With the NBA’s post-season in full swing and historic playoff games being played almost nightly, there are some storylines to watch as the race to a championship unfolds.
Here are a few things to watch, especially if some of the ongoing series don’t play out as some had hoped when the season started some seven months ago:
Kyrie And The Celtics
During the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, all of the turmoil in Boston seemed to have cleared. For months the Celtics looked like a group forced together more nights than night, with All-Star Kyrie Irving looking more and more likely to exit the situation than re-sign as he had pledged to season ticket holders back at the start of the season.
With the Celtics now looking a second-round exit in the eyes, things in Boston seem right back where they were, with Irving posting arguably the worst playoff series of his career. Which re-opens the questions of will he stay or, worse yet, would it be smart for the Celtics to hitch their wagon to what’s become a mercurial player for what would likely be a new deal worth more than $200 million and five more years?
While the Celtics are never a team known to tip its hand, the vibe from around the league is still that Boston is committed to a future with Irving and surrounding him with complementary players. An early exit may change that, but there isn’t a lot coming from the Celtics to suggest they want out of Irving.
On the Irving side, there is more belief in league circles that he’ll look at his options in July rather than just re-up with the Celtics. The money will matter, especially with Irving’s injury history, but there is also a belief that he’ll want the peace of mind of knowing he looked before blindly locking in.
While the New York Knicks are often cited as a desirable situation for Irving, most NBA insiders believe he looks and listens to more than just the Celtics and Knicks and, as weird as it may seem, Irving’s renewed relationship with LeBron James could have him considering the Lakers when he takes meetings.
The idea that Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant have already decided on New York has been shot down by both people close to Irving and people close to the Knicks. The Knicks remain hopeful they can pair two elite stars with their promising young core, but they haven’t been given any assurances from anyone, including Irving, according to sources close to the Knicks.
The Celtics had hoped for a run at the Eastern Conference crown when the season opened, so a second round exit would be a big miss for the Celtics. That said, it doesn’t seem like they are ready to panic, but it absolutely is a situation to watch.
Kawhi and The Raptors
If you haven’t been paying attention, Kawhi Leonard has turned in an impressive performance for the Toronto Raptors so far in this post-season. The fact that he can be an unrestricted free agent in a few months continues to linger over his performances, mainly because he could very well walk away in July.
The vibe from the Raptors is one of optimism. They feel like they have done everything the right way to not only gain the trust of the reclusive Leonard, but to make sure he understands how things could play out if he were to commit beyond this season. As crazy as that seemed last summer when the Raptors obtained Leonard, it seems they may have a legit shot at keeping him.
The general vibe around the NBA is that Toronto and the LA Clippers are the front runners for Leonard, although more than a few NBA insiders believe if Leonard takes a meeting, he may listen to more than just those two teams.
Given how different Leonard’s motivations are from the average NBA player, predicting what he’ll really do is challenging, but if the tea leaves of the season are painting the picture accurately, Leonard may be a hair on the side of staying in Toronto versus leaving, and that would be a massive win for the Raptors regardless of how the post-season plays out.
One thing does seem pretty real for the Raptors, if Leonard does opt to leave, sweeping changes could hit the franchise as a result and that includes dealing point guard Kyle Lowry and shedding some of the ugly cap money on the books.
Durant and The Warriors
As much as fans bemoaned the formation of this current Golden State Warriors Super team, there is a reality that every dynasty in the NBA has ended at one point or another, and the clock on this Warriors roster looks to be winding down. The Warriors are still the prohibitive favorites to win the Western Conference, and despite how impressive the Milwaukee Bucks have been, the Warriors are still the more likely NBA Finals winner – but what’s also very real is the gap between the Warriors and everyone is not the chasm it used to be. In fact, the Houston Rockets have shown they could be the dream killer if Steph Curry can’t find his mojo.
The worst kept secret in the NBA is that Warriors forward Kevin Durant wants to look at his options this summer, and if the rumors hold true, he could be taking his talents to the New York Knicks. Sources near the situation have been emphatic that Durant isn’t talking about anything beyond the season. However the same was said back when Durant was in Oklahoma City, and he did exactly as everyone predicted he would do, which leaves a lot hanging in the balance for the Warriors.
Their number one priority is to keep this starting core intact, which means guard Klay Thompson will get a max contract offer the very second the Warriors are allowed to offer it. The Warriors will also offer the same full max deal to Durant, hoping that all of that guaranteed money will at least sway him into staying for another year or two. Warriors ownership is on the eve of a brand-new building in San Francisco, which came with hefty seat license revenue that basically fronted the Warriors the cash to eat even the biggest of luxury tax bills for the next couple of seasons.
The Warriors have a complete understanding of the Durant situation and understand he may walk. They are hoping to sway him but understand he may want precisely what LeBron got last summer – complete control of his own franchise in a major market, something the Warriors have never been able to offer with Steph Curry being the darling of the franchise. As petty as that may seem, the same thing is what ultimately drove James out of Miami — no matter how much James did personally, the fan base still viewed the team in Miami as belonging to Dwyane Wade. The same issues hold true for Durant, and with Championships and MVPs under his belt and his place in NBA history firmly secured, what more can he do in Golden State? That’s something the Warriors will have to convince him of this off-season.
It seems the end of this particular dynasty may be closer than anyone expected when Durant joined the Warriors.
Davis and The Pelicans
You have to hand it to Gayle Benson, the controlling owner of the New Orleans Pelicans — if there was a home run hire to make, she did it in landing David Griffin to run the team. Unlikely previous leadership groups, Griffin was given the proverbial keys to the franchise and empowered to do whatever he deemed necessary to place the Pelicans among the elite in the NBA. Before you giggle at that goal, did you see the Milwaukee Bucks winning the most games in the NBA this year? Things can change fast with a few great decisions.
The first big move Griffin made was to try and bridge the divide with Anthony Davis and his agent Rich Paul, who is still collecting commissions off of huge contracts Griffin wrote to his clients in Cleveland.
Sources close to that situation said Griffin pulled no punches with Paul, pledging to do whatever it took to be elite in the NBA, and wanted him and Davis to buy in. It seemed at least on the surface Griffin may have moved the needle with both, but he’ll have to back that up around the draft.
That doesn’t mean the door is closed on Davis being traded, that very well could still happen. But unlike previous leadership that had lost the faith of Davis and his inner circle, Griffin at least has credibility, which buys him a little time to work the market and see what makes the most sense.
One thing Griffin did make clear both publicly and privately — he is not open to a half-measured commitment. He is willing to pay Davis the Supermax contract he is eligible for but wants a full-throated commitment to the long-term in New Orleans.
The situation is still far from ideal given what’s been said and done, but it at least seems the Pelicans may have bought themselves a window that almost no one thought could exist at the trade deadline this past February.
LeBron and The Lakers
Are you not entertained?
The LA Lakers may be many things, but boring is not one of them. Just when you think something sillier couldn’t happen in Lakerland it does. Whether it’s Magic Johnson abruptly stepping down, the firing, then not firing, then firing of Luke Walton, to the botched interview process that led to the hiring of Ty Lue as the next Lakers head coach, to reports that Kurt Rambis will join the staff with Lue after Tom Thibodeau reportedly turned down a spot on Lue’s staff. And let’s not even get into the failure to hire the obvious choice in Monty Williams or not even reaching out to David Griffin to fill their President of Basketball Operation post.
The Lakers are a hot mess, but even that level of dysfunction hasn’t seemed to change LeBron James’ commitment to the team. Although in a recent episode of his TV show on HBO filmed just days after Johnson stepped down, LeBron admitted he felt slighted by Johnson for not even reaching out, but that hasn’t changed his commitment to being a Laker or his relentless recruiting of a second star to join him this summer.
The truth in everything about the Lakers’ issues is it’s never nearly as bad on the inside as it seems on the outside. And while it’s easy to take shots at the Lakers (they continue to provide plenty of ammunition), the storylines for them never line up with the truth.
Johnson was a part-time leader at best that was way more prone to rash reactions than measured, deliberate processes. His personnel decisions were suspect at best, and while time will tell if Rob Pelinka will do any better on his own, he at least has James in the boat.
The hiring of Lue may not have been ideal, there are a few things worth saying; Lue does have the support of James and it does seem Lue is at least trying to secure a top-flight assistant staff that will likely include former Pacer and Magic coach Frank Vogel. The Lakers do have a mountain of options come July, and they will have a reasonably decent draft pick.
All things considered, the Lakers are still in good shape and if history has taught us anything about James, he thrives in chaos.
Brooklyn, The Clippers and The Pacers
For as much fanfare as teams like the Lakers and Knicks are going to garner this July in free agency, there is a growing belief in agent circles that the LA Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Indiana Pacers could all be far higher on would-be free agents list than most would imagine.
The Clippers for one have done an incredible job building a team infrastructure that has caught the attention of a lot of players. The Clippers are poised to walk into July with an impressive roster of supporting players, a mountain of free agent dollars, Doc Rivers as head coach and Steve Ballmer as a passionate, committed, deep-pocketed owner with eyes on a brand-new arena. The Clippers have laid the groundwork around the league to not only get meetings with the top tier free agents, but they may even be the front runner on Kawhi Leonard and the dark horse on Kevin Durant.
Much like the Clippers, the Nets have an impressive story to sell come July. Not only do the Nets have an enviable front office, and their roster is loaded with supporting young guys that could be stars of their own. The Nets have an incredible practice facility, the lure of the New York media market and a player-first message that has caught the attention of agents and players alike. There are some that believe Kyrie Irving would look at the Nets before the Knicks, and some believe if Durant looks at the Knicks, he may listen to the Nets too.
The dark horse in free agency may be the Indiana Pacers, and they have some wiggle room to make noise and a team that made the postseason without injured guard Victor Oladipo, who is preparing to get back after it later this month in Miami once he is cleared for court work. The Pacers don’t look to be a max contract player in all of this, but Pacers president Kevin Pritchard has made it clear he is not resting on his laurels. The Pacers are a team to watch in the Mike Conley/Memphis situation.
These are just a few situations to watch as the NBA playoffs roll on. You can expect a lot more trade and free agent chatter next week as the NBA converges on Chicago for the annual Pre-Draft Combine. Basketball Insiders will be there, so stay tuned for player interviews and workout notes as the 2019 NBA Draft class starts to showcase their wares.
The Curious Case Of Andrew Wiggins
The path to becoming a superstar took a wrong turn two years ago for top pick Andrew Wiggins. With stability and a new regime in Minnesota, it will be up to him to get the train back on the tracks this season. Chad Smith writes.
Being a number one overall draft pick in the NBA instantly puts a target on your back. Expectations come with that as well, fair or not. Andrew Wiggins has had a roller coaster ride since being taken with the top pick in the 2014 draft. After three years of promise, he has tapered off in each of the last two seasons. The make or break cliché is used too often, but this will definitely be a defining season for the Canadian.
Wiggins has played exactly 400 games in his NBA career. He has played all of them with the Timberwolves, who traded the face of their franchise to acquire the promising young talent. Wiggins has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. Through his first four seasons, he only missed one game. Last year he played 73 for Minnesota, who failed to reach the playoffs after a disastrous season that included trading Jimmy Butler.
Butler left a lot of money on the table to leave Minnesota – largely due to the lack of improvement from Wiggins.
For all of his physical tools and salivating upside, Wiggins has failed to significantly improve as a player. His scoring averages did improve in his first three seasons, going from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 points per game. The following year it dipped to 17.7 and 18.1 per contest. His per-game averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all plateaued.
From the foul line, Wiggins shot 76 percent in each of his first three seasons, but dropped to 64.3 and 69.9 percent in the last two years. His shooting efficiency numbers across the board have been declining as well. The progression clearly has not been there, and you don’t even need the actual numbers to see it.
If you do need the numbers, they are not flattering. His 0.6 win shares last season ranked him 350th among 530 eligible players. Per 48 numbers were even worse as his 0.005 win shares were the third-worst in the league (minimum 2,000 minutes played). The Wolves finished 11th in the conference last season. Improving upon that will prove to be difficult given the stiff competition in the Western Conference.
The five-year, $147 million maximum extension that Wiggins signed two years ago was questionable at the time and appears even more detrimental now. Gersson Rosas is the new president of basketball operations in Minnesota, and it is not clear what his intentions with Wiggins are. Trading the former Rookie of the Year is one option, but it will not be an easy one. If he can show some true progression in his game, Wiggins could fit nicely alongside superstar Karl-Anthony Towns.
Under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves appeared to underutilize the services of Towns. He also tended to play his starters heavy minutes. Wiggins averaged nearly 37 minutes per game under his system. Those numbers came down dramatically towards the tail end of last season under new head coach Ryan Saunders. His career average still sits at 36 minutes per contest. The only other active players with a higher minute per game average are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.
During Media Day, Andrew said that he felt as though he was on the rise three years into his career, before “some changes were made” that seemed to derail his trajectory. Wiggins went on to talk about Thib’s coaching style, and how the yelling didn’t change anything for him. He stated that he prefers a player’s coach that is “real” with him, like Saunders, the youngest coach in the league.
With Saunders cemented in place, the Wolves could find new and better ways to get the most out of Towns and Wiggins. Using more screening action, it could allow smaller defenders to switch onto Karl, or get a bigger defender on Andrew, allowing him to drive to the basket. That could open up opportunities on the wing for their solid group of role players.
A healthy Robert Covington and Josh Okogie will provide Minnesota with hope from the outside, an area where they have struggled heavily. New additions such as Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh should fit right in as well. All eyes will be on rookie Jarrett Culver, whom the Wolves gave up assets (Dario Saric and the 11th pick) to acquire with the sixth pick in the draft.
Saunders will likely want to push the pace and score in transition this season. Minnesota was 14th in pace last season and had the 13th-ranked scoring offense. They have the players needed for that style of play and will now be able to play both small-ball and match up against bigger lineups.
Versatility will be a strength for them this season, but they must improve on their biggest weakness – defense.
The Wolves ranked 23rd in scoring defense last year, and 24th in overall defensive rating. Having Covington back will help in that area, but it needs to start with Towns and Wiggins. As leaders, both must show improvement on that end of the floor in order for the other guys to buy-in.
With a year of continuity and a more stable environment, Minnesota should still be an improved team from last season. Whether or not they are able to challenge for a playoff spot will likely be determined by the play of Wiggins. Andrew has the skillset to become a very good player, even if his ceiling is not as high as Karl’s. That being said, Andrew will turn 25 in February. The time is now for him to show improvement.
Aside from Jeff Teague’s 10 years of experience, only Covington and Gorgui Dieng have more experience than Wiggins. They each have just one more year than he does. So where exactly does he need to improve his game?
Shot selection and defense should be at the top of the list. Despite the decent scoring average, the more minutes he plays, the more shots he misses. In theory that makes sense, but there are a number of players (even his own teammates) that played more minutes and missed fewer shots. In all five seasons, Wiggins has ranked inside the top 20 in the league in missed field goals.
The defense is fairly straight forward. He has the ability to defend on the perimeter and even inside, but his desire and effort are not always there. Playing passing lanes more aggressively and being able to anticipate what comes next on a given play are two key areas to focus on.
Rebounding is another area that would really benefit the team if he is able to improve. His size and athleticism afford him great opportunities to crash the boards, especially when Towns is not on the floor. Obviously, everyone can improve their shooting, and while his three-point shot isn’t horrid, there is no excuse for him to shoot below 70 percent from the foul line. These are things that should have progressed much better entering your sixth year in the league.
Rosas has stated publicly that continuity and playing style under Saunders should make Wiggins one of the biggest beneficiaries this season.
For their sake and his own, here is to hoping he is right.
NBA Daily: Mavericks Reacclimating Kristaps Porzingis From The Outside In
Kristaps Porzingis has been away from the game for nearly two years. In his first exhibition games with his new team, the Mavericks are reacclimating him from the outside in. Jack Winter writes.
Any doubt surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ blockbuster trade for Kristaps Porzingis had nothing to do with his play.
The No. 4 overall pick in 2015 proved draft-night boos foolish during an eye-popping rookie season that seemed to establish him as the New York Knicks’ long-awaited, homegrown franchise player. Porzingis made subtle strides as a sophomore, adjusting his shot chart to include more three-pointers and attempts at the rim, before accelerating his developmental timeline and suddenly living up to his All-NBA potential over the first half of the 2017-18 season. He couldn’t sustain a blistering start that was so good it prompted early-season MVP talk, but averages of 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game nevertheless made it clear Porzingis was bound for true stardom – if he wasn’t there already.
All that progress came to a crushing halt on Feb. 6, 2018, when Porzingis cut backdoor for a powerful dunk on a trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo that caused him to land awkwardly and clutch his left knee as he writhed in pain on the Madison Square Garden floor. The worst fears of the Knicks and their success-starved fan base were confirmed shortly thereafter, when it was announced that Porzingis had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season and putting his future in jeopardy.
Porzingis’ injury would have been considered a blip for almost any young player. A torn ACL isn’t anything close to the career-threatening injury it was even just a decade ago. Most players return to the floor well within a year of suffering the injury, and all are expected to eventually regain their initial level of athleticism.
Porzingis was the exception to those updated rules. Especially tall players have a long history of reacting poorly to serious lower-body injuries, and Porzingis is a physical anomaly at 7-foot-3 with rare mobility and overall coordination. If his all-around athleticism was even marginally affected by invasive knee surgery, just how good could Porzingis be?
The height of Porzingis’ readjusted ceiling remains a question mark two exhibition games into his playing career with the Mavericks. He’s struggled to shoot the ball from deep after 20 months removed from the NBA game, and it stands to reason he’s more likely to re-injure his knee after going under the knife. But concerns that Porzingis has lost explosiveness as a result of his torn ACL are almost long gone, and more importantly, those about his ability to hold up physically have been lessened by how Dallas has used him.
It would be remiss to submit that Porzingis is all the way back athletically, even though he insisted on Media Day he’s “110 percent.” The Mavericks are planning to load manage Porzingis in 2019-20, perhaps sitting him for either end of all back-to-backs, for a reason.
Still, it’s wildly encouraging to see Porzingis, in his exhibition debut against the Detroit Pistons, throwing down the type of from-nowhere tip dunk he made seem routine during his ill-fated time in New York. A few minutes later, he withstood a reckless shove to finish a lob from Luka Doncic, even landing hard on his left leg no worse for wear.
But just because Porzingis avoided re-injury on that dangerous play hardly means Dallas should be more comfortable putting him at risk. In fact, it provides further justification for Rick Carlisle’s apparent plan of easing him back into NBA action from the outside in.
Comparing young players to all-time greats is an exercise in disappointment. Porzingis isn’t Dirk Nowitzki, and never will be. The Mavericks would be absolutely thrilled if he enjoyed half the extent of individual success that propelled Nowitzki to 12 All-NBA selections and 14 All-Star Games. But just because Porzingis isn’t Nowitzki hardly means Carlisle won’t use him in much the same way he did the greatest player in team history.
For now, that means taking advantage of Porzingis’ deep shooting range from the frontcourt by spacing the floor across four and sometimes five positions. Porzingis has spent most of his time beyond the arc through his first two exhibition games, running high and side ball screens with Doncic, popping back on off-ball screens he sets for catch-and-shoot chances and lagging behind in transition for trail threes.
The numbers, as could be expected from a player who last played competitive NBA basketball nearly two years ago, aren’t great. In 43 total minutes so far, Porzingis has scored only 29 points on 31 shots, including 4-of-16 shooting from deep. But the result doesn’t matter nearly as much as the process for Porzingis, a reality that should extend into the regular season, and there’s ample reason to believe he’ll thrive offensively once he re-acclimates to basketball being played at its highest level.
It’s not Porzingis’ physical tools nor package of offensive skills that makes him special, but the layered scoring opportunities that blend of attributes presents. Leave him free, and Porzingis is the type of shooter who can get hot from three in a hurry. Close-out too aggressively, and he’ll put the ball on the floor to create a cleaner look.
Porzingis started at center on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, and opened next to Maxi Kleber up front two days earlier versus the Pistons. Regardless of what position he’s played, Dallas has mostly used Porzingis as a screener and weak-side spacer, letting him finish plays rather than start them.
Putting a player like Porzingis in a box, though, ignores the versatility that led Kevin Durant to famously dub him “Unicorn.” When he’s been on the floor with another big, the Mavericks have occasionally treated Porzingis like a wing or guard, running him off screens away from the ball.
Purists need not worry: Porzingis hasn’t completely abandoned the post. His touches on the block have been few and far between through his first two exhibition games, and have shrewdly come after he sets screens on the perimeter, allowing him to roll into post position instead of fighting hard to establish it. Porzingis’ right-shoulder turnaround jumper is nearly as unblockable as Nowitzki’s iconic one-footed fadeaway. It’s not going anywhere.
But Dallas clearly plans to utilize Porzingis from the perimeter first and foremost, a development that doesn’t just mitigate the physical toll he’s bound to take, but also leverages his unique abilities as a shooter and driver to make the game easier for Doncic and his teammates. No team in the league will benefit more from pitch-perfect spacing this season than the Mavericks. Porzingis, obviously, is much more than a floor-stretcher, but he can get his own playing mostly from the outside while teammates – including likely starter Dwight Powell, one of the best roll men in basketball – reap the rewards of him being on the court.
In time, Dallas will ask more of Porzingis offensively. He’s too gifted an individual scorer for that not to happen. But as he gets his feet under him in the season’s early going and perhaps for its duration, Porzingis will offer more than enough by his presence alone to make the Mavericks dangerous. And if he grows comfortable quickly, don’t be surprised if Carlisle affords Porzingis more responsibility, perhaps lifting his team to legitimate playoff contention in the process.
NBA MIP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition
While the Most Improved Player Award is the hardest to forecast, there are certain signs that a player may be poised for a season worthy of this honor. Quinn Davis names five that could be in the running come season’s end.
Forecasting the Most Improved Player award is not an easy undertaking. Unlike other awards, the field for Most Improved cannot be narrowed down to a select few that usually are in consideration. Theoretically, any player in the NBA could make a significant enough improvement to win this award.
Rookies heading into their second year could be an easy choice, as a year of NBA experience usually translates to improvement on the court. The issue here is that the voters think it’s too easy, and second-year players who were high draft picks are rarely considered for this award.
De’Aaron Fox bucked this trend last year, finishing third in voting. Using that as a guide, it would be fair to say that it will take a Fox-like improvement for a second-year lottery pick to be considered for Most Improved.
The task becomes much more fun, and much more difficult, when looking beyond that batch of players. There are certain things to look for, such as an increased role or a player who has received praise for their work over the summer. In the end, it may just come down to a gut feeling.
Here are five players that check one or multiple of those boxes.
The third-year big man enters this season primed for improvement after a summer spent training with the USA Select team. Isaac has particularly shown flashes of defensive ability in his two seasons and could blossom into a disruptor on that end in this upcoming campaign.
Isaac’s coach, Steve Clifford, made it clear that he has high hopes for the Flordia State product this season in an interview he gave before training camp.
“He’s had a terrific summer. He looks good physically. He’s worked really hard with (assistant coach) Bruce (Kreutzer) and with (assistant coach) Pat (Delany) on his shooting, his range, his mechanics, his ISOs, his post-ups, his shot-making,” Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “I think he’s in a really good place. Last year from Game 1 to Game 82 he made great strides. He was a big reason why our team improved so much. I think people will see he put a lot of hard work in. I think it’ll pay off.”
Clifford mentioned the improvements across last season, which were particularly seen in Isaac’s shooting. The versatile forward shot a dreadful 28.7 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break last season, but improved to 38.2 percent following that time off, per Basketball Reference.
Isaac is armed with a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, giving him the ability to contest shots and take away passing lanes. One of his biggest weaknesses on the defensive end has been his skinny build, which makes it difficult for him to body up against some of the league’s brutes.
Isaac is reportedly up to 230 pounds, after ending last season at 209. This weight could not only help him guard in the post, but also score in the post on the other end. Isaac will likely be guarded by opposing fours starting next to Vucevic, and his length could give him a significant advantage over opponents at that position.
Last season, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. If those numbers jump up to 15 points and eight rebounds with strong defense for a playoff-bound Magic team, he could be in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player.
Another third-year big who teems with potential resides in Portland. Collins, who will likely start at power forward this season for the Trail Blazers, should see a large minute increase and has many excited for the possible leap he could take this season.
A lot of this excitement was brought about by Collins’ performance in the playoffs last season when he played a pivotal role in Portland’s series win over the Nuggets. Collins flashed his defensive potential late in that series, recording five blocks in Game 6 and four blocks in Game 7 – both Blazers wins.
Portland will ask Collins to stretch the floor this season next to the paint-bound Hassan Whiteside. Collins has shot 30 percent from deep in each of the last two regular seasons and will need to climb towards league average to give his team’s star backcourt requisite room to operate.
If Collins can better space the floor while being an impactful defender, he may emerge as Portland’s third-best player this season. With increased minutes and a more defined role, the stage is set for Collins to build on his playoff performance and put himself into contention for Most Improved.
As mentioned, it is very hard for second-year players to make a case for this award. Since the expectation for these players is to improve, they need to make a very significant leap to stand out for the voters. De’Aaron Fox did this last season, going from lost rookie to stud point guard that helped the Kings chase a playoff seed. Shai will need to do something similar on his new team in Oklahoma City if he is to make an impression.
Last season, the Kentucky product showed an ability to get into the paint and finish around the rim. He attempted 39 percent of his shots at the rim and finished 61 percent of those attempts. Those numbers ranked in the 78th and 72nd percentiles for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.
SGA also shot a serviceable 37 percent from beyond the arc and a very impressive 48 percent on long mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
Now under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Shai may be able to take his all-around efficiency to the next level and learn how to get to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. The future Hall-of-Famer could also school SGA on the art of the pass, which is an area the second-year guard may have the most room to improve on.
While Shai had a very low assist rate for a point guard, he did show the ability to scan defenses and make the right play. With further experience and more teaching from Paul, he could make great strides in that department.
The second-year guard also has defensive potential thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan. He already showed an ability to block shots and swipe passes as a guard last season and could immediately become a strong defender if he reduces his foul rate and stays focused off of the ball.
While he is poised to build off a strong rookie year, Shai’s candidacy may come down to the construction of the Thunder roster as the season goes along. It may be difficult to stand out while playing next to a ball-dominant point guard like Chris Paul.
If Paul is traded, SGA may have the opportunity he needs to control the offense and make a large enough leap to vault into the Most Improved conversation.
There have been few players that have had as tumultuous first two seasons as Ball. Coming out of UCLA with his father as a hype man, Lonzo was drafted by the Lakers and asked to turn the franchise around.
After two seasons that featured a LeBron free-agent signing sandwiched between them, Ball was sent to New Orleans this summer as part of the Anthony Davis trade. He will now have the luxury of being away from the spotlight and could put more focus on his game. The early returns on this focus have been encouraging.
Multiple videos have come out of the Pelicans training camp showing an improved jump shot form from Ball, and he’s looked confident putting it up in the preseason. If the confidence translates to the real games, Ball could truly take his game to the next level. Already a brilliant passer and strong defender, Ball could go from an internet punching bag to an above-average NBA player this season with improved scoring ability.
The threat to shoot off the dribble would instantly improve his pick-and-roll game, which has been a weakness thus far in his career. This improvement could be amplified with the presence of Zion Williamson, who could make for a great partner in those plays.
Maybe more important than his on the court improvements are his lack off the court distractions. Without the constant attention of the Los Angeles media, Ball could quietly make a case for Most Improved if his jumper is indeed improved this season.
Yes, it would be quite an achievement for a player to win Most Improved after already being an All-Star the year before; but Ben Simmons has the room to improve, specifically in one area, and could take a leap this season that warrants consideration for the award.
Simmons authored maybe the biggest moment in a preseason game thus far when he drilled a 27-foot three-pointer off the dribble in a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The shot sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave many Sixers fans hope for a new Ben this season, one that isn’t afraid to launch from deep.
While it is unclear whether this newfound brashness from beyond the arc will translate to games against actual NBA teams, the fact that he took the shot in any game is encouraging. If the shot attempts keep coming and a few makes come along with them, Simmons could go from All-Star to All-NBA this season.
The best comparison for Simmons’ Most Improved campaign would be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2016-2017 season. In 2015-16 Giannis averaged about 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 50 percent shooting. The next season, he averaged about 23 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 52 percent shooting on his way to being named Most Improved Player.
Last season, Simmons averaged about 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, on 56 percent shooting. It’s plausible that an improved jumper and increased confidence could give Simmons the push he needs to make a similar jump that Giannis did.
Both players have proven to be impactful defenders. Giannis has longer arms and is a better rim protector, but Simmons can lock down perimeter players when he needs to, as seen in his total erasing of D’Angelo Russell in the Sixers’ playoff series against the Nets. If Simmons further engages on that end he could make himself an even more viable candidate.
Simmons making this leap would be a surprise and a fun story, but it would not be unprecedented. If the jump shot proves viable, he will certainly garner some consideration for Most Improved.
All of these players share the ability and the opportunity to make a run at Most Improved this season, but that is not to say that they will be the only candidates. It is likely that multiple players will surprise us with a breakout season and throw their hat into the ring for this award.
Be sure to stay up to date and check out Basketball Insiders’ postseason award watch, for all of the awards, this season.