There’s a reason why “Unorthodox” is the operative word here.
There were several big winners from the trade deadline. Philadelphia got the perfect and relatively young scorer in Tobias Harris to put next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Toronto added an experienced, jack-of-all-trades center in Marc Gasol to cement their status as a contender. Even though their prized new acquisition hasn’t played a game, Dallas added a generational young talent in Kristaps Porzingis to give Luka Doncic the perfect partner-in-crime for a potential dynasty.
And that’s just to name a few.
We already knew those teams were going to be winners the second those trades were finalized. What we didn’t know was that one month after the deadline happened, there would be other winners that manifested themselves but for different reasons and in different ways.
Los Angeles Clippers
Now, we knew the Clippers made two brilliant moves at the deadline.
1. They hoarded good assets for Tobias Harris, a player whose return was very much in doubt this summer.
2. They stole Ivica Zubac from their crosstown rival – Seriously, Magic, what were you thinking?
When they made those deals, the common consensus was that the Clippers were punting on the season. The Western Conference has been tough as nails – as usual – and the Clippers owed a protected first-round pick to Boston if they made the playoffs. Trading Harris, who garnered plenty of all-star consideration, would have signaled them pulling the plug.
But they didn’t. Since they re-worked half the roster, the Clippers have still been humming, and haven’t missed a beat. The play of both the Clippers’ staples, most namely Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell as well as their new guys, most namely Zubac, Landry Shamet, and JaMychal Green, have made up for Harris’ absence.
Los Angeles has gone 9-5 since the deadline, having beaten the likes of Boston (twice), Oklahoma City, and Sacramento among others. They now sit comfortably in the eighth seed with a five-game lead over the Kings and are a half-game outside of a three-way tie between Utah and San Antonio for the six through eight spots in the conference.
Basically, because of the moves they made at the deadline, the Clippers have had the privilege of having their cake and eating it. In what could be Doc Rivers’ best work as Head Coach, along with Jerry West’s savvy moves as General Manager, the Clippers have built a winning culture and are quite a joy to watch.
They were already in a good position before they made their moves. Since then, they’ve made their pursuit of Kawhi Leonard all the stronger.
Detroit didn’t exactly get the best haul at the deadline trade-wise.
Given their youth, Thon Maker and Svi Mykhailiuk could be contributors down the line for the Pistons. So far, their impact since arriving in Motown has been minimal. Maker has been barely passable as a backup five while Svi has barely played.
Yet, the Pistons have gone 10-4 since the deadline, just recently had a five-game winning streak snapped, and have beaten Toronto and Indiana. In all fairness, Detroit has been a team made almost entirely of runs. They started the season on a four-game win streak, then lost five straight games, then won four of their next six, then won five in a row, then went on a six-game losing streak, and you get the idea.
So what makes this one different? Well, here’s what’s odd about Motor City.
It’s not who they acquired that made them an unexpected winner from the trade deadline. It’s who they traded away.
At the deadline, Detroit traded Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson, both of whom are wings. Bullock was regarded for his shooting while Johnson’s specialty was defense. Both were clearly not seen as long-term fixtures, and by trading them, it opened up minutes for new addition Wayne Ellington and the suddenly emergent Luke Kennard.
Since the deadline, Kennard is averaging 13.6 points on 48.3 percent shooting and 45.6 percent from three-point land. Ellington, who mind you was racking up DNP’s in South Beach, is averaging 9.5 points on 39.6 percent shooting and 37.9 percent from three.
Those numbers are making an impact, as when those two are paired with Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, their net rating is plus-29.4 in 43 minutes together.
The most striking tidbit is that Blake Griffin, who should be a shoo-in for an all-NBA team this season, hasn’t played great in this timespan. He’s averaged 20.6 points on 44.3 percent shooting and 35.7 percent from three. That’s a drop off compared the numbers he’s put up this season, and the Pistons are minus-4.2 with Blake on the floor.
Despite that, it bears repeating: Detroit has won 10 of its last 14 games.
By trading Bullock and Johnson to make room for Ellington and Kennard, the Pistons appear to have found a stronger rotation, which could help their playoff chances.
This is the probably the oddest of them all. Memphis is pretty much out of the playoff race, and they’ve been a shade under .500 since the deadline (6-7). So how exactly did they win?
Well, thanks to lowered priorities, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Grizzlies will be able to get the monkey that is the pick that they owe Boston off their back, which is what they’ve wanted all along.
It’s weird because they traded the franchise’s backbone in Marc Gasol as well as JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple for Avery Bradley, CJ Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, and Delon Wright. Gasol is the best player of that bunch, but somehow it’s given Memphis badly needed depth. Bradley and Valanciunas have been the standouts in this newly found depth.
Bradley has found his old self again in Memphis, averaging 15.7 points on 45.6 percent shooting and 39.1 percent from three. After being by all accounts one of the worst players in the NBA given his salary during his stint with the Clippers, Bradley’s career appears to be right back on track.
Valanciunas has been tearing it up in Grind City, averaging 17 points and eight rebounds on 58.1 percent shooting. It helps that he’s their best option in their frontcourt with Jaren Jackson Jr. out, but he’s still getting it results.
This is all going according to plan because there has been plenty of speculation that the Grizzlies would rather give the pick they owe the Celtics from Jeff Green deal now so that they won’t have to worry about it as they approach their inevitable rebuild. Since 2019 has not been regarded as a particularly deep draft, and the best placement Memphis would give Boston would be the ninth pick, that’s not too steep of a price to pay.
Currently, Memphis has the seventh-worst record in the league, having just been leap-frogged by Dallas. Don’t be shocked if the Lakers, who appear to be calling it a season, and New Orleans, who has lost four in a row, surpass them given that their best options would be to get as high a pick as possible at this point.
Again, they haven’t been great, but Memphis has to like its chances of giving Boston the pick now. By doing all this, they might just be able to rip off that band-aid and finally start over. The shame of it is, all four of those guys would have been perfect fits during the prime days of Grit-and-Grind.
There could be a whole section about them, but this writer already covered them a few weeks ago here.
The trade deadline can have a major influence on the final result of the season. Sometimes a team wins because they acquired the right player. Sometimes a team wins because they rid themselves of the wrong player. Every time, you win when either your present or future is looking up.
For these four teams, it was definitely the latter, but in some of the most peculiar ways possible.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.