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NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation

D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.

Matt John

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In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.

Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.

His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?

The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.

Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.

Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.

Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.

First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.

If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.

Of course things are different now.

After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.

It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.

This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.

It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.

What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.

Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.

Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.

More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.

In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.

Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.

There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.

This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.

It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.

So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.

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

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NBA

NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?

Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.

Jack Winter

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The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.

It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.

Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.

A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.

But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.

Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?

“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”

It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.

But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.

The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.

The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.

But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.

Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.

If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.

The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.

It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?

The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.

Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.

Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.

Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.

This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.

But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.

And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.

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NBA

Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Jordan Hicks

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It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.

What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.

The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.

In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.

Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers

Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.

Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.

It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.

Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers

Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.

The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.

They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.

San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers

The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.

With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.

Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.

New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers

Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.

Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.

Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers

This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?

The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.

This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.

Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.

Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Mo Harkless Proving His Value

The LA Clippers have thrived despite their two biggest stars missing a combined 18 games this season. The reason for this may be linked to the problems in Portland. Chad Smith details why Mo Harkless has been a key factor in both.

Chad Smith

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The Los Angeles Clippers are undoubtedly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Understandably, much of the credit goes to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley. Though he may be overlooked and underappreciated, Maurice Harkless is a significant piece of the tenacious defense that has fueled the Clippers to an 18-7 record.

More affectionately known as Mo Harkless, the versatile wing has delivered when the team needed him most. Between Kawhi’s load management and George missing the first 11 games of the season, Doc Rivers had to rely on the services of one of their other new players. Harkless’ role in LA isn’t much different from his role in Portland, where he spent the last three seasons.

After being drafted 15th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Harkless patiently waited for the right opportunity. Oddly enough, that came in the form of a trade during the summer of 2015, when he was dealt to Portland for a 2020 2nd round pick, which is top-55 protected. After three years in Orlando, it all came together in the Pacific Northwest.

Harkless was an afterthought by some in the four-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. Injuries have devastated Portland, but losing a talented role player like him has hurt them just as bad.

In LA’s first seven games this season, Harkless recorded 11 total steals and was top five in the league in deflections. One of the most valuable assets that he possesses is the ability to guard four positions on the floor. This was something that surprised Doc early on, not fully grasping his depth of talent.

Scoring has never been Harkless’ calling card, but he is very capable of averaging double figures. His points are slightly down this year, but that is not why the Clippers put him on the floor. When he does score, he takes high percentage shots at the rim, as his 55 percent effective field goal percentage indicates. He shoots above 50 percent for his career and is connecting on 37 percent of his shots from downtown.

The rebounding numbers won’t blow you away either, but Harkless can hit the glass when needed. He actually led the team with 14 rebounds in their last game in Indiana on Monday. Harkless isn’t going to lead the team in any significant category over the course of a season, but he is able to produce in various ways on any given night. That is a lethal weapon for any coach to have coming off of his bench.

The versatility that Harkless possesses was on display against Toronto when he split time defending Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. He held Kemba Walker in check and forced him into three consecutive turnovers. He locked down Luka Doncic to the tune of 4-for-11 shooting and even spent time guarding Anthony Davis in the season opener. His lethal combination of length and quickness allows him to become a pest to all different types of players.

The Clippers currently boast a 104.6 defensive rating, which is eighth-best in the league. Kawhi has missed seven games, and George missed the first 11 which makes that rating look even better. With Harkless’ defensive skill set and offensive weapons like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, it makes it even tougher for opposing teams to generate enough offense to keep pace.

On top of the games that their two star players have missed, the Clippers have also only had the services of Landry Shamet for 10 games. JaMychal Green has also missed a few games due to injury, which has tested their depth even more. Harkless has played in all 25 games so far for the Clippers. Considering how this team has performed amid all of the injuries, it is scary to imagine what they could become by season’s end if they are healthy and have their chemistry figured out.

Portland experienced a lot of roster turnover from a year ago, and it has crippled them so far this season. At first glance, people may point to the departure of guys like Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are now playing for the two teams in Florida. Ed Davis and Evan Turner have both left the west coast, but it may be safe to say their biggest loss was that of Harkless.

He set the tone on defense for them and was the guy that would do whatever the team needed in order to win. He never cared about his statistics or how he was used in the rotation. Sure, having a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would be nice, but Portland would sure love having Harkless back in their lineup.

This is a tough stretch for the Clippers, who have begun an 11-game gauntlet that began with a brutal loss in Milwaukee, and ends with a “road” game against their LA rivals on Christmas Day. Only 2 of those 11 games will come on their home floor when they face a surprising Phoenix team and an angry Houston squad. They will be thoroughly tested between now and the holidays, but they are up for the challenge.

Tonight’s matchup in Toronto is obviously all about Kawhi’s return. Two elite teams will square off with All-Star caliber players all over the court. Mo Harkless may not be one of them. He doesn’t rank inside the top 150 players in points, rebounds or assists. His Hall-of-Fame probability is 0.0 percent.

Still, much of LA’s success this season can be attributed to his stellar and unselfish play.

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