Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.
Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.
Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.
And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.
While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.
But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.
And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.
With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.
In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.
Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.
Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.
And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.
Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.
So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?
It would be difficult, to say the least.
To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.
Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.
There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.
Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.
However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.
And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?
It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?
It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.
Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division
Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.
Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.
But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?
The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.
It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.
Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense
After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.
Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.
The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.
Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.
They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.
John Collins Suspension
The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.
But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.
Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.
As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.
If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.
At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start
Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?
On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.
With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.
And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.
Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.
Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.
Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.
NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution
Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.
Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.
When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.
The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.
The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.
Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.
Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.
Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.
It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.
Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.
He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.
Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.
Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.
Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.
Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.
Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.
The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.
And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around.
Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles
Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.
Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).
But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.
The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.
Knicks Offensive Woes
The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.
And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).
Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.
But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.
The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.
Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.
Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.
Now, he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?
On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.
But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.
Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug
This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.
Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.
And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.
Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again – to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.
We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.
But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.