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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Southeast Division

Ben Nadeau finishes Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Southeast Division.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s hard to believe that the new NBA season is nearly a quarter of the way finished already — yet the calendar has just slipped into December. With some wild storylines and exciting narratives to follow, it’s been difficult to get a handle on many franchises through the first two months of the campaign. This week, Basketball Insiders started assessing each division and handing out first quarter grades for each team — so if you’re itching to head back to school, they’re all available below.

On Monday, Spencer Davies doled out grades for the Central Division — but don’t look, Cavaliers fans. Then Jesse Blancarte nailed down the Pacific, David Yapkowitz handled the Northwest, Drew Maresca tackled the tricky Atlantic and Shane Rhodes broke down the Southwest yesterday. Which, again, leaves the Southeast Division to wrap things up in this series. How should the Hawks, HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards feel after a little more than 20 games played?

Atlanta Hawks — A

The Hawks, in no uncertain terms, were destined to lose this year. Fated, almost. With an incredibly young roster and a great opportunity to add another highly-touted prospect, they never had a reason to effectively compete in 2018-19. And, through 20-plus games: so far, so good. The Hawks’ 5-18 record trails just Cleveland and Phoenix for the league’s worst record and, honestly, they’re right where they want to be.

Over the last week, the Hawks moved Kevin Huerter into the starting lineup along with Trae Young, John Collins, Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. Once you toss in DeAndre Bembry and Omari Spellman off the bench, Atlanta has collected a promising core to build their next era around. However, drafting one of the Duke Blue Devils’ cavalcade of rim-rattling, bucket-getting prospects — Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish — would be a game-changer for Atlanta.

Grading teams like the Hawks can be difficult as their letter could easily be in the D or F range if the narrative was just simply re-written. The Hawks rank in dead last in both turnovers and offensive rating, while their shooting percentages remain well-below par for competitive franchises. They’re barely playing veterans like Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter, but also look unlikely to move Kent Bazemore’s contract that will cost the Hawks $19.2 million in 2019-20.

And yet, none of that really matters. The Hawks get to develop their promising talent while also preparing for greener pastures next year and beyond — that alone is worth an A in the modern win-or-tank landscape.

Charlotte Hornets — B

Thanks to the ever-smoldering Kemba Walker, the Hornets have exceeded expectations early on. Still, they’re just 11-11 and deeply entwined within the Eastern Conference’s messy second-tier — a couple wins and they could have homecourt advantage, while a small losing streak might bump them outside the playoff race altogether. Despite some frustrating, uneven performances, there are plenty of reasons to stay excited about this new incarnation of a mostly similar roster.

Firstly, head coach James Borrego has done well to create an instantly-cohesive unit, bring the once-troubled Malik Monk along and carve out his own succinct rotation. While that’s left players like Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo out in the cold, others have begun to bloom. The addition of veteran Tony Parker has proven shrewd and Jeremy Lamb continues his breakout from 2017-18. Miles Bridges is good for a highlight or two (or three) almost every night and longtime members like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams continue to contribute efficiently.

As of now, the Hornets rank sixth in offensive rating (112.0) and 10th in three-point percentage (35.9), while their defensive rating has been as high as 10th in recent days. Altogether, those numbers point toward an overall fearsome unit in this current NBA landscape, that should go without saying. Should any rumors about Bradley Beal come to fruition, then the Hornets would be really cooking with hot grease. If the Hornets can iron out their inconsistencies — three of their losses have come against the Bulls, Hawks and Cavaliers — then we’ll really see just how good this team can be.

Orlando Magic — C+

At 11-11 and the current holders of the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, it’s been an optimistically strong start for the Orlando Magic. Coming into the season, the Magic boasted talented prospects, but little cohesiveness — so far, they’ve done well to survive the early slog. Nikola Vucevic, a man reborn, is averaging a career-high in points (20.8), assists (3.9) and field goal percentage (55.5), shepherding the way for a mostly inexperienced Magic roster. Aaron Gordon has slightly trended downward statistically, but he’s making good on his new mega-deal worth about $76 million thus far, while Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba are still looking to find consistent footing.

Despite their lack of an absolute, undeniable star, Orlando has played unselfishly to the tune of 26.4 assists per game, a tally that’s sixth-best across the league. Even better, their turnovers also rank low at 13.7, as veterans D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier have taken care of the ball quite well. If the Magic want to make the most of the 2018-19 campaign, they’ll likely need to trade for another point guard — but would that price of such an acquisition be worth it? Even if Orlando sneaks into the postseason, they don’t stand much of a chance against the conference elite up north. Moving forward, it’ll be key to find opportunities for Isaac and Bamba as they’re franchise cornerstones and their development, no matter what ultimately happens in the standings, is the top priority.

Still, the early returns on the Steve Clifford-led Magic are sunny, so achieving anything else this season would be the cherry on top.

Miami HEAT — C-

At a cursory glance, the Miami HEAT roster looks like one of the Southeast’s most competitive bunches. Instead, the on-court performances and overwhelming injuries have left the HEAT reeling in the lurch, and, most importantly, in conference limbo. The HEAT are better than their 8-13 record, most definitely, but they need to get healthy in a hurry. This roster full of strong second and third-best options was screaming out for a gritty Jimmy Butler addition last month, but the front office stayed put — now where do they go from here?

The ever-reliable Goran Dragic has missed Miami’s last six games, over which they’ve limped to a 2-4 record. Earlier in the season, Dragic missed three more contests and the HEAT promptly went 1-2. Yes, Dragic (16.3 points, 4.7 assists) is truly that important, both in his scoring abilities and offensive facilitation. And yet, the struggles go beyond that. Tyler Johnson hasn’t played since Nov. 20 and the enigmatic Dion Waiters isn’t close to making his season debut either. Dwyane Wade, in the midst of his well-deserved retirement tour, took off for seven games to be with his family following the birth of his daughter.

Josh Richardson has performed admirably in his newfound role of the go-to, well, everything, but the HEAT fall short in some major categories. Miami turns the ball over at an alarming rate, and although their defensive rating holds firm (106.9, tenth-best), the offense ranks among the NBA’s worst so far. It’s far too early to panic about HEAT, especially in the Eastern Conference but this team’s strength is clearly its depth. Even Rodney McGruder has gone from undrafted to essential in the span of three years — 12.2 points, five rebounds, 3.4 assists per game — and James Johnson continues to be a hulking pest defensively.

But if they’re not going to pull the trigger on a star-worthy acquisition, Miami needs to look inward, get healthy and rediscover some of their grittiness that made them such a pleasant surprise last season.

Washington Wizards — F

This should come as no surprise, unfortunately.

The Wizards, by all accounts, should be good. With a backcourt featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal, they should have ascended to the conference’s upper echelon by now. After adding offseason talents like Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers, the Wizards just had to keep it all together for eight months. Instead, the front office brass was reportedly considering a full and total breakup before Thanksgiving dinner could be served. Wall and Beal are apparently available for trade, although the former will be tough to deal given his supermax contract starts next season.

Beal has already had to deny trade demands on national television, Otto Porter Jr. continues to labor on his max deal and, as if things weren’t already bad, Dwight Howard will likely miss two-to-three months following surgery on his lower back. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but this has been the disappointing story in Washington season after season.

Today, the Wizards rank 20th in offensive rating, 17th in assist-to-turnover ratio, 27th in rebounding and a staggeringly poor 29th in defensive rating. While Howard is no longer quite the defensive anchor he once was, his absence won’t make things any easier for his teammates. Thomas Bryant has struggled since becoming the de facto center, but the Wizards’ other options — Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith — don’t offer any upside at all.

At some point — perhaps sooner rather than later — the Wizards will finally accept that this formula isn’t working and attempt to start from scratch. However, since it’s still the Eastern Conference, the Wizards are 8-14 and remain just two games behind the final playoff spot. Of course, there’s time to salvage this cross-country trainwreck, but does anybody actually believe they’re headed down the road to recovery?

It’s now officially December, which means these five franchises must take serious stock of their conference-wide standing. While the Hawks are sitting pretty, developing their studs and coming closer to a higher draft pick every day, the other squads have room to improve. Between the HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards, the Southeast Division figures to be plenty busy between now and the trade deadline. Blow it up or push all in, these early season grades could look completely different down the road — but, for now, these feel like a fair representation of each team’s respective status at this point in the season.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Simple Problems With Difficult Solutions

Matt John takes a look at three teams that need to address weaknesses in their rosters and the challenges each team faces in doing so.

Matt John

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Remember when Carmelo Anthony was out of the NBA? That seems so long ago now even though his stint in Portland started less than a month ago.

Let’s go back to that time. In ‘Melo’s almost one-year exodus from the NBA, fans, media, and even players alike were begging for his return. To be fair, this was based more on his reputation as one of the best scorers of his time rather than his recent play with his previous two teams.

Looking back, it was a little odd that for almost an entire year, absolutely no one wanted to roll the dice on Carmelo. Not even on a non-guaranteed contract. But, what was even odder was that although he had plenty of advocates on his side, said advocates couldn’t collectively decide which team really needed him.

At this stage in his career, it was a little tricky to figure out what role he could play because it wasn’t clear how much he had left in the tank or how he’d adapt to his decline after his underwhelming performances with both Oklahoma City and Houston. There was a lot of demand for Carmelo to come back to the NBA. Where he should make his comeback was the question.

Of course, now, we’ve seen that Carmelo can still bring it – so far – if given the right opportunity. The simple problem, in this case, was that Carmelo needed another chance in the NBA. The difficult solution was that, at the time, there was no clear-cut team that would have been perfect for him to go.

That brings us to this season. We are approaching the 1/4th mark in the NBA regular season and now we’re starting to see the true colors of some of these teams. The following teams have simple problems that need to be fixed. At the same time, how they’re going to solve them will be tough to figure out.

San Antonio Spurs

With every minute that passes, the playoff odds are looking less and less in the Spurs’ favor. When was the last time anyone said that about San Antonio? 1996? The naysayers have been dreaming of this day for longer than Vince Carter’s entire career, but this might just be the moment they’ve been waiting for – the end of an era.

San Antonio is currently 8-14, they have a point differential of minus-4.0, and worst of all, they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the NBA. Maybe it would be different if Davis Bertans or Marcus Morris were around, but that doesn’t change that it’s only going to get harder from here.

Twenty-two games into the season and it’s clear the Spurs’ established stars – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – do not mesh well with one other, sporting a net rating of minus-7.2 together. Any three-man lineup with DeRozan/Aldridge plus one of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White has a frighteningly negative net rating – all are minus-7.3 or lower.

It gets worse. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have very negative net ratings – Spurs are minus-10.5 with Aldridge on the court, minus-13.3 with DeRozan. All three of Murray, White, and Forbes have negative net ratings as well, but why it looks worse for the former All-Stars is because those two are supposed to be the main ingredients of a projected playoff team and they’re most certainly not that right now.

Trading them would be the advisable next step but to who is the million-dollar question. Both of them are really good players. They’re just not great players. They’re both lethal scorers. Both of them can put up 20-30 points on any given night. The real issue is that even if they put up their usual numbers, that doesn’t always equate to a win. If you don’t believe that, look at the Spurs’ record again.

Aldridge would be easier to trade on paper because his contract is more favorable since it’s guaranteed for next season, but potentially trading for DeRozan is a little more delicate of a situation. DeMar has a player option after this season, which can be a catch-22 for players like him. If he plays well, he’ll opt out of the contract and go for his next payday. If he doesn’t, he’ll opt-in and drag the cap down another season.

That makes it harder for teams to invest assets for a guy like him. He would usually be worth more if his contract was longer, but the risk of him leaving after less than one season is too big to give up something good for him. There are teams that could definitely use the offensive boost that DeMar provides, but they may not have the matching contracts nor be willing to offer the young value that the Spurs would want in a deal.

Some retooling definitely looks in order for San Antonio, but this situation is a lot more complicated than it was last year.

Boston Celtics

At 15-5, the Celtics are both exceeding expectations and are fun to watch. In other words, they look like a Brad Stevens team again.

Boston’s offense has looked much-improved thanks to both better production from Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum as well as letting their most egregious ball stoppers walk. By having less pure scorers on the team, there are a lot more touches to go around, which has made the offense look more fluid than it did last year.

What’s more surprising than their more team-oriented offense is their stingy defense. The Celtics have the sixth-best defensive rating, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, despite losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

Marcus Smart’s ability to cover just about anyone on the basketball court provides so much cushion for them on the defensive end. Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum have all been stingy switchable wings that make life harder for opponents. Even guys like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have proven to be passable options as undersized centers.

Even their pure bigs haven’t been that bad. Daniel Theis has been excellent as the team’s most reliable rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 52 percent at the rim, and Enes Kanter has the third-best net rating among rotation players, as Boston is plus-5.6 with him on the floor.

Despite that, no matter how good this Celtics crew may look, the knock on them will be the same until they change it: They need an upgrade in the frontcourt.

Theis has been about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for from him, but as of now he can only reasonably be counted on for 20-25 minutes at most. The Celtics have done a great job covering Kanter’s holes, but is that going to hold up in the postseason? Robert Williams III has made substantial progress, but the young mistakes he makes demonstrate that he’s still a year or two away.

Boston has been better than what many thought they would be, but they’d rest easy knowing they had another dependable option in their frontcourt.

Where do they get one though? They don’t have any expendable contracts to give up in a deal. They’ve made it clear that neither Hayward nor Smart are going anywhere, and for good reason. The only other big contract they have on the books is Kemba Walker, and they’re definitely not trading him.

Since Theis and Kanter get paid $5 million each, it’s hard to combine them for an upgrade because the hypothetical upgrade they would need would cost more than that. Since those two are Boston’s most proven bigs, it’d be hard to see them getting rid of both. Their only option might be the buyout market in February, which is a risky game to play.

As good as Boston has been, they haven’t squelched the fears surrounding their frontcourt issues. It only makes you wonder what this team would look like if they still had Al Horford.

Memphis Grizzlies

They may not be a good team right now, and probably won’t be a good team for a couple of years, but how can you not like this young Memphis Grizzlies team?

They’ve hit two consecutive bulls-eyes with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. They’ve got some good complementary veterans in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder as well as good complementary young guys like Brandon Clarke and Dillion Brooks.

It might be weird to say this, but even though they are one of the worst teams in the league, they’re ahead of schedule. The pieces are in place. They are forming a good culture. They probably will get another high lottery pick depending on what record they finish with. It’s a far cry from the Grit-n-Grind era, but the promise the young Grizzlies possess is undeniable.

There’s only one elephant in the room – Andre Iguodala. He’s been an issue that they’ve been avoiding ever since they acquired a first-round pick by adding his “services.” The word “issue” should be taken with a huge grain of salt because it’s not really causing any disruption. Iguodala wants to play for a winner, and Memphis wants to get something good for him.

It makes all the sense in the world. Neither side owes the other anything. Iguodala shouldn’t be spending what’s left of his career on a team that just pressed the reset button. Memphis shouldn’t let a guy with his skillset go if he can be had for something. Even at almost 36, Iggy is still a valuable player.

Besides the fact that no one is going to offer a first-round pick for a role player in his mid-30’s on an expiring deal, the biggest issue for the Grizzlies is that hardly any team vying for his services has an expendable matching contract to trade for Andre and his $17+ million contract.

Most teams who have expendable deals in the NBA are ones that don’t have any use for Andre because they’re not going anywhere. Atlanta, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit are all teams that have guys on overpaid deals that are worth giving up, but the likelihood that they go for a guy like him with the place they are at now isn’t likely.

Teams like the Clippers, Blazers or HEAT could certainly put themselves in the bidding, but that would require sacrificing guys who are thriving in their rotation, like Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, or Kent Bazemore.

The one option that makes sense is Dallas. They have a player currently out of their rotation that is being paid enough to be used to get Andre – Courtney Lee. They definitely need some help along the wing, and Iguodala would bring championship experience to a team that has exceeded all reasonable expectations.

What Dallas might do is try to see if they can get a better overall player since the team has both Lee’s and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts that can be used to acquire a star. They don’t have a lot of assets, but that may be worth looking into first before looking at Iguodala.

Releasing Iguodala would be Memphis’ last resort, which they don’t want to do, but finding an acceptable trade partner is going to be difficult especially if they want to get something back for him. The longer they wait, the lesser the value.

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Summer League Standouts Faring Well

Jordan Hicks takes a look back at some of the most notable All-Summer League Team players and discusses the contributions they’ve made up to this point in the NBA season.

Jordan Hicks

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The NBA season is in full swing and players are seeing their impact being felt throughout the league. Veterans continue to lead their respective franchises, and role players continue doing what they can to push the scales in their team’s favor.

While the more tenured professionals capture the bulk of the headlines, the first and second-year players often go unnoticed. There’s the occasional breakout star here and there, but for the most part, the young guys do what they can to find time on the court and help their club in any meaningful way.

Every summer, the NBA hosts the now-famous tournament in Nevada, the Las Vegas Summer League, where the stage is open for up-and-coming players to make their first mark in the NBA. Year after year, some newcomers supply the NBA loyalists with enough highlights to keep them happy until mid-October.

At the close of the tournament, a handful of players will make the All-Summer League Team – similar to an All-NBA Team for the regular season. Let’s take a look at how a handful of the All-Summer League Team members have fared this season and what their potential outlook looks like moving forward.

Brandon Clarke — First Team

The former college All-American out of Gonzaga University had quite the impact in his Summer League debut. Not only did he earn first-team All-Summer League honors, but he also took home the Summer League MVP and Tournament MVP, too. He was a statistical monster and a clear reason why the Memphis Grizzlies took home the coveted — to some at least — Summer League Championship trophy.

Clarke currently finds himself in a sixth man-style role. He’s sixth in the team in minutes per game and is doing plenty in that span. He’s averaging 11.8 points on 63 percent from the field and a more impressive 45.5 percent from three. He’s also bringing in 5.9 boards and just under a block [er game. His effective field goal percentage of 66.4 percent is currently good for fifth-best in the entire NBA.

In per 36 minutes, that would be 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on average. He’s not getting starter minutes just yet, but it’s more than safe to say that the Memphis Grizzlies are receiving incredible value out of their 21st overall pick.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker — First Team

Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Alexander-Walker contributed in a big way during the Summer League in Las Vegas. His athleticism is clearly a strong suit but his tenacity on the court is what helps him get minutes.

He’s playing a tad over 14 minutes per game for the New Orleans Pelicans thus far, netting 6.5 points and 2.1 assists on average. New Orleans’ roster is flooded with talented guards, so it’s no surprise Alexander-Walker isn’t getting more minutes, but he seems to be doing an admirable job with the minutes Alvin Gentry gives him.

In a loss to Miami a few weeks back, Alexander-Walker went 6-of-9 from three and finished with 27 points. He followed that performance with 19 points and 4 assists in a win against the Golden State Warriors. His minutes have been sporadic so far, but he’s contributed when given a chance. As the season goes on, look for Alexander-Walker to find more time in Gentry’s lineups.

Kendrick Nunn — First Team

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all the young players this season, Nunn has proven to be quite a threat on the offensive side of the court. He’s averaging 15.3 points per game, good for third on the talented Miami HEAT roster. He led the team with 22.4 points per game in October and was averaging 16.9 points through the first 10 games, but he’s cooled a bit.

For a team that was already planning on starting the season strong, the fact Nunn has managed to carve out 29.4 minutes per night is a testament to his nightly contributions. He has taken the confidence he earned from his Summer League accolades and is supplying the HEAT with stellar play on a nightly basis. There’s a chance his scoring will continue to die down a bit, but he’s already proven worthy of his roster spot in such a short amount of time.

Rui Hachimura — Second Team

The Washington Wizards are currently playing the fastest pace in the NBA and oddly enough have the fourth-best offense to date, too. Hachimura is a key reason for this.

He’s averaging 13.4 points on an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 percent. He’s also pulling down 5.6 boards and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His season-high is 30 points on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s scored in double-figures on 12 out of 19 games this season.

Hachimura’s long frame, coupled with his elite athleticism, allows him to get to the rim and create opportunities for himself as well as for his teammates. He’s still figuring the game out — his flaws on defense are easy to spot — but he has the ability to develop into a great basketball player.

Other recipients of Summer League honors include second-year players Mitchell Robinson, Lonnie Walker IV, Anfernee Simons and third-year player Jarrett Allen. Each of these guys has been producing for their respective teams in big ways.

The Las Vegas Summer League can sometimes be an interesting topic. Each year, second-year guys may or may not return to their Summer League squads and new faces abound. But if there’s anything that recent history has shown us, it’s that cream will always rise to the top. The guys that notch the All-Summer League honors will usually contribute to their teams almost immediately.

Each of these guys mentioned — and even the ones not discussed — will continue to cement their presence in the NBA and may very well become the regular season All-Stars of the future. It’s hard to decipher a player’s value based solely on box score statistics, but when one first enters the league, it’s never a bad thing to see the box score go up. For the young guys, it’s all about finding comfort and learning in which ways they can contribute best. Some may end up being the scorer, while others will develop into a defensive savant or playmaking maestro.

Whatever the future holds, remember the names above. They all have a solid chance of being the face of a franchise someday.

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NBA Daily: Three Veterans Reviving Their Careers

As the league continues to evolve, three players have revived their careers by changing the way they play. Chad Smith examines the mental aspect of these changes and how they are helping their new teams.

Chad Smith

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Life is all about second chances and what you do with them. Basketball isn’t much different in that regard, as most players and coaches will tell you much of their success is about opportunity. Sometimes a fresh start in a new environment is all you need, as three players, in particular, have proved so far this season.

Health is always a big part of these things, but there is so much more that goes into it. Basketball players are creatures of habit, and old habits can be very difficult to break. Changing your perspective on the type of player you are and changing your style of play simply cannot be done overnight. It takes a strong culture, the right people around you and acceptance to make it all work.

With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, there have been plenty of surprises and disappointments. When looking at the former, three guys stand out that many people thought were finished as NBA players, but are now reviving their careers after taking on a new role.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

The Carmelo experiment in Portland has gone very well for both sides. Two weeks in, the 10-time All-Star has relished his new role as another offensive weapon behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The league announced on Monday that the 35-year-old had been named as the Western Conference Player of the Week — averaging 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game — as Portland posted a perfect 3-0 record.

The last time Carmelo won the weekly award was March 10, 2014. Now seven games into his 2019-20 season, he is averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and over 2 assists per game. His shooting percentages are above average, and he is being utilized much better than he was in Houston or Oklahoma City. He is not trying to carry the offense, but he is more than just a spot-up shooter.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has done a remarkable job of injecting Carmelo into the offense, and not altering it completely. By using his strengths on that end of the floor, it actually alleviates some pressure for Lillard and McCollum, while at the same time freeing up space inside for Hassan Whiteside to get better position. Everyone on the roster seems to be benefiting from Melo’s presence, and the team has reaped the rewards.

No one had doubts that Carmelo still had plenty of game left in the tank. The concerns were believed to be the inability to find a situation that was conducive to his mentality. Carmelo had been fighting the notion that he is not the same quality of player that he was in his prime, being above taking on a reserve role with a team. Now that he has bought in, everything has changed.

The 16-year veteran could be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Trail Blazers. After a number of injuries and a slow start for McCollum had them searching for answers, Portland had the longest winning streak of any team in the Western Conference entering Tuesday night’s tilt with the LA Clippers. When Carmelo is willing to make the extra pass and doesn’t hesitate after getting the ball, Portland has found success.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

When Howard decided to return to the Lakers for a second stint this past summer, there were plenty of people skeptical of the move. The top overall pick of the 2004 draft has answered his critics in a resounding way. After several unsuccessful stops in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, he has finally been able to get his back healthy and return to the floor.

After a dominating start to his career in Orlando, where he was the face of the organization for eight seasons, Howard went to team up with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. The two did not see eye-to-eye, and he made his way to Houston the following year. The injuries began to pile up and his production suffered. Never known as a serious guy that had a laser focus on getting better, Howard made himself a target as the losses piled up — and his frustrations were made public.

Now in his 15th season, Howard has finally bought into the system. His role with this Lakers team is clearly defined, and he has accepted it. He has embraced it. He has played to his strengths, which is exactly what the Lakers need from him. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Five times he has finished with the most rebounds in the league. He has had the most blocks in two seasons and has been named to an All-Defensive team five times during his career. As he nears his 34th birthday, he has been fantastic on and off the court.

While averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game may not sound incredible, keep in mind that Howard is only playing around 20 minutes per game. The loaded frontcourt with Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma has played a significant role in that.

Just by watching Howard play, it is easy to see how much quicker and freely he is able to move on the floor. No longer plagued by back issues, he has been sprinting back on defense, running in transition, and finishing above the rim. The Lakers thought they would have the services of DeMarcus Cousins before the season began, but this may actually work out better for them in the long run.

Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards

The journey for Thomas has been much different. After struggling to find minutes, then thriving as the face of the Boston Celtics franchise for three years, IT found himself looking for a home after the hip injury that ended his tenure in Beantown after a deep playoff run.

The first stop came in Cleveland, where he was part of the trade package for Kyrie Irving. He was then sent to the LA Lakers where the fit simply didn’t work. He played just 32 total games during the 2017-2018 season and appeared in only 12 games for the Denver Nuggets after signing a free-agent deal. With his career hanging in the balance entering his age 30 season, Thomas found a new home in Washington.

Much like the two names mentioned above, Thomas has done exactly what the team has needed them to do. The Wizards knew they would be without their star point guard John Wall for the entire season. While they understood the backup role that Ish Smith would play, they needed another playmaker to draw the attention away from Bradley Beal. Fortunately for everyone involved, IT has been able to deliver so far this year.

The assist numbers for IT this year are on par with his average during his three seasons in Boston, which is a career high. The scoring obviously isn’t similar, but that is not what the Wizards need from him. Washington’s offense is a well-oiled machine that is humming along quite nicely. They have multiple guys that can score, and they do it from all areas of the court. The second-ranked scoring offense in the NBA is a clear indication that this team is more than just Beal.

Thomas may not be the same All-Star player that fueled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, but he has been playing his best basketball since that run.

Not bad for an undersized guy taken with the very last pick in the 2011 draft.

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