season variance has shaken up the NBA Defensive Player of the Year race. As tempting as it is to overreact to numbers and analysis gleaned from a small sample size, though, season-long trends and historical precedent has left our top-five and honorable mention selections filled by expected candidates.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year Watch stands six weeks into the regular season.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Isaac — Orlando Magic, Bam Adebayo — Miami Heat, Pascal Siakam — Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard — LA Clippers, Patrick Beverley — LA Clippers.
5. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ early-season honeymoon is probably over. A Charmin soft schedule saw them face 10 consecutive sub-.500 foes before falling to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, a loss that, not coincidentally, ended their 10-game winning streak. Eight of Los Angeles’ next 10 games are on the road, with seven of them coming against teams with winning records, leading up to a highly-anticipated showdown against the LA Clippers on Christmas.
Davis’ commitment on defense waned a bit over the past two weeks, as the Lakers easily beat up on inferior opponents. They now rank just outside the top-five in defensive rating after surrendering 109.8 points per 100 possessions since the last DPOY watch, and actually fared better on that end with Davis on the bench. His unsustainably dominant defense at the rim has waned, too; opponents shot 63.6 percent against him in last two weeks, and he challenged just 4.7 shots per game from the restricted area.
Still, don’t expect Davis to sit outside the top-three on this list for long. Los Angeles should vault back up the team-wide defensive rankings in December by being forced to play with maximum intensity and engagement, and a recommitted Davis is most likely to be the driving force behind that rise.
4. Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics
Smart is the most readily and disruptively switchable defender in the NBA, and it’s not particularly close. Even prime Draymond Green didn’t quite match his singular ability to check five positions without the likelihood of negative recourse. Smart is just as effective hounding ball-dominant point guards as he is frustrating superstar wings, and just as capable of fighting bigs on the block as he is chasing marksman around the arc.
The Celtics rank fifth in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. Their 104 points allowed per 100 possessions barely moves whether Smart is on the floor or on the bench, an indication of just how loaded they are with intelligent, versatile and dogged defenders.
But watch any Boston game, and it becomes almost immediately apparent how immensely valuable he is defensively – whether guarding three different players on a given possession, kicking out an inferior post defender on the flight of the ball or lighting a fire into the Celtics with relentless hustle.
3. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
The Jazz have dropped four of their last five games. And while Mike Conley’s widespread offensive labors have returned after he seemed to be finding his footing in mid-November, it’s the other side of the ball that’s been Utah’s biggest problem.
The Jazz’s defensive rating over the last two weeks is 110, a number that would rank in the league’s bottom third over the full season. They’ve actually been a hair stingier with Gobert on the bench than the floor, but any notion that a defensive dip is owed to a decline in his impact isn’t supported by film or the data.
Utah’s opponent expected field goal percentage is lower with Gobert on the court over that same timeframe, and its defensive rebounding rate substantially higher. The Jazz are fouling less and turning teams over far more with him in the lineup, too, and Gobert has allowed an elite 43.5 percent shooting at the rim.
The two-time reigning DPOY ranked relatively low on this list coming into 2019-20, due to the possibility his team would take a step back on defense by virtue of exclusively playing four-out lineups. Six weeks since tipoff of the regular season, that dynamic has finally reared its ugly head on the floor. What it means for Gobert’s chances to win a record-tying third consecutive DPOY award, though, is in the eye of the beholder.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
So much for Antetokounmpo’s absence here.
Two weeks ago in the second in-season edition of DPOY watch, Antetokounmpo was at the top of honorable mention, squeezed out of the top-five in part by a preference to highlight a newcomer – in that case, Jonathan Isaac. But the justification behind bumping him down the rankings was also his positive net defensive rating, which suggested the Bucks were better on that side of the ball with the reigning MVP on the bench.
That’s a ridiculous assertion, of course, but one the numbers no less indicated due to Milwaukee’s team-wide prowess on that side of the ball, which early in the season most manifested itself from the bench. But that dynamic flipped on its head over the past two weeks, with Antetokounmpo posting a -12.8 net defensive rating, second among regulars behind Sterling Brown.
What changed? Nothing at all with regard to Antetokounmpo, specifically. He’s still the same game-changing presence he’s been all season. But sample size always plays a role before the New Year, and the Bucks’ starters weren’t quite blitzing opponents the way they did last season. They are now, and Antetokounmpo remains the biggest reason why.
1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
The data is just undeniable.
Embiid isn’t the most active defender. His hands are often below his shoulders and he seldom leaves the paint, making it easy to assume he’s less engaged than other upper-echelon defenders. And compared to a player like Rudy Gobert, who built his career on defense and is barely more than a screener and rim-runner even after years of development, that’s just as true as it is understandable given Embiid’s far broader offensive responsibilities.
But make no mistake, Embiid is every bit as impactful as each player on this list. Case in point: Embiid sits alone at the very top of Cleaning the Glass’ individual net defensive ratings. Why? Philadelphia allowed effective field goal percentage is 6.8 points lower with him in the game, and its sky-high opponent free throw rate dips by 8.3 points. The Sixers surrender 7.7 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid in the lineup, the second-biggest margin in basketball, and their league-leading defensive rebound rate gets even better, too.
In a different system, not surrounded by impact defenders, Embiid’s occasional lapses of energy defensively could prove more problematic. But he remains a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s scheme, and one of the several most influential defenders in all of basketball.
NBA Daily: Royce O’Neale — Ultimate Glue Guy
As the Utah Jazz look to contend for a title this season, they will rely on the services of their unheralded glue guy. Quinn Davis chats with Royce O’Neale about his role and ascent from undrafted to valuable NBA starter.
In 2014, while Royce O’Neale was a junior at Baylor, then-Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith was asked about O’Neale’s talents.
“He doesn’t get the real attention, but he’s kind of the glue guy,” answered Smith.
That “glue guy” phrase can be written off as a cliche, but it is a label that has followed O’Neale his entire career and has defined his time with the Jazz. After being undrafted and spending two seasons overseas in Spain and Germany, the Jazz took a chance on O’Neale and netted a versatile wing defender and consistent shooter.
O’Neale’s tendency to focus on the little things without dominating the ball may be part of the reason his path to the NBA was so winding. In his senior season at Baylor, O’Neale averaged only 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He did shoot nearly 44 percent from deep and excel defensively that season, but that three-and-D archetype was not as in vogue in 2015 as it is now.
The lack of numerical production likely contributed to him slipping under the radar and into the overseas talent pool.
It may have taken him longer than expected, but two years later, O’Neale would land in a great situation with a budding Jazz team that featured two young studs in Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. The collection of talent allowed him to immediately step in and fill his usual role on the fringes.
After starting the 2017-18 season mostly on the bench, he quickly became a fixture in the Jazz rotation towards the end of that November. His first start came in February against the Portland Trail Blazers. In that game, O’Neale tallied 4 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals while being a team-high plus-28.
From there, it was abundantly clear what O’Neale would bring to the team every night. He saw almost 20 minutes per game after that and took on an even a larger role in the 2018 playoffs when the Jazz fell to a tough Houston Rockets team in the second round.
Now in his third season, O’Neale has earned himself a starting role on a Jazz team that many expect to contend for a championship. He is up to 48 percent from three and has improved his passing. His defense remains stout as he guards any position 1-4.
Basketball Insiders asked Jazz head coach Quin Snyder which of O’Neale’s abilities he was most impressed by.
“He’s trying to make the right play,” Snyder said. “He’s been able to drive the ball quickly and get to the rim. The opportunities he has right now are catch-and-shoot threes. Those are good shots. He’s taking big shots like that in the clutch, and if he had an 0-10 night I’d be okay it.”
The comment on driving to the rim is a key point here. O’Neale has been a great three-and-D player, but adding that extra ability to punish a sloppy closeout could make him even more dangerous offensively. He has shown flashes of this ability, as he does here on a dribble hand-off against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even with those offensive improvements though, defense remains O’Neale’s calling card. He has been asked to mirror guards and wings alike, doing so at an elite level on the season. Just a few games ago, he welcomed Ja Morant to the NBA by smothering him early in the first quarter.
The Jazz defense is holding opponents to 6 fewer points per 100 possessions with O’Neale on the court compared to him on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass. When he and Gobert share the court, they allow only 98.7 points per 100 possessions, a stingy number.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Royce O’Neale briefly before his game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night.
O’Neale credits his role-filling ability to a tendency to play almost every position at a young age.
“I was allowed to make plays for myself while still making plays for others,” O’Neale told Basketball Insiders.
Basketball Insiders also asked O’Neale about what he picked up playing in Europe before he made his way to Utah. “Physicality” was the immediate word that came to mind. He also noted the importance of team basketball that is stressed overseas as something that allowed him to step into an NBA role so seamlessly.
Finally, O’Neale avoided any specificity when asked how he would like to further improve his game.
“Just becoming a better offensive and defensive player. And a better shooter,” O’Neale told Basketball Insiders. As mentioned, the work O’Neale has done on is shot has been clear. If the work ethic is consistent, the rest of his game should follow suit.
O’Neale’s rise from undrafted free agent to a valuable starter on a contender leads to questions about player scouting. Are players with the skills and malleability of O’Neale flying under the radar due to the lack of statistical production?
Take a player of a similar profile like Draymond Green. Green went to a larger school than O’Neale in Michigan State and had more of a national audience, but he still fell to the second round due to what many in the NBA considered a low ceiling. Seven years later, Green is a three-time All-Star and NBA Champion.
Of course, this is not to say that more Draymond Greens are busting their butts in Spain. But valuable contributors are likely waiting to fill an NBA role thanks to their versatility and the team-first fundamentalism being stressed overseas.
O’Neale will be up for a new contract at the end of this season. After being undervalued for most of his career, he may finally get his just due.
Whether it is the Jazz or another team on the hunt for glory, there is always a need for the perfect glue guy.