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NBA Daily: The Implications Of Kemba To Boston

After all that they’ve lost, the Celtics will have potentially made quite the rebound by bringing in Kemba Walker, which gives us a glimpse into what they believe about themselves.

Matt John

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So… who saw this coming?

Since the summer began, the common consensus was that Kemba Walker was re-signing with the Charlotte Hornets. They have the most money to offer, he’s pledged his loyalty to Charlotte on multiple occasions and he’s right square in the middle of his prime.

Now it appears that Boston, in the wake of losing both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, is in the driver’s seat in the Kemba sweepstakes.

This would qualify as a twist, but is it really?

Keeping Walker would seem like the obvious move for Charlotte, but giving him the money he wants – upwards of over $150 million – would lead to paying tens of millions in luxury tax. That’s hard enough for a team that plays in a small market, but what makes it harder for the Hornets is that even with someone as good as Walker, they are already a capped out team with a pretty limited ceiling.

Remember how so many NBA followers gave Dan Gilbert endless flak for the number of luxury tax bills he had to pay for the Cavaliers from 2014-2018? At least then, he had the excuse of paying top dollar and then some for a contender. If the Hornets gave Walker a contract close to the Supermax, they’d be doing the same, only for a team whose ceiling is much, much lower.

Even for someone like Kemba, that doesn’t sound like it would be worth it. Charlotte could try to move some things around to help its financial trouble or improve the team’s makeup, but the roster is filled with overpaid role players and young players who have a long way to go. Letting Kemba walk would be tough – in hindsight, trading him probably would have been the better option – but Charlotte needs to get itself away from the treadmill team label.

Nothing is set in stone just yet, but if this is how things are looking, then there are some implications from this move if it is to take place when free agency arrives.

Kyrie was the problem, not the kids

In a season’s span, this most recent Boston Celtics team went from being a squad that fans couldn’t wait to watch, to a squad fans couldn’t stand to watch. The turmoil in the locker room was believed to be one of the primary reasons why things didn’t work out in Boston. Now that it’s over, we’re starting to get a few leaks as to what went on behind closed doors.

One of the prevailing theories for Boston coming up way short was Kyrie’s contempt towards his teammates, coaches and anyone really in the organization, which is a whole other story by itself. By bringing Kemba in and letting Kyrie walk, they are showing their faith that the youngsters can bounce back following a rough season. In so doing, it shows their belief that Kyrie truly was what was preventing the team from reaching its potential.

The proof is in the pudding. Kyrie deserves respect both as a player and for telling it like it is, but it’s clear that he did not uplift his teammates with his actions. We saw him yell at both his teammates and his coach. We heard him make empty promises that the Celtics’ fortunes would be different in the postseason. It’s gotten to the point that Boston seems to have fully accepted that he’s not returning and is happier for it.

It’s also very possible that the talented youngsters weren’t blameless victims in what happened. The unexpected success from 2018 with such young players could have definitely gotten to their heads that tension with Kyrie was inescapable. In fact, Boston may have to ask itself if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown did not like deferring to Kyrie Irving, is it going to be any different with Kemba Walker? Even so, that shouldn’t stop them from snatching someone as good as Kemba when they have the chance.

Experts weren’t wrong when they said that the Celtics had the talent to be something special. Making the lateral move from Kyrie to Kemba shows that the Celtics believe that they still can be and that now, they won’t have hubris stopping them from doing so.

Kemba wants Brad Stevens a.k.a. the point guard whisperer

At 29 years old, Walker is now at the height of his abilities as a player. At that stage, players want a coach who can bring the absolute best out of them. As odd as it sounds now in light of everything that’s recently happened with Kyrie, Brad Stevens is an expert at bringing the best out of his point guards.

Let’s get a rundown of Brad Stevens’ track record with point guards since he took over in 2013.

Jordan Crawford – He was seen as just roster fodder, but played well enough to earn a Player of the Week award as the team’s starting point guard and fetched the Celtics a first-round pick a short while afterward.

Evan Turner – He had one foot out of the NBA, but found his niche as a secondary playmaker/scorer in Boston. His role on the team was so perfect for him that he was paid handsomely by Portland to play the same role.

Isaiah Thomas – He was slated as a scoring spark off the bench and played well enough to not only get a starting job, but also elevated his play into becoming an MVP candidate and a core piece in a trade for Kyrie Irving.

Terry Rozier – He was viewed as a reach when the Celtics took him 16th overall, and he didn’t have the most productive tenure in his four years in Boston. But when the Celtics slated him into the starting point guard spot, he played a pivotal role in getting them to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Kyrie Irving – He already came in with the reputation of a superstar. As good as Irving has already proven himself to be, Stevens got the best out of him too. Irving is coming off of his two most efficient seasons as a pro shooting-wise, played the best defense of his career and even set a career-high in assists last season.

Brad has been a guru for his point guards with the only exception being Rajon Rondo. That may be attributed more to Rondo’s ACL tear/wanting out of Boston than Brad’s coaching. But besides him, the evidence speaks for itself.

Brad’s reputation with floor generals could very well be Kemba’s primary draw to the Celtics. If his magic works on Kemba, then we could see the best numbers that Walker has ever put up in his career.

Gordon Hayward will be back (or closer) to normal

The backbone for both the Celtics having such monumental expectations and disappointing such expectations last season came – through no fault of his own – from Gordon Hayward’s return.

Hayward was unsteady through the majority of his first season back from his gruesome leg injury. Every once in a while, he showed flashes of the star player he was when the team brought him in two years ago. As the season wound down, he started finding a little more consistency in his game. If it weren’t for his sudden disappearance against Milwaukee in the playoffs, fans would be more encouraged by his progress.

Not too long ago, Hayward was once a player who everyone believed was worth every penny of the max contract Boston gave him. Now, he’s seen as an albatross contract who Boston will have to swallow whole. While the public has its doubts about Hayward, the Celtics bringing in Kemba demonstrates that they don’t.

Boston would have a solid foundation talent with Kemba and “the Jays” at the forefront. If he resembles the player he once was, Hayward at full throttle would take their ceiling to a whole new level. Many forget the player that Gordon was before his leg snapped, but he was one of the league’s better all-around players. Having that at Boston’s arsenal opens up a wide range of possibilities.

That would only be hypothetical, but by potentially adding Walker, Boston has shown that it still believes Hayward can be that guy. This season, Hayward will be two years removed from his awful injury, won’t have nearly as many guys around him who want the ball in their hands and still has Brad Stevens coaching him.

A lot can change between now and Sunday. For all we know, these reports of Kemba deserting Charlotte for Boston are all just a negotiating tactic by Walker’s camp for the Hornets to pony up. Even if this is legitimate, Boston still has more questions to answer. More specifically, what they’re going to do with their frontcourt now that Horford and Aron Baynes are gone. Knowing Danny Ainge, those questions will be answered in due time.

For now, so much has gone wrong for the Celtics in the last few months that it’s nice to see that they’re not taking it all lying down.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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