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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Jan. 18

Basketball Insiders releases our second MVP rankings of the 2020-21 season, with three players seemingly neck-and-neck in their race to the award.

Tristan Tucker

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About a month into the 2020-21 NBA season, fans are really starting to see which players have separated themselves from the pack in the race toward the Most Valuable Player award. It’s still anyone’s game — we’re just a fraction of the way through the season — but there have certainly been some that have impressed significantly more than other’s through their team’s first 10 or so games. Let’s take a look.

1. LeBron James (Previous: 6)

James’ MVP campaign has been quiet but extremely effective through the first month of the season, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers firmly in front of the Western Conference with an 11-3 record.

With fellow MVP candidate Anthony Davis, James and the Lakers have continued to prove themselves the best in the West; they’ve won five straight, including a back-to-back against the Houston Rockets. And, with games against the bottom of the Eastern Conference on the horizon, their lead in the West — and James’ lead in the race —  should only grow.

James himself is in the midst of another strong year. He’s averaged 24.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists through Los Angeles’ first 14 games and has put on one of the best shooting performances of his career. Never characterized as an elite shooter, James’ 38.2 percent on what would be a career-high 6.4 threes per game are among the best in the league. He’s extended his range significantly and has gotten out in front of any other potential weaknesses to his game to dismantle them.

James has continued to age like a fine wine and, with the Lakers dominating the competition once again, expect him to stay on top of this list, or at least close to it, for the foreseeable future.

2. Nikola Jokic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Jokic wasn’t on the ladder in our previous listing but he is having an outstanding season thus far, averaging a triple-double on the year. Through 13 games, he’s managed 25 points, 11.4 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 1.9 steals per contest.

“The Joker” has always been an excellent passer but one facet to his game that has stood out the most in recent games is how he’s improved as an on ball defender that can make some fantastic passing game reads on both defense and offense; his 1.9 steals and 10.3 assists per game would be career highs by far for the Denver Nuggets star. But not only is Jokic leading the league in assists, but he’s put himself in elite company, having joined Oscar Robertson as one of two players to average 20 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds through a team’s first 10 games. He’s also doing that while shooting 57.3 percent from the floor.

In fact, the only thing seemingly holding Jokic back in these rankings is the performance of the Nuggets. Denver is currently 6-7, 11th in the Western Conference. They’ve faced a tough slate to start the season, but two early losses to the Sacramento Kings and other, close losses to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns just can’t happen if they expect to reach the top of the conference.

If the Nuggets turn it around, however, look for Jokic to grab the top spot.

3. Kevin Durant (Previous: NR)

Like Jokic, Durant also missed out on our initial ranking. That said, he’s played his way into the race and with some ridiculous boxscores in recent days. The simple fact that Durant has maintained a certain level of consistency from pre- to post-Achillies injury might boost his place on this list even further as we continue through the season.

For one, Durant’s shooting has been off the charts: 54.8 percent from the floor, 48.3 percent from deep (on six attempts per game) and 86.7 percent from the charity stripe. But none of that can even touch the fact that he’s second in the NBA in scoring per game at 30.7 points per contest, while he’s also posted 6.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1 block per game.

It’s clear Durant is healthy enough to compete for the award. But, the fact that he’ll now be sharing the ball with two of the best scorers in the NBA, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, may keep him from ever reaching the top spot this season. That said, Durant seemed to have little issue scoring 42 points in his first outing with Harden, who also put up a 30-point triple-double — we’ll just have to wait and see what the three of them look like together.

4. Joel Embiid (Previous: 4)

Embiid is having a fantastic season, posting some of the best per-game numbers of his career on, by far, his most efficient shooting yet. The Philadelphia 76ers are 9-5 and look reminiscent of the contender they were in 2018-19, rather than the disappointment they were a season ago, with Embiid at full strength.

Embiid has averaged 25 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists on what would be a career-best 53.6 percent clip from the floor and 39.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The 7-foot center recently posted a 45-point, 16-rebound game against the Miami HEAT in a win that also saw him scoop up 5 steals, 4 assists and a block.

Of course, Embiid will only climb this ladder if he can maintain some consistency game-to-game. And he’s hasn’t quite done that yet; he followed up that performance with just nine points on 37.5 percent shooting, albeit in a blowout win against the HEAT.

5. Paul George (Previous: Not Ranked)

George is having a fantastic regular season for the Los Angeles Clippers and is averaging career-best numbers at the age of 30. The Clippers, meanwhile, have the second-best record in the NBA at 10-4 and George has played an integral role in their early-season success.

George has also shot an absurdly high 51 percent on eight attempts per game from downtown. And, while that number is likely to dip with more games, George’s ridiculous efficiency pairs well with averages of 24.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game and places him firmly in the MVP race.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 1)

Antentokounmpo’s teammates, Khris Middleton in particular, are a huge reason for his success thus far, especially considering Middleton has scored 21.8 points per game on nearly 47 percent shooting from deep.

However, that isn’t to say that he isn’t having a fantastic season himself. Antentokounmpo has pushed the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 9-4. And while he’s posted his lowest scoring numbers since the 2016-17 season, the Bucks, with him at the helm, look to be in a groove and, arguably, a bigger threat to push for an NBA Finals appearance than ever before.

If his per-game stats continue to be lower than last season’s, even by a small margin, it’s hard to see Antentokounmpo winning the award for a third-straight year. Voter fatigue is real, as Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are the only players in NBA history to have won the award in three straight seasons.

At the end of the day, and in light of Harden’s blockbuster trade to the Brooklyn Nets, there’s potential for anyone to crash the MVP race and maybe even come away with the win. S0 stay tuned for our next edition of the MVP ladder!

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NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn

Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.

Drew Maresca

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Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.

With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.

The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?

Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.

Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.

Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.

Lack of depth is a problem

Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.

There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.

But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.

Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.

Nash’s first rodeo

On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.

Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.

As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.

For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons –  Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.

It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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