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NBA Daily: Could Brooklyn Be The Exception To The Rule?

Their roster composition is far from perfect, but the Brooklyn Nets’ offensive firepower may help break an NBA title tradition, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Being an exception to the rule and trends of our modern NBA is a tricky tightrope walk to pull off – but it’s not impossible. Hell, to some degree, the reigning champions were an exception to the rule last season.

In a league that emphasized getting smaller and relying on spacing, the Los Angeles Lakers went the opposite way by loading up on bigs, ultimately ranking in the bottom 10 in both three-point attempts and percentage. Naturally, LeBron James and Anthony Davis make that possible, but the 2019-20 Lakers had a different roster makeup than what we had been used to.

But just because the talent to attempt something drastic exists does not mean it will work. Last year, the Houston Rockets also tried to be an exception, albeit to a different rule. Even as the league has embraced small-ball than ever before, all teams still had at least one traditional center on their roster. That was until the Rockets traded their lone pure big – Clint Capela – for Robert Covington in hopes of opening the floor for Russell Westbrook.

To accommodate, they had Covington, PJ Tucker and Jeff Green, three natural wings, split time at the center spot.

It’s true that the experiment was a failure, but Houston can hang their hat on that it was never given a real chance. Westbrook was playing at full throttle and they were beating good teams before COVID-19 stopped everything. When play resumed, Westbrook had contracted the virus and dealt with quad issues that definitely held him back.

Going back further, the NBA’s brightest exception to the rule occurred in 2003-04 when the Detroit Pistons won the title. Generally, franchises need at least one superstar in order to compete for a championship. The Pistons accomplished the feat despite lacking a true superstar on their roster, all thanks to the right personnel on the roster.

Just rattling off that team’s ahead-of-its-time successes is a mouthful: Detroit had one of the league’s best floor generals in Chauncey Billups; plus a fear shooter with Richard Hamilton; an all-time rim protector with Ben Wallace; Rasheed Wallace’s All-Star-worthy efforts; plus a Hall of Famer on the sidelines named Larry Brown.

They also harnessed one of the best defenses of that era and all-time. Today, it stands as proof that anything is possible with the right guys to pull it off. However, it’s not often advisable as more teams end up like the Rockets rather than the goldens standard Pistons.

Of course, that brings us to the 2020-21 season.

Offense may sell tickets, but defense wins championships. No, seriously, just look at the defensive rating for the previous ten NBA champions:

2019-20, Los Angeles Lakers: 106.3 (3rd overall)
2018-19, Toronto Raptors: 107.1 (5th)
2017-18, Golden State Warriors: 107.6 (11th)
2016-17, Golden State Warriors: 104 (1st)
2015-16, Cleveland Cavaliers: 104.5 (10th)
2014-15, Golden State Warriors: 101.4 (1st)
2013-14, San Antonio Spurs: 102.4 (3rd)
2012-13, Miami HEAT: 103.7 (9th)
2011-12, Miami HEAT: 100.2 (2nd)
2010-11, Dallas Mavericks: 105 (8th)

Clearly, an above-average defense was needed to have an honest shot at the title. But if the Brooklyn Nets stay exactly as they are constructed this season, they may very well be the exception to this rule.

The trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden is arguably the most talented combination of scorers in NBA history. All three of them are capable of running an entire offense individually while putting up 30+ points on any given night. Best of all, every single one of them can take over the game in crunch time. The fact that all three are sharing the ball should only make it easier when the stage matters most.

Their skeptics can fault them all they want for giving up the entire farm for Harden – that may partly be because of how well that went last time – but it’s James Harden. No matter what you may think of his playoff resume or what he does off the court, would you honestly turn down trading for prime James Harden if you had the chance?

It’s made for some beautiful basketball to watch.

But notice, they lost this game. The Nets wound up losing 135-147 to the promising-but-mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, outside of one game in which Brooklyn allowed 85 points against a Jimmy Butler/Tyler Herro-less Miami HEAT, the lowest an opponent has scored on the new-look Nets is 115 points.

The offense has predictably been a marvel, but the defense has been… not a marvel to say the least.

The general crowds saw this coming: Losing the young and talented Jarrett Allen was going to hurt as he was their best defender. Durant, Harden and Irving have shown themselves to be capable defenders in the past, but their previous teams surrounded them with plus defenders to help carry the load. In Brooklyn, it’s a different case entirely. Those three aren’t just the best offensive personnel they have. Now, they are (nearly) the best defensive personnel they have.

With Harden on the floor, the Nets allow 6.9 fewer points per 100 possessions. That would be impressive if it weren’t for the fact that Brooklyn allows 115.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. With Durant, the Nets’ defensive rating is 110.9, which would be around league average, but the defense allows only 2.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Irving doesn’t make much of a difference on that end whether he’s on the court (112.9 defensive rating) or off (112).

But they barely have anyone else to turn to. DeAndre Jordan is not DeAndre Jordan anymore. Jeff Green’s a valid stretch-five, but he’s not a stopper at this point either.

Plus, because of the Harden trade, there are no more assets to give up to tweak the roster. Brooklyn has the trade exception they got from Spencer Dinwiddie’s ACL tear, but with no first-rounders to offer, the market immediately thins.

While the buyout landscape will likely benefit the Nets, true game-changers rarely end up there.

But in the end, it honestly might not matter. If you watched the slugfest between the Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers, you’d see why.

The Nets’ victory over the Clippers demonstrates exactly what the former is going for. In what was one of our first candidates for Game of the Year, Los Angeles’ supreme offense – on par with Brooklyn right now (117.7) – came up just short thanks to the shotmaking prowess of the Nets’ Big 3.

These were two of the league’s elite offenses trading blows with each other up until the very end. But there was one key difference between them: the Nets owned the sixth-lowest defensive rating in the league, allowing 112.7 points per 100 possessions. The Clippers, on the other hand, rocked a much more respectable 108.9 defensive rating, good for 12th overall.

Still, it didn’t matter how good the Clippers were on defense. Brooklyn’s shotmaking capabilities rose above it. While it was their impressive victory of the season, it also sent a message to the league at the same time: offense trumps all.

This Brooklyn squad has a very real shot at forming the greatest offense of all-time. We’ve seen phenomenal offensive teams win it all in the past, but usually because they also brought a respectable defense with it. The Nets may never have anything like that, but the magnitude of their scoring abilities may cancel out whatever plagues them on that end.

They say defense wins championships, yes. But you know what they also say?

There’s always a first time for everything.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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