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NBA Daily: Depth Fueling Washington’s Turnaround

After a miserable start to the season, the Washington Wizards have won 12 of their last 14 and are close to a play-in berth. Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at two factors that are pushing the team over the edge.



Since starting the season at a miserable 17-32 mark, the Washington Wizards have won 12 of their last 14 games. The unlikely run gave the team a shot at the postseason that would’ve seemed laughable just mere weeks ago.

Now, the team is on the verge of making the play-in tournament. Let’s take a look at two key factors for the team and what has sparked Washington’s turnaround.

Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal Clicking

The Wizards traded former franchise icon John Wall to the Houston Rockets on Dec. 2, 2020. The 2020-21 NBA season began on Dec. 22, 2020. It’s not hard to fathom why the backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal took a while to get back to their winning ways.

As they say, time heals all — and that’s certainly all it took for Westbrook and Beal.

“They don’t have that excuse bone that some players have,” said head coach Scott Brooks. “It’s easy to find it, there’s a lot. Travel, body hurts, ‘things I gotta deal with off the court,’ ‘I have a cold,’ ‘coach is not playing me,’ ‘I’m not getting shots. There are always excuses you can use but those two guys don’t use excuses. They lead. If you’re gonna have a chance to win back-to-backs [your two best players have to buy in].”

Westbrook was “only” averaging 21.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists, though, his shooting numbers were poor at a 43.2/30.9/61.3 split.

However, since April 7, the former MVP is averaging more assists and boards on more efficient shooting. Whereas Westbrook was sporadically available to begin the year, Westbrook started all 14 of the team’s last games.

“I coached [Westbrook] in the shortened season,” Brooks said. “I don’t even know what year it was, we had like five games in seven nights. By the fifth night, we had three games in a row, I wasn’t even worried. I’ve said it many times, that young man is different in a way that I love.”

Furthermore, Westbrook has 27 consecutive double-doubles, which is the longest streak of his career. Westbrook is at 177 career triple-doubles after the team’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, putting him just four shy of tying Oscar Robertson for most in league history.

“When you’re in this position and you get mentioned with greats like Oscar [Robertson], they compliment things you do for the game, it’s truly an honor,” Westbrook said. “It’s something I don’t take for granted. 

“[Robertson] is someone that did more for the game, played in the era where it was tough being an African-American athlete in our game and he sacrificed so many things to play the game. I understand that and to me, I’m just grateful to be in the conversation with my name connected to his.”

In his short time with the Wizards, Westbrook is already the team’s all-time leader in triple-doubles.

“It’s really awesome,” Brooks said. “I can’t even think of any other words other than it’s pretty cool to see him, what he does. How he leads us off the court, on the court, in the locker room, in the hotel, on the bus, he’s just been terrific for our organization. I cannot be more happy for him and his family. He’s earned this. I’m hoping that he does get it … I’m thrilled. … He’s that good.”

The two-man lineup of Westbrook and Beal isn’t the team’s best, but it is the highest-rated of Washington’s six most-played two-man pairings

And as always, Beal is completely dominating the season. His 31.3 points per game rank second in the NBA. One underrated aspect of Beal’s game is how he’s getting to the line and the rate at which he’s connecting. Beal is averaging 7.5 free throw attempts per game, which ranks second-most in his career. He’s making the most of those chances, shooting a career-high 90.1 percent from the line.

Role Players Stepping Up

While the team’s stars are playing stellar basketball, Washington has its role players to thank just as much for this spectacular run. Despite losing Thomas Bryant and Deni Avdija for the year, the Wizards still run deep.

Over the last 14 games, the Wizards’ bench is averaging 45.4 points per game, second-best in the league. That unit is also shooting a 54.8 percent clip from the floor, which ranks the best in the league.

Raul Neto, who Basketball Insiders talked to earlier this season, is averaging career-high numbers across the board and has slid into a starting role with the team.

“Just his consistent scrappiness. [Neto] just scraps,” Brooks said. “He grinds and plays every possession with a pure heart and he just competes. … [Neto] does a great job of driving and kicking … he’s consistent, love the guy. His teammates love him. He competes every day. Same demeanor game in and game out.”

Neto is averaging 8.4 points and 1.1 steals while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor and 38.8 percent from three. Furthermore, Neto’s been a pest on defense to counter Westbrook and Beal’s scoring punch. Neto is one of just a few players with a positive defensive box plus/minus, something that’s easily noticeable by watching the team play.

In fact, the Wizards are 11-5 when Neto scores more than 12 points this season.

“I think having everybody healthy and having consistency in that,” Neto said of what sparked the midseason turnaround. “Most of the games we’re having mostly everybody. We don’t have games where we have three or four guys out and it kills our rhythm. … And definitely [Westbrook] and [Beal]. They’re having an amazing stretch playing well every game and being huge for us. I think it shows that their leadership is important. Not only talking or doing what they do but playing well for us, it’s been huge for us.”

Another player that has been an unlikely marvel is Daniel Gafford. Gafford’s arrival alongside Chandler Hutchinson at the trade deadline helped spark the 12-2 run. After a disappointing stint with the Chicago Bulls, Gafford has been a surreal glue guy for the Wizards.

In the 14-game sample size, Gafford is averaging 10.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 0.8 steals per game in just over 18 minutes per night. During this time, Gafford boasts a whopping plus-23 net rating and a 104 defensive rating, both best on the team.

Gafford’s 5.1 box plus/minus is the best on the team, ranking ahead of Beal’s 3.4 and Westbrook’s 2.2.

While Gafford has undoubtedly helped shore up the Wizards’ frontcourt, Robin Lopez and Alex Len both deserve credit for holding down the fort without Bryant.

Len arrived midseason after a short stint with the Toronto Raptors. After his arrival, Len became a starter at the center position and is averaging 7.6 points per game on a highly efficient 63.4 percent clip. Len splits the time at that position with Lopez, who is having a bounce-back season on the same field-goal percentage as Len.

During Washington’s hot streak, Lopez is connecting at a ridiculous 73 percent clip from the floor.

Even rookie Anthony Gill is getting in on the fun in the frontcourt, averaging 9.3 points on 76.2 percent shooting in his last four games, earning expanded playing time.

“[Gafford] came in and gave us good minutes, Ish Smith came in and gave us good minutes,” Brooks said. “It seems like this last month and a half we’ve been playing good and then an out of nowhere guy would surface in any given game. I have confidence in any guy, that’s why I always tell them to stay ready. Recently, it’s been [Gill]. He hasn’t played all year but he stayed ready and he’s stepped up, that’s what you want. They put a lot of work in.”

And of course, fans can’t forget Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura, with Bertans shooting over 40 percent from deep at a high rate while Hachimura continues to grow in his age-22 season.

Even if the Wizards don’t make it far in the postseason, fans of the team have to feel good about the way the team responded in the wake of adversity. Losing Bryant and Avdija is not a small deal, and one can only wonder how different the Wizards would look if Beal and Westbrook had a full training camp to click.

With a first-round pick in tow and a full offseason ahead, the Wizards’ once-dim future might be brighter than many once thought.

“I think we have a good team,” Brooks said. “We got some good players, continuity as a group. We’ve had guys step up any given game, like tonight it was [Gill] who stepped up and gave us good minutes. 

“We’re healthy. We have a good team. We’ve had a lot of stuff go on and I think the biggest thing is we stayed with it. We still have nine games to go and we’re going to play how we’ve played. Every game, every day is important. It seems like every night someone is stepping up.”

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.


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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.



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.



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.



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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