“Lazy! Ballhog! Choker!”
The basketball social media universe is unforgiving for a number of players in the NBA. By scanning the timelines of many users in this world, you’ll see all kinds of arguments and debates—seriously or jokingly—rooted in recency bias due to the 24/7 news cycle rate at which news happens in 2019. A good chunk of these are referred to as “hot takes,” a.k.a. baseless claims meant to get a rise out of people reacting in real time.
Now, the issue with those viewpoints is that once something is proclaimed, it is set in stone. Some fans won’t bother to watch or listen when a player improves or adapts to whatever area was once a struggle. Above all else, they shudder to see success because it means they’re wrong. And who can be wrong about something in today’s world? Oh no, the horror.
In turn, that realization evolves into an actual hatred of a player’s game (and in some cases personal, unfortunately), causing a domino effect throughout and gaining traction to spread that disdain.
The target most seem to go after? None other than the NBA’s reigning MVP, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.
Let’s get this out of the way first—yes, Harden embellishes. He does it more often than anybody in the league, probably. He’s also been given leeway on stepbacks regarding the gathers he takes. Just because that’s true, however, does not mean that every foul committed against him isn’t one, nor is every movement he makes a travel.
With the officiating the NBA has, you have to be mindful that a more demonstrative sell job is going to get you a call. Plus, if it works to your benefit and keeps working, why stop? Nobody wants to hear that, but if you look anywhere around this game you’ll recognize that plenty of players are doing the same exact thing.
That said, in the first-round series with the Utah Jazz, Harden hasn’t even been getting the number of foul calls we’re used to seeing him get anyway. If it weren’t for Game 3, he’d have been to the free throw line just eight times with only 12 personal fouls drawn. While it’s only a small sample size, to this point, his free throw rate is the lowest it’s been since last postseason.
Sure, he worked his way to the charity stripe twice as much Saturday, but that’s because his shots were not falling, meaning he had to take matters into his own hands to attack more frequently—especially with the Jazz forcing him right and going behind him defensively every possession.
Which brings us to the next point: Harden is an exceptional passer. Due to his isolation-heavy game, the common misconception is that Beard is a selfish player. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since he’s put up less-than-ideal scoring numbers when he’s put it on the floor against Utah, Harden has found another way to positively impact the game with his distribution. His 6.7 assists per game off drives is far and away the highest average among the rest of the league in playoff time.
The main beneficiaries of these dimes have been two guys—Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker. If you want to know why Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni constantly raves over Harden’s playmaking ability, there’s your reason (threes and layups!)
In forcing defenses to collapse when he takes it to the hole, it more often than not leaves that pair open. When Harden comes in, Capela clears out just long enough to create space for a quick baseline cut and easy high handoff for two points.
Capela converts on 75 percent of the passes he receives from Harden, who’s averaged four assists per game to the big man this series. This has been one of the most deadly combinations for years, and the duo’s chemistry has only gotten stronger with more time together.
If defenses try to take away the alley-oop and crowd Harden at the point of attack, he’ll send it to his guys in the short corner almost every time. During this series, that man has been Tucker. All five of his three-point makes have come off a Harden assist. Sometimes others will occupy the spot as well and just wait for that kick out.
Harden’s also been able to locate the elbows pretty well, citing Eric Gordon and Gerald Green’s combined five three-balls as an example of that. If an overall career-best 48.6 assist percentage to start the postseason doesn’t turn people off to the “ballhog” narrative, nothing will.
It’d be remiss of this writer to not mention Harden’s work on the defensive end, too. Matched up against Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio—the players he’s guarded most—he’s held those players in check.
He isn’t assigned to the best offensive weapons on the team—Mitchell has had his way against him—but Harden has limited Ingles to six points on 49 possessions and Rubio to eight points on 41 possessions, respectively. The whiff in transition with Royce O’Neale going right around him for an easy dunk looks terrible, but it’s nothing but a blip on the radar regarding the whole picture.
Cherry picking certain highlights and statistics is a common practice of the hot take culture to fit their perspective, so they’ll use that to their advantage in arguments. Don’t let it distract you from the fact that Harden is, without a shadow of a doubt, turning himself into one of the most cerebral players in the NBA.
Consider that this small stretch of elite basketball has come against a top defensive team in the league. Harden finds ways to dissect. There’s always the threat of a stepback three—over eight contested attempts per game in which he’s knocked down 38.5 percent of—going down. If he chooses to deliberately slow the pace down in the halfcourt, there’s a good chance he’ll zoom right by you to open up those previously mentioned options.
Going 0-for-15 to start Game 3 was historically poor, but Harden racked up seven assists and six steals during the struggles. He still proceeded to score a game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and knock down the most critical three of the night to lead Houston to a clutch win on the road.
In the end, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
Some of Harden’s detractors will still blind themselves of the truly special performances that are actually happening. At that point, it’d be better to admit you don’t like the guy rather than to invent reasons why he’s “overrated” on the floor.
While everyone has their opinion on Harden, D’Antoni has his own.
“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” the Rockets head coach said last March. “It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”
D’Antoni’s been around this league for a long time.
Perhaps we shouldn’t take the opinion of a person that’s coached Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony lightly.
How Magical Can Orlando Be?
In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.
As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.
It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.
There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.
Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.
And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.
There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.
And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.
If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.
But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.
If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.
Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.
But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.
It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.
Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.
We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.
Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.
Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.
With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.
He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.
As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.
There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.
Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.
Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.
Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.
Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.
With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.
Nice assist from Markelle Fultz! pic.twitter.com/JSFSXE4Nss
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 10, 2019
He can attack the basket.
Markelle Fultz attacks the rim, makes the tough finish over Joel Embiid! pic.twitter.com/IMtT5iN6u4
— beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) October 13, 2019
And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.
Jump shot or not, Markelle Fultz can be a very productive player in the league. pic.twitter.com/0pf8hJmXw7
— Bryan Oringher (@ScoutWithBryan) October 14, 2019
Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.
We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.
The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.
Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.
We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.
Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.
Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.
Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.
Zach LaVine, Charting a Path Toward Analytics Superstardom
Zach LaVine made headlines by decrying his team’s preference to avoid long twos. But however reluctantly, the Chicago Bulls guard is charting a path toward analytics superstardom.
The widespread hand-wringing about Zach LaVine’s stated hesitance to shirk mid-range jumpers in favor of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc was largely overblown.
While the Chicago Bulls would no doubt prefer he publicly embrace the coaching staff’s plan this season to further prioritize high-value field goal attempts, the truth is that LaVine has gradually been cutting long twos from his game for years. His share of shots that came from mid-range last season was 17.8 percent, a career-low mark that’s dwindled on an annual basis ever since he entered the league in 2014-15.
It’s not like LaVine openly flaunted the Bulls’ preference to hunt efficient shots and employ a more egalitarian style of offense during the preseason, either. Just four of his 54 shots in exhibition play were non-paint twos, and a whopping 48 of his field-goal attempts were taken from deep or in the restricted area. The result has been by far the best basketball of LaVine’s five-year career, a remarkable blend of production and efficiency that makes it easy to forget the meaningless stakes of preseason basketball – and just as easy to believe he’s on the verge true stardom.
LaVine won’t average 34.8 points per-36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of 75.1 come the regular season. Stats like that are reserved for video games and, it turns out, a four-game stretch of the preseason slate. Still, LaVine’s jaw-dropping performance over the past two weeks hasn’t received nearly enough attention league-wide and, perhaps, positions him as basketball’s most imminently dangerous long-range shooter and perimeter penetrator this side of James Harden.
LaVine showed last season that he had the goods to earn that distinction. None of the 11 players who averaged more drives than his 13.6 per game shot better than LaVine’s 36.9 percent on pull-up threes, according to data compiled at NBA.com. The insane degree of difficulty of Harden’s off-dribble triples pushed his accuracy just below LaVine’s, and Kemba Walker, who averaged 15.2 drives per game, nearly eclipsed his three-point shooting percentage despite taking nearly double the number of long-range pull-ups.
But the numbers are the numbers, and they provide even more evidence to suggest LaVine is on the cusp of becoming a scorer tailor-made for the analytics era, despite his apparent preference otherwise.
LaVine took 3.1 off-dribble threes per game last season, 21st-most in the league. If the preseason is any indication of his style of play to come, expect him to easily beat that average in 2019-20. All but seven of LaVine’s 25 three-point attempts in the preseason came off a live dribble, a total that extrapolates to 6.8 pull-up tries per-36 minutes of play.
LaVine rarely deviated from the offense to launch those looks, either. Chicago made a concerted effort in each of his four exhibition games to free LaVine for off-dribble threes early in the shot clock, whether by drag screens as he brought the ball up the floor or staggered ball screens coming middle off the catch. He’s also already developed a nice wink-wink chemistry with Tomas Satoransky, who boasts natural playmaking ingenuity the Bulls have long lacked next to LaVine in the backcourt. And on the few occasions LaVine has isolated before pulling up from deep, his burst off the bounce and cat-quick shot release have caught defenders flat-footed, unable to manage an effective contest.
LaVine isn’t Harden, and he never will be. Expecting any player, no matter how explosive an athlete or how smooth he is with the ball, to function as a close approximation of the Houston Rockets’ superstar is flatly unfair. He’s the most accomplished off-dribble three-point shooter ever, and even before earning that distinction proved impossible for defenders to keep out of the paint.
LaVine isn’t nearly as comfortable as Harden putting a series of high-level dribble moves together before letting fly, and Chicago isn’t asking him to play that way. But the threat of his pull-up jumper looms large nonetheless, which makes LaVine an even more devastating penetrator than his all-world physical tools alone suggest he would be.
Over his first couple seasons in the league, LaVine routinely drove at full speed, often getting all the way to the rim but arriving out of control. He’s slowly, but surely, added more nuance and patience as an attacker in recent years, honed ability that combined with his pull-up jumper made him more effective than ever getting to the basket during the preseason. Playing beside frontcourt shooters like Lauri Markkanen and Luke Kornet affords LaVine extra space to manipulate help defenders with fakes and hesitations behind the initial line of defense, too.
It took years for LaVine to develop the understanding needed to take advantage of defenders’ missteps by doing things like rejecting screens and splitting defenders, reads that come easy for some high-usage ball handlers. He drew more free throw attempts on drives last season than every player in basketball but Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Spencer Dinwiddie. LaVine needs to get more comfortable with his left hand and still lacks a reliable floater game, but should be one of the league’s most productive penetrators this season regardless.
Even if LaVine proves his eye-popping preseason play wasn’t a complete aberration, the stats will nevertheless convey a more glowing assessment of his overall impact than his real on-court influence. LaVine was still prone to tunnel vision with the ball in his hands, often missing simple kickouts as defenders converged on his drives, and is unlikely to improve from his low defensive baseline despite a stated desire otherwise. At 24, dreams of him realizing his utmost, Hall-of-Fame potential as a dynamic primary ball handler who doubles as a dogged, disruptive defender are pretty much long gone.
But LaVine has made so much progress as a shooter and attacker that for now his weaknesses only matter on the margins. And as long as he continues on the path toward becoming basketball’s most reluctant analytics darling, the Bulls will be best served building an ecosystem around them – just like the Rockets with Harden’s.
NBA Daily: Bradley Beal Extension Signals Long-Term Plan for Washington
After signing Bradley Beal to a two-year extension, the Wizards will try to return to relevancy. While it will be difficult, there is a long-term plan materializing in Washington.
Yesterday Bradley Beal inked a two-year 72 million dollar extension with the Washington Wizards. The extension, which kicks in beginning in the 2021-2022 season, includes a player option for the second year and could potentially keep him from reaching free agency until the summer of 2023.
Following a summer defined by player movement, Beal’s signing marks a change of pace for NBA superstars. After a season marred by John Wall tearing his Achilles and culminating in the Wizards’ lowest win total since 2012-13, many expected Beal to be a marquee name on the trade market.
Instead, Beal will stay with the team that drafted him and attempt to right the ship. In a recent interview following the extension, Beal explained his motivation:
“I guess just legacy at the end of the day. This is where I’ve been for the last seven years, going on eight, and I have an opportunity to turn this thing around,” Beal said. “It’s a beautiful market. I love it. I love D.C. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and this is where I want to be for the rest of my career.”
With Beal committed to the franchise, the team can look to the future knowing they have a potential All-NBA player in tow. The question now becomes, where can they go from here?
Firstly, there is the Wall-sized elephant in the room when it comes to the Wizards’ future roster construction. Shortly after signing a four-year supermax extension, injuries began to plague the former top overall pick.
Wall played only 41 games in 2017-18, and then only 32 games in 2018-19, before tearing his Achilles by slipping and falling in his home last February. Wall is expected to miss the entirety of this season as he rehabs.
The supermax extension signed by Wall in the summer of 2017 begins this season and will pay him 170 million dollars over the next four years. This will keep Wall on the roster through the 2022-23 season, assuming he picks up the fourth-year player option on the deal.
It is unclear how Wall will return from such a devastating injury. There is a poor track record for NBA players returning from an injury of this nature. The outlook could be even grimmer when factoring in Wall’s reliance on speed and athleticism.
With that in mind, along with the consensus projection that the Wizards will be a lottery team, many will question the decision to extend Beal rather than undergo a full rebuild. The question is certainly a valid one, but there may still be a path back to competitiveness for the franchise with Beal on the team.
The options to improve the team in the short-term will be limited. They are hard-capped for this season and will have no more than 16 million in cap space for the coming summer, should the projected salary cap number of $116 million remain unchanged.
The plan for the next two seasons will likely be to foster internal development, while remaining somewhat competitive with Beal and any veterans they can add to the fringes. There is excitement about rookie first-round pick Rui Hachimura, who had a nice showing in the FIBA World Cup and thus far in preseason.
The Wizards also have Troy Brown Jr. and Moritz Wagner on their rookie contracts for the next two seasons. Brown, particularly, showed an ability to finish at the rim and draw fouls last season. He shot 70 percent at the rim and drew shooting fouls on 9.8 percent of his shot attempts. Those numbers were in the 90th and 71st percentile for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.
If Brown and Hachimura can blossom into a starting quality wing duo, the Wizards’ future outlook could gain a little optimism.
The team will also have Thomas Bryant on a team-friendly contract for the next three seasons. The 22-year-old center showed flashes of ability to not only fill a rim-running role in the pick-and-roll last season, but to space the floor as well. Bryant finished 80 percent of his shots at the rim, and shot a serviceable 34 percent from beyond the arc, per Cleaning the Glass.
Encouragingly, the Wizards offense scored at a top-three level when Beal and Bryant shared the court without Wall last season. Tomas Satoransky, who ran point guard during most of those minutes, is no longer here. Ish Smith will slide into that role, and while his speed and passing are helpful, he will not space the floor as Satoransky did.
That spacing loss could be offset with the addition of three-point marksman Davis Bertans, who will operate as a stretch four next to Bryant. There is also the option of running Beal at the point, an experiment that was successful in limited minutes last season.
Bertans and fellow signee C.J Miles will both provide spacing and a veteran presence to the lineup, but both are on one-year deals. It is likely that the Wizards will continue to sign veterans to short-term deals going forward to round out their core.
With all that said, the ceiling for this Wizards team this season is likely the eighth seed in the East. The defense will still be an issue this season unless the younger players, specifically Bryant, take massive leaps on that end.
The expected mediocrity will require smart drafting by Washington going forward. Hachimura looks like a decent pick at 9th overall, but it would be unwise to make any declarations at this stage. It is also very difficult to consistently hit on late lottery to mid-first round draft picks.
If the Wizards do manage to draft well, they could build themselves a solid core to develop over the next few years while they wait out Wall’s contract and hoard cap space for the summer of 2023. Anything Wall can provide after his return from the injury would be a bonus.
The possibility of a trade down the line still remains as well. Beal made it clear he was committed to staying with the Wizards, but there is ample evidence as to how quickly things can change in the NBA. Another lottery season or two and what once seemed like a strong long-term plan could feel like a lost cause.
But, assuming Beal and the Wizards are both true to their word and stay in this for the long haul, the team will need to bank on internal development and hope for some good luck. The size of both Beal and Wall’s contracts will make it nearly impossible to bring on another star, even without factoring in the tall task of convincing such a player to relocate to D.C.
First-year GM Tommy Sheppard has a long road ahead, but the first step of signing Beal signaled a commitment to the team’s star and could help foster a culture to build on over the next few seasons. While 2023 is a ways away, the team does have a long-term plan in place to field a solid team around Beal while developing young players in the meantime.
In the NBA, it is impossible to say if this vision will pan out, but having any vision at all is half of the battle.