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NBA Daily: Who Will Make The Next Big Move?

The first domino of the NBA season has fallen with Tyronn Lue’s firing. What team shakes things up to follow suit? Matt John explores.

Matt John

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It’s never too early to shake things up.

Two games into the 2008-2009 season, the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson. Five games into the 2012-2013 season, the Lakers fired Mike Brown after an abysmal 1-4 start. Now, just six games into the 2018-2019 season, the winless Cavaliers decided they were fed up with the Tyronn Lue era and sent him packing.

This season hasn’t even entered double digits in games played. Yet, so far, several teams are showing some serious red flags. Some of these red flags we all saw coming, while others actually came as a bit of a surprise.

With the Cavs firing Lue as a response to their winless start, it’s only a matter of time until another team decides to make a change or two of their own. There are quite a few teams that are looking desperate for answers. They may be looking for any boost in their playoff chances, or they may be looking for a fresh start.

The following teams could be the next one to make some major modifications to their roster.

Minnesota Timberwolves

As long as Jimmy Butler remains in Minneapolis, everyone’s eyes will be glued to the Timberwolves. It still is rather puzzling that Butler is still in Minnesota after all the drama that they’ve gone through over the past month. There’s no need for elaboration on that because everyone and their mother knows what’s been going on behind the scenes.

The newest wrinkle is that this is affecting the Timberwolves’ morale as a team. In their first six games, Minnesota has gone 2-4. Their schedule so far has not been a cakewalk by any means, but Butler’s antics have proven to be a distraction. Karl-Anthony Towns has regressed badly since the start of the season, averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds on 43 percent shooting from the field.

What’s more telling is that Towns’ best game of the season – a high-scoring, competitive loss to the Mavericks, in which Towns put up 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting including four-of-six from three – happened to be the one game Butler didn’t play.

That could just be a coincidence, but given all that’s happened, that doesn’t seem likely. The writing is on the wall. Butler needs to go. That’s been public knowledge for a while now, but the more this drags on, the more both the team and the fans suffer.

Houston Rockets

Houston’s worst nightmare came true. Their most recent departures – Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and retired assistant Jeff Bzdelik – proved to be as disastrous as feared. Their defensive rating has plummeted down to 116.9, which is bad enough for 27th in the league. A drop off was expected, but…holy moly.

It’s shown in their record so far. The Rockets currently stand at 1-4, tied for 13th in the Western Conference. Even with all they lost, they shouldn’t be starting off this badly. Yet here we are. Now this bad start that they’ve had shouldn’t continue. James Harden and Chris Paul are too good of a duo for the Rockets to play this badly. However, they’ve got an elephant in the room that can’t go unnoticed.

Lucky for them, their problems coincide with Minnesota’s problems with Jimmy Butler. Both are growing more and more desperate by the day, which could lead to a deal. The latest reported offer is four first-round picks with the major hold-up being Eric Gordon, who Minnesota insists must be part of the deal.

Houston refuses to include Gordon because he fits its system like a glove. That is understandable, but when the system is not getting results, an upgrade is necessary. Gordon is a terrific player, but this is Jimmy Buckets we’re talking about. Though not a knockdown shooter, Butler’s perimeter defense can fix their problems.

A date to keep an eye on is Halloween because on that day, both Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss have their trade restrictions expire. That may be the reason why Houston hasn’t traded for Butler just yet, which is why we should all stay tuned.

Washington Wizards

“Just wait until Dwight Howard gets back!”

A phrase no one expected to say given all the issues that have gone on between Howard and his last few teams. For the Wizards though, Howard is their last hope, because whatever’s going on in Washington is only getting worse.

The team has now fallen to 1-5, with their most recent loss coming at the hands of the Clippers. This wasn’t some tight contest either. The Clippers blew them out by a whopping 32 points, and the Wizards allowed 136 points all in all. Howard is capable of plugging some of their holes on the floor, but the discord could get so much worse.

This shouldn’t be happening to the Wizards because they still have a fair amount of talent. It’s just that they shouldn’t have to rely on Dwight’s return to give them a boost. The Wizards are quickly turning into a sinking ship. It’s not the roster that may need a change. It’s the coach.

Scott Brooks did a fantastic job getting the Wizards to realize their potential two seasons ago. Unfortunately, he’s in a league that basically lives by the question, “What have you done for me lately?” Well, lately, Brooks hasn’t been able to keep things afloat. If these struggles continue even with Howard back, then Brooks might follow in Ty Lue’s footsteps.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Something is definitely wrong with the Thunder. Defensively, they’re only okay as they are 13th overall in defensive rating (109), which is disappointing for them given all the talent they have on that side of the ball. It’s the offensive struggles that are absolutely mind-boggling. Even with Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the team, the Thunder rank last in offensive rating with 99 points per 100 possessions.

One of the most obvious culprits for OKC’s struggles is their lack of shooting. The Thunder rank last in the NBA in three-point percentage with a ghastly 24.1 percent from distance. Sure that’s bad, but consider that the next one up from them is Denver, who as of now among one of the best teams in the west, at 29.1 percent. Despite that, the Nuggets still have the tenth best offensive rating at 112.1

That’s not to say the lack of spacing isn’t a problem, because it is, but the offense just in general is all-around dysfunctional. This team doesn’t really know how to work together, and now they don’t have Carmelo Anthony as the scapegoat to their problems. Many will point to Andre Roberson’s absence as the reason for their struggles. He should help when he returns, but he doesn’t help their lack of spacing.

Much like Scott Brooks, the gist of the blame should be directed towards Billy Donovan. He’s struggled to put the pieces together, and if they continue, he should be out of the job. If the Thunder find a reliable shooter who makes life easier for them, Donovan’s job should be safe. If the offense struggles even with said shooter, then there’s no question what should happen to Donovan.

Cleveland Cavaliers

They may have already shaken things up with Lue’s firing, but that may not be the last move they make.

Tyronn Lue’s firing might be the first domino in what could be a potential blow-up this season. Though Tristan Thompson swears the east would run through Cleveland, the Cavs have looked nothing short of awful since LeBron’s departure. It’s a shame because the way they approached this offseason was centered around proving that they weren’t completely helpless without LeBron.

To make a long story short, it’s appeared that they most definitely are, which honestly isn’t that shocking.

So, if the struggles continue, what is their next move? This writer has already detailed what Cleveland should have done when LeBron left, and he stands by it.

-Trade their best players for assets – Kevin Love, George Hill, JR Smith, Kyle Korver
-Focus on developing their young talent – Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and maybe Rodney Hood
-Get a coach who would help a rebuild like old friend David Blatt

That is, of course, if their struggles continue, which, from the look of things, is a strong possibility.

For all we know, all of these mentioned teams’ will figure themselves out in the coming weeks. Bad starts, though, can be very difficult to overcome if things don’t improve. If these teams’ struggles continue for an extended period, they may regret not shaking things up while they had their chance.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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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.

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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.

Garrett Brooks

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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