We’re finally entering the homestretch of the 2018-2019 NBA season. Every team in the league has either five or six games left in their season. With such little time left, the playoff picture is almost all but formed.
The top eight teams in the Western Conference have all clinched playoff berths. What remains to be seen is who goes where. Basically, there’s a two-team battle for every odd-number seed in the conference. For the first seed, we have Golden State and Denver. For the third seed, we have Houston and Portland – Prayers up for Jusuf Nurkic. For the fifth seed, we have Utah and the Clippers. For the seventh seed, we have San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
Who finishes where could very strongly impact how the playoffs turn out in the West. In the east, there’s more uncertainty. Only five teams have clinched a spot – Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana – while there are a game and a half difference between four teams for the last three spots – Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami, Orlando.
So much can happen between now and when the regular season concludes. Among all the possibilities, there is only one matchup that is pretty much set in stone, and that is the first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers.
Unless Philadelphia has the collapse of all collapses and/or Detroit has the uprise of all uprises, the Celtics and the Pacers will face off in the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Since their matchup looks more and more inevitable by the day, it’s worth examining just how these two teams got to where they are.
When the season started, Boston was viewed as a potential juggernaut having come off a Cinderella run in the playoffs who was getting their two stars back healthy. Having done what they had done last season, the Celtics were considered the favorite to represent the east in the finals.
Indiana was not put in the same category as Boston, but it wasn’t too far behind its rival. Coming off a remarkable that absolutely nobody saw coming, Indiana was seen as a team that, though not perceived as a contender, was on the rise and would be a tough team for anyone to play on any given night.
Amazingly, both teams currently sport the same record at 45-32. Compared to their respective expectations at the beginning of the season, both have disappointed because of unforeseen circumstances.
It’s unfair to associate the Pacers’ season with the word “disappointing” because they’ve done what they could. The only reason why – from a technical standpoint – they have disappointed is because of Victor Oladipo’s ill-fated season-ending knee injury, which will most likely prevent them from topping last season’s win total of 48.
Putting their expectations early on aside, what Indiana has done despite losing its undisputed leader in ‘Dipo. The Pacers have gone 14-17 since their all-star went down (That includes the very game he sustained his injury against Toronto) and have had the 23rd-highest offensive rating (108.7) and 9th-highest defensive rating (108.3).
A net rating of +0.4 is average at best, but in the wake of losing the teams sole All-Star, you can’t ask for much more than that. What’s more, is that the team is still sticking to its togetherness in that time.
Bojan Bogdanovic has taken the reins as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 21.5 points on 51/43/79 shooting splits. Myles Turner has made some strides in both his shot-blocking and three-point shooting, averaging 2.6 blocks a game and shooting 35.6 percent from three on 3.6 attempts a game. Darren Collison has picked up some of the scoring slack – 14.6 points a game – and Wes Matthews has fit in about as well as you could expect.
March did not treat Indy well, as they went 4-10 – including losing seven of its last eight games – but the ship hasn’t sunk. Because of that, for the second consecutive season, the Pacers’ are one of the NBA’s most likable teams. The same cannot be said for their likely playoff rival.
For the Celtics, calling their season “disappointing” is putting it lightly. Boston still has plenty of depth, currently has the sixth-best net rating, and yet it still hasn’t gotten past its demons.
The team’s had its excuses. Gordon Hayward’s recovery has taken longer than expected. Al Horford dealt with a knee injury early on in the season. Jaylen Brown was borderline unplayable early on. Jayson Tatum’s shot selection was iffy. The list goes on.
A fair amount of those issues have been mitigated for the most part. Hayward is playing much better in rhythm. The Celtics are taking proper precautions with Horford. Brown has been playing excellent basketball since being moved to the bench. Tatum has been taking more good shots than bad.
Somehow, the Celtics just can’t get over the hump and still find ways to hit a new low. After the trade deadline, the team built a 28-point lead on the Clippers at home and wound up losing by 11. Just last week, the team had an 18-point lead on the Hornets in Charlotte with seven minutes to go and wound up losing by seven.
The Celtics still have quality wins against their top competition in the conference, and not too long ago, they handed Golden State one the franchise’s worst losses in recent memory. All of this points to Boston clearly having the talent to be great, but its mental weakness keeps the team from reaching its potential.
Remember how the Pacers had a net rating of +0.4 when Oladipo went down. In that same span, the Celtics, who were mostly healthy outside of Aron Baynes, have a net rating of +1.2. Baynes’ absence is nothing to sneeze at, but when compared to the loss Oladipo, the Celtics should not only slightly better than the Pacers in that regard.
Because of that, the tables have turned for the Celtics. After being one of the league’s most enjoyable underdogs over the last four seasons, the Celtics have become one of the NBA’s least likable teams.
That’s what makes Boston’s matchup with Indiana so riveting. The Pacers are a team that is completely devoid of talent whose mental strength and chemistry help them play to the best of their abilities. The Celtics are a team that is overabundant in talent whose mental weakness and lack of chemistry prevents them from playing to the best of their abilities. Seeing them face off should be a sight to behold.
If their similar records despite polar opposite seasons aren’t enough evidence of that, watch the last 2:50 of the most recent game between the two of them.
When the series is over between them, it’s either going to be the story of an underdog rising up to defy the odds, or it’s going to be the story of an underachiever finally getting over its mental hurdles to become the team it’s wanted to be.
NBA Daily: Davis Bertans Joins Ranks Of NBA’s Elite Marksmen
Not even his most ardent supporters knew what the San Antonio Spurs were losing and Washington Wizards were gaining with Davis Bertans. Nearing two months into the season, he’s suddenly among the best shooters in basketball. Jack Winters writes.
Not even the best shooter in the world can inform his team’s effectiveness from beyond the arc alone.
The assumption otherwise was put to the test in last year’s NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors — with Kevin Durant watching sidelined — proved hapless offensively without both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor. If one of the Splash Brothers can’t turn a lineup of non-shooters into a threatening attack from deep, no one can.
But watching Davis Bertans this season, it’s tempting to think just how much better the San Antonio Spurs would be if he still played in the Alamo City. It’s not a complete hypothetical, either. Gregg Popovich is on record confirming the Spurs never would have traded Bertans to free up cap space if Marcus Morris had no interest in coming aboard. Less than a week after he agreed to terms with San Antonio, though, Morris reneged on his commitment to take a one-year deal with the New York Knicks.
It’s remiss to suggest retaining Bertans would make a season-altering difference for the Spurs. But what’s absolutely clear is that San Antonio’s loss has been a bigger gain for the Washington Wizards than anyone could have realistically anticipated.
The best suggest Bertans’ value in a league-wide vacuum this summer is what Washington gave up to get him. Aaron White was the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and played the last four seasons overseas. He might have a chance of finding his way to the league going forward, but it’s telling that White has expressed interest in transitioning to the NBA on multiple occasions only to head back to Europe toward the end of each offseason.
For all intents and purposes, it seems, the only thing of value Washington used to acquire Bertans was a trade exception. Take a bow, Tommy Sheppard. But it’s safe to say that not even the Wizards general manager saw this long-range onslaught coming.
Bertans cashed five more threes on Friday night in his team’s loss to the Miami Heat, bringing his season-long total to 78 on just over eight attempts per game. Only James Harden and Devonté Graham have connected on more triples than Bertans, and neither of them sniffs his 44.8 percent shooting from beyond arc. There are 35 players with at least 50 made threes this season; just four of them are have been more accurate than Bertans, per NBA.com.
Maybe some Spurs fans aren’t shocked by Bertans’ prowess from deep. He made a mini leap as a shooter in 2018-19, adding a bit of versatility to his long ball while upping his accuracy more than five points to 42.9 percent. Bertans isn’t some seasoned veteran, either. He was drafted in 2011 but only entered the league in 2016-17, and just turned 27. Some growth was to be expected from Bertans, basically, especially as the game’s emphasis on three-point shooting continues reaching new zeniths.
But the jump Bertans has made to join the exclusive shooting club reserved for the likes of J.J. Redick and Joe Harris is stunning nonetheless. After mostly serving as a weak-side floor-spacer and pet play shooter, Bertans is hunting threes this season while exuding the confidence and conviction of a true marksman with every step he takes on the floor.
Wonder why Bertans leads the NBA in points per possession in transition? He routinely sprints to open spots when the floor changes sides, and Washington ball-handlers know to look for him.
It’s hard enough for most guards to stop on a dime and launch catch-and-shoot triples in transition, which makes Bertans’ ability to do so all the more impressive. He stands 6-foot-10, but you’d never know it by the speed and footwork he often utilizes to create enough space for himself to launch.
All players Bertans’ size not named Durant are supposed to need an extra blip before letting fly. It’s hard enough for them to set their feet and square their shoulders to the rim on the move without worrying about getting a shot off in time to avoid an effective contest. But Bertans gets to his shooting form with remarkable ease, sometimes even hopping on the catch when his air space is closing fast, and owns one of the quickest releases in basketball.
Coming into 2019-20, Bertans had connected on just 20 off-dribble triples over three full seasons. He’s over halfway to that total through 21 games, regularly using a bounce or two to find some extra breathing room between he and the defense.
Is this Durant or Bertans?
Of course, Bertans would be the talk of the league even more than he is already if the skill he exhibits as a shooter fully translated to the rest of his game.
He can drive hard close-outs or turn the corner after a dribble hand-off with two or three dribbles to get to the rim, but has little workable wiggle in his handle. More problematic is his tendency to finish like a guard, too. Bertans is far better described as a fluid athlete than an explosive one, but that doesn’t mean he should regularly opt for floaters and scoops when challenged by rim-protectors in the paint.
His ceiling is also limited by his lack of positional versatility. Bertans is surprisingly light on his feet and fights hard defensively, but is way overstretched checking smalls. He possesses natural timing as a shot-blocker, but has short arms and vertical oomph needed to compensate. Bertans is a four-man, and that’s pretty much the extent of his positional scalability.
That’s why he’s probably best suited coming off the bench for the remainder of his career, perhaps closing games not just for Washington, but a title contender. Bertans is already proving himself as a high-impact offensive player, leading the Wizards – who boast a top-five offense, remember – in offensive rating and ranking behind only Bradley Beal in terms of net offensive efficiency. Lineups featuring that tandem are scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions, almost 16 more than when Beal is on the floor without Bertans, per NBA.com.
The bad news for Washington? Bertans is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and an uninspiring list of marquee free agents assures he’ll be getting major upgrade on his $7 million salary. The Wizards should have enough flexibility to bring him back, but there’s no guarantee he’ll want to remain in the nation’s capital. It bears mentioning that Bertans has made clear he still considers San Antonio home.
But his future is a concern to be addressed another time.
For now, Bertans is a problem for Washington’s opponents to deal with, and unfortunately for them, there’s no workable answer to limiting his influence – just like that of every other shooter his increasingly rarified caliber.
NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers
David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.
When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.
That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.
He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.
His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.
“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”
Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.
His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.
He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.
“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”
A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.
Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.
He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.
“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”
While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.
He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.
In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.
“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”
The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.
“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”
NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch – 12/6/2019
A quarter of the way into the season, multiple players have begun separating themselves for the Most Improved Player award. Quinn Davis takes a look at five of these players and why they are worthy of the consideration.
The NBA season is now a quarter of the way through and the sample size is nearly large enough to make meaningful assessments of players and teams. This sample size is especially important when evaluating the Most Improved Player, as an early-season hot streak could prove to be fool’s gold by Christmas.
Two weeks ago, Basketball Insiders grouped certain players together to encapsulate a large number that could then be reasonably considered for Most Improved. Now, some of those players have separated themselves, rendering those groups unnecessary.
Andrew Wiggins has fallen closer to Earth since his early-season shooting barrage, while Brandon Ingram has continued his hot start and has shown no signs of cooling off. Luke Doncic has been a revelation and an MVP candidate, while Trae Young has continued to put up impressive numbers but is stuck on a 5-17 Hawks team.
I’ve already given away two, but here are the five names that have stood out from the rest.
5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam has cooled a bit after his scorching start to the season, but his vast offensive improvements still make him worthy of a spot on this list. He is still hitting 38 percent of his non-corner threes and has been the central cog of the Raptors’ offense.
The Raptors’ offense is blitzing opponents with Siakam on the court, scoring about 114 points per 100 possessions. With him off, that number plummets to 99.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the second-best offense in the league to two points below the New York Knicks’ league-worst number.
Siakam is using three more possessions per game than last season in isolation and is scoring 0.90 points per possession on those plays. That’s only slightly below the 0.97 number he put up last year on the much lower volume. His post-game has also stayed efficient with higher usage. He is taking two more possessions per game in that department and is scoring 1.01 points per possession, compared to 1.08 last season.
His unique combination of strength and balance allows him to make multiple moves while staying in complete control. Here he overpowers a very good defender in Royce O’Neale, before flipping up a nifty turnaround bank shot.
The most impressive part of his game this season might be his pull-up shooting. This was simply not in the repertoire last season. He can dribble at the top of the arc and launch a three on a sagging defender with confidence like he does here over Bojan Bogdanovic.
Siakam has been great, but the biggest hindrance to his Most Improved campaign will be the fact that he won the award the last year. If his efficiency continues to dip, he will likely not receive consideration. That said, his jump to near-superstar this season is worthy of praise.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Next on our list is a player who has also made a leap to superstardom. Doncic has taken the league by storm in his second season, blossoming into a genius point-forward that can dominate as a scorer or a passer on offense.
He is putting up stat lines that can only be described as Lebron-esque. Just earlier this week, he put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists against the Pelicans, physically overpowering their frontcourt at only 20 years old.
Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage is at 40.5 percent, which is second in the league to only James Harden. Doncic has been asked to completely control the offense in only his sophomore season and has done so better than anyone could have expected.
Despite the increased usage, his effective field goal percentage has increased six percent from last season. Doncic’s three-point percentage has stayed constant at 34 percent, so this increased efficiency is coming almost solely from his dominance at the rim.
He is finishing 72 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 62 percent in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. Doncic is also drawing fouls at a higher rate. He looks comfortable attacking NBA bodies and using his size to get where he wants on the court.
His scoring is bested only by his virtuoso passing. Better, Doncic’s assist rate is up a whopping 17 percent this season to 48.7 percent, putting him second in the league in that category.
Additionally, Doncic has the ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes. In the play below, he stares down the cutter on their move to the rim. Jordan Clarkson notices this and shifts to the paint to help. As soon as he veers too far from Delon Wright in the corner, Doncic whips the pass that way for a wide-open three.
Doncic’s MVP consideration may overshadow his Most Improved consideration, but the leap he made this season is certainly one of the league’s biggest.
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT
Adebayo makes his debut on this list after throwing his hat into the ring over the last few weeks. His defense has been key in the HEAT’s strong start to the season, anchoring the middle and keeping opponents out of the paint.
Opponents take only 31.4 percent of their total shots at the rim when Adebayo is on the court per Cleaning the Glass. That places in the 90th percentile of the league. When Adebayo takes a rest, that number soars to 40.9 percent, which is in the fifth percentile of the league.
His raw numbers are up across the board as well. The center is averaging a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while shooting an efficient 56 percent from the field. Adebayo is up over 40 percent from mid-range for the first time in his three seasons.
The most impressive improvement in his game might be his off the bounce ability. He can consistently roast unsuspecting defenders with a quick dribble move to the cup. Here’s Jaylen Brown, thinking he is safe to relax guarding a center at the elbow. Adebayo uses one devastating jab step to shake Brown and get all the way to the rim for the dunk.
There are not many centers in the league that can move that quickly to the rim against a wing defender. If Adebayo keeps up the stellar defense and starts making a bit more of an impact on the stat sheet, he should garner serious consideration for Most Improved.
2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram’s hot start was written off by some as streaky shooting, but it seems apparent now that he is well on his way to the best season of his career. He is still at 43 percent from deep and he seems more comfortable than ever before at shooting off the catch.
Ingram’s catch-and-shoot three-point percentage is up to 46.5 percent, a steep increase from his 31 percent last season. Even his free throw percentage, which has hovered in the ’60s through his first three years, is now up to about 84 percent.
Most of all, his raw stats are probably his best argument for the award. Ingram is up to 25 points, 7 rebounds and four assists with an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent, career-highs in all categories. As of now, he is having a rare year in which there’s an increase in both usage and efficiency.
He has significantly improved his pick-and-roll game this season as well. The Pelicans have scored 0.94 points per possession with Ingram as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, per NBA.com. That is up from the 0.79 number the Lakers posted in those situations last season.
In previous seasons, Ingram had a tendency to settle for long mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. He has decreased his attempts from that area now, opting instead to either take the three or get closer to the rim for a floater.
The talented youngster also has had more success attacking switches. If a smaller defender picks up, Ingram is able to use his size and length to get to the rim and easily convert the layup, as he does here against Devin Booker.
If Ingram’s statistics stay at their current levels, he will be right a the front of the race for Most Improved.
1.Devonte Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Simply put, Devonte Graham has been the leader of this race since day one. His meteoric rise from second-rounder seeing minimal court time to stud sixth-man to flamethrowing starting point guard has been a joy to watch.
Graham’s three-point barrage has been unprecedented. After canning 10 triples against the Warriors Wednesday night, Graham is up to second in the league in made threes, behind only the incomparable Harden.
The way Graham hits these threes is a work of art. In the first look at Most Improved, Graham was posting an unreal 50 percent mark on his pull-up. He is down to 41 percent now, but that number still ranks among the best in the league.
If he comes off a high screen and sees daylight, that ball is going up. His release is quick and fluid, leaving no chance for a sagging center to affect the play.
Graham has carried the Hornets’ offense through the first 20 games. The Hornets score about 112 points per 100 possessions with Graham playing. That number drops to an abysmal 95 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
His pull-up shooting combined with much-improved passing — his assist percentage is up to 35.7 percent — has been the lone bright point for a mediocre team.
Being drafted in the second round and seemingly coming out of nowhere makes his story the most likely to gain Most Improved traction throughout the year. If his shooting keeps up, he will be the clear frontrunner for this award.
Those five are the stand-outs, but there is a lot of the campaign left to play. Any number of players could turn a corner and vault themselves into this conversation. Be sure to stay locked to Basketball Insiders as track every major award throughout the season.
In the hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon, Trae Young, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Isaac, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, OG Anunoby, Jabari Parker