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NBA PM: 8 Players Poised for a Bigger Role

Alex Kennedy looks at eight young players who are poised to take on a bigger role this season.

Alex Kennedy

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8 Young Players Poised for a Bigger Role

It’s August and that means NBA teams are for the most part finished making major offseason moves. By now, each team has a good idea of what their roster will look like this year.

One thing that’s becoming clear is that a number of relatively young players seem poised to take on an increased role in the upcoming season. Today, we take a look at eight young players (age 25 or younger) who will be asked to do significantly more for their respective team in the 2015-16 campaign.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers – Yes, Lillard has been a huge contributor for the Blazers since entering the NBA in 2012. He has improved in each of his first three seasons and received accolades every year of his career – from Rookie of the Year to an All-NBA selection to two All-Star appearances.

However, this season he’ll be asked to take on many more responsibilities (on and off the court) since veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo are no longer in Portland. After all of the changes to the Blazers’ roster this summer, it’s clear that Lillard will be the top option on offense as well as the leader of this young team.

“We went full board with guys on the same career arc as Damian Lillard,” Blazers general manager Neil Olshey told Basketball Insiders during the Las Vegas Summer League. “Damian is our best player right now. He’s a two-time All-Star and we are going to bring in players that complement [his] skill set.”

This summer, Portland added a number of young players who fit that description. They acquired Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson and Maurice Harkless among others because they believe those players can grow alongside Lillard going forward.

All eyes will be on Lillard to see how he responds to shouldering a bigger load and adjusting to the new supporting cast. There’s no question that he’s the Blazers’ centerpiece and his play will in large part determine what happens next for the franchise.

Fortunately for Portland, their 25-year-old floor general has a terrific work ethic and maturity well beyond his years, not to mention the tremendous skills that allowed him to become one of the NBA’s best point guards in recent years. If Lillard’s 2014-15 averages (21 points, 6.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals) are any indication, he’s ready for this increased role and may deliver a monster 2015-16 campaign.

Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons – Around this time last year, all signs pointed to Drummond having a breakout 2014-15 season. New head coach Stan Van Gundy wanted to make him a focal point and surround him with shooters (similar to how he used Dwight Howard when they were in Orlando). Also, Drummond was coming off of a sophomore campaign in which he averaged 13.5 points (on 62.3 percent shooting from the field), 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals. In the final month of his second season, he averaged 18.4 points (on 64.2 shooting percent from the field) and 17.4 rebounds.

Pistons fans were understandably excited and expected Drummond to be one of the best centers in the NBA in his third season. However, the big man didn’t show as much progress as they hoped. While his numbers were still very solid – 13.8 points (on 51.4 percent from the field), 13.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks – they weren’t the jaw-dropping stats some anticipated.

However, it’s important to note that Drummond is still just 21 years old so he still has a ton of potential and room for growth. And with Greg Monroe and Josh Smith no longer in Detroit’s frontcourt, Drummond should take on a bigger load and get more touches. That already started this past season, as he attempted a career-high 11.7 shots per game (and 13.3 attempts per game after the All-Star break).

Van Gundy has also added a number of players who complement Drummond well. The biggest addition is stretch-four Ersan Ilyasova, who Detroit acquired from Milwaukee in exchange for Caron Butler and Shawne Williams. The 28-year-old power forward has shot 37 percent from three-point range for his career and he should create additional space for Drummond (similar to how Van Gundy used Ryan Anderson alongside Howard in Orlando). In addition to Ilyasova, Detroit also acquired shooters like Reggie Bullock, Marcus Morris and Steve Blake this summer.

Once again, Drummond seems poised to take that next step in his development. Adjusting to a new coach and system can be difficult and take some time, especially for a young player, which may explain why he didn’t have a breakout campaign last year. Now, with some internal growth and Van Gundy putting him in position to succeed in a big way, this could be the year Drummond takes a step toward becoming one of the NBA’s top big men.

Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks made one of the biggest additions of the summer when they signed Monroe to a three-year, $50 million deal. Monroe was a highly coveted free agent who spurned a number of big-market teams to join Milwaukee – a move that was initially shocking, but one that makes a lot of sense from a basketball standpoint when you consider Monroe’s game and the Bucks’ roster.

Milwaukee has assembled a team of long, versatile, defensive-minded players. They had the second-best defense in the NBA last season, behind only the Golden State Warriors, as they allowed just 99.3 points per 100 possessions.

But while they’re excellent on defense, they struggle on the other end of the floor. The Bucks finished last season ranked 25th in the NBA in offense (scoring just 100.5 points per 100 possessions) and they really lacked a player who could create their own shot, especially once Jabari Parker tore his ACL. Monroe is a perfect fit for Milwaukee because he’s a skilled big man who can score the ball. They are bringing back all of their terrific young defenders and adding a 25-year-old big man who has averaged at least 15 points in each of the last four seasons. By the way, Monroe’s 15 points per game would’ve led the Bucks last year since Michael Carter-Williams was their top scorer at 14.1 PPG. Consider how well Milwaukee fared last year with Zaza Pachulia (a decent veteran) as their starting center; now, throw in Monroe at the five (where he prefers to play) and you can expect them to make a significant jump in the Eastern Conference standings.

Had the Bucks not made any notable offseason moves, they still likely would’ve shown improvement since they will get Parker back from the torn ACL that caused him to miss all but 25 games last year and they expect internal growth from their young core of Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson among others. But rather than stand pat, the Bucks added a franchise-changing big man in Monroe as well as veterans like Greivis Vasquez and Chris Copeland along with their first-round pick Rashad Vaughn.

Monroe leaves behind a Pistons team where he wasn’t a great fit alongside Andre Drummond (and previously Josh Smith) for a Bucks supporting cast that is perfect for him. Expect Monroe to have a career-year and be one of Milwaukee’s top options on the offensive end. It’s also very possible that Monroe will make his postseason debut this season since it’s hard to imagine the Bucks dropping out of the East’s top eight.

Otto Porter, Washington Wizards – In recent years, Porter hasn’t had to take on a big role with the Washington Wizards since they had very talented veteran small forwards like Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce on the roster. However, Pierce bolted to the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason, which opens up the starting job for the 22-year-old Porter.

The Wizards have taken things very slowly since drafting Porter with the third overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. They eased him into a significant role, playing him just 8.6 minutes per game as a rookie and then 19.4 minutes a night as a sophomore.

Now, entering his third season, he has an opportunity to be a real difference-maker for Washington. Last year, Porter averaged six points, three rebounds and .6 steals in his limited minutes while shooting 45 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from three-point range.

However, he did show glimpses of brilliance on both ends of the floor throughout the campaign. In his eight games as the Wizards’ starting small forward last year, he averaged 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range. Also, Porter really elevated his game in the postseason, averaging 10 points, eight rebounds and 1.2 steals in the 10 playoff games he appeared in.

Washington did add some veteran wings this summer in Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson, but Porter will likely start and have a much more significant role. Learning from Ariza and Pierce seems to have really helped him and his strong play in the postseason was good for his confidence. Now, after two years of limited action compared to the other top picks in his class, it’s time for the Wizards to unleash Porter and see what he can do.

Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns – The Suns clearly value Knight a lot, as evidenced by the fact that they dealt Tyler Ennis, Miles Plumlee and the Los Angeles Lakers’ protected 2015 first-round pick for him at last year’s trade deadline. That Lakers’ top-five protected pick was a huge asset, yet the Suns decided to go all in on Knight after parting ways with Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. This summer, Phoenix locked Knight up on a five-year deal worth $70 million, which is the exact same deal that Eric Bledsoe signed with the Suns last offseason. As is the case with Bledsoe, Knight now must live up to that deal and continue to expand his game.

Not only does he have a big contract, he has a key role as the point guard in head coach Jeff Hornacek’s system. He’s an extremely important part of this team’s attack and Phoenix needs him to play at a high level in order for them to reach their full potential.

Last year, Knight only appeared in 11 games (nine starts) for the Suns due to an ankle injury. Prior to the trade, he was playing the best basketball of his career with the Bucks. In the first half of last season, Knight averaged 17.8 points (on 43.5 percent from the field), 5.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Phoenix is betting on the 23-year-old and hoping that he can produce at that same level, or better, in their backcourt alongside Bledsoe.

One area where Knight must improve is his shooting; he shot just 35.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three-point range in his 11 games with Phoenix – both of which were career-lows. He is a career 41.7 percent shooter – a number he could certainly stand to improve, especially now that he has other weapons around him and isn’t forcing shots like he sometimes had to do earlier in his career.

Knight has never been to the playoffs and this is really the first time he has entered a season with realistic postseason aspirations. The Suns are hoping to climb into the Western Conference’s top eight and they made a number of win-now moves this summer such as adding veterans like Tyson Chandler (32 years old), Sonny Weems (29), Mirza Teletovic (29) and Ronnie Price (32). Phoenix will need Knight to step up and form a powerful one-two punch with Bledsoe if they want to achieve that goal. Knight, who played for three teams in his first four NBA seasons, has found a home and will have every opportunity to succeed in Phoenix’s guard-oriented attack.

Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic – A number of Magic players could’ve made this list. It could have been Victor Oladipo, who played very well toward the end of last season (averaging 20.3 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals after the All-Star break). It could have been Nikola Vucevic, who led Orlando in points (19.3) and rebounds (10.9) last year while finishing fifth in the NBA in double-doubles (45).

However, Oladipo and Vucevic already played a huge role for the Magic last season and will be asked to do much of the same this year. The player who seems poised to take on a significantly bigger role is Harris. After inking a four-year deal worth $64 million, the 24-year-old is now the highest-paid player on the Magic roster (by a lot), and he does exactly what Orlando desperately needs: puts up points and creates his own shot.

Orlando lacks shooters in their starting lineup. Their backcourt of Oladipo and Elfrid Payton is outstanding on defense and insanely athletic, but both players have a jump-shot that is very much a work in progress. The same can be said for fellow lottery pick Aaron Gordon, who will likely get more playing time in his sophomore season.

This is why Harris may be asked to do more this season. The Magic need someone who can knock down shots; they ranked 27th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions last year. Sure, they dump the ball down to Vucevic in the paint quite a bit, but having a perimeter scorer who can create their own shot is important. In Harris’ 63 games as a starter last season, he averaged 17.6 points while shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from three-point range.

Orlando would love to see Harris take smarter shots, be a bit more unselfish and improve on the defensive end, but he’s still developing. It’s easy to forget that Harris just turned 23 years old in July. New head coach Scott Skiles will stress those things and try to help Harris reach his full potential (and, for the record, both men insist they’re on good terms even though Harris barely played under Skiles in Milwaukee). There’s a belief that a number of Magic players weren’t used 100 percent correctly under former head coach Jacque Vaughn (and then interim coach James Borrego), so it’ll be very interesting to see how the team’s core performs this year. Harris is entering his fifth season in the NBA and, if everything goes right, this could be a breakout campaign for the forward.

Paul George, Indiana Pacers – At 25 years old, George’s résumé already includes two All-Star appearances, two All-NBA selections and an All-Defensive First Team nod. He has emerged as one of the game’s best two-way perimeter players, filling up the stat sheet on a nightly basis, so it may seem strange to see him on this list.

However, this season, the Pacers will be asking George to carry the team more than ever before. He is their best player on both ends of the floor, and it’s not particularly close. Whether he’s playing small forward or some power forward (as Larry Bird and Frank Vogel have said), Indiana will only go as far as George takes them.

Indiana has reconstructed their team this summer. After keeping the same core intact in recent years, the Pacers enter the 2015-16 season without key starters Roy Hibbert and David West. George Hill is Indiana’s only other returning starter (aside from George). Replacing Hibbert and West’s on-court production will be tough enough, but George will also have to step up off the court. West, in particular, was considered the heart and soul of the Pacers and he was a terrific leader and locker room presence. Now, as the team’s superstar, George will have to fill those shoes.

Last year, George’s ascent to superstardom came to a brief halt due to the gruesome right leg fracture that caused him to miss 76 games (and the Pacers missed the playoffs, showing just how important he is to the team). Fellow players have said that George has looked outstanding in his offseason workouts out in Los Angeles, which is a great sign. He’s expected to be back to 100 percent by the start of the season.

Without Hibbert, West and Scola in the frontcourt, it’s understandable why Bird and Vogel want to experiment with some small-ball lineups. The Pacers did make some additions, including Monta Ellis, Myles Turner, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger. But George is clearly the key to Indiana returning to contention and he’ll be doing more heavy lifting than in the past.

Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder – Kanter’s max deal with the Thunder was one of the more surprising contracts of the summer. Portland extended the four-year, $70 million deal to the 23-year-old big man and Oklahoma City matched. As has been discussed quite a bit, the Thunder felt they had to re-sign Kanter since they’re going all in on this season and must send the right message to Kevin Durant before he hits free agency next summer. They may have overpaid the big man because their hand was forced, but now it’s on Kanter to play up to his max deal and prove the Thunder made the right decision. He’s going to be a very important piece for this team and his play could be a huge factor in determining just how far Oklahoma City goes this season.

Oklahoma City acquired Kanter from Utah at last year’s trade deadline and he posted impressive numbers in his 26 games with the Thunder. He started every game and averaged career-highs in points (18.7), field goal percentage (56.6 percent), rebounds (11), blocks (.5) and steals (.5).

At first glance, it may seem like a no-brainer to give a big contract to a 23-year-old center with those stats and offensive skills. However, Kanter’s issues have always been on the other end of the floor. Last year, Kanter was ranked 469th out of 474 NBA players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (-3.87). He finished the season as the worst defensive center in the NBA (including reserves) based on DRPM. Utah became the best defensive team in the NBA after parting ways with Kanter. Starting Rudy Gobert (who I considered for this list but ultimately left off since he took on a huge role last year) obviously affected those numbers, but there’s no question Kanter had been a liability on that end.

Kanter admitted to not giving maximum effort at times with the Jazz (which likely affected his defensive production) and there were red flags about his attitude too. These kind of things are concerning to hear about a player, especially one who just got a max deal. Now that he got paid, will he continue to work as hard and produce like he did in the second half of last season?

Oklahoma City is hoping that Kanter will be more focused than ever now that he’s on a contender rather than a perennial lottery team. They’re also betting on Kanter’s offensive talent making up for his defensive struggles, and that putting Serge Ibaka alongside him in the frontcourt can help hide his deficiencies a bit. It remains to be seen how this will all work out, but there’s no question that Kanter will have an increased role (on a much bigger stage) than in previous years since he’s now one of the highest-paid players on one of the league’s best teams.

New Episode of the Basketball Insiders Podcast

If you missed it, a new episode of the Basketball Insiders podcast dropped last night. Alex Kennedy and Jesse Blancarte discuss which NBA teams enter next season with the highest sense of urgency, the state of the Los Angeles Clippers, and answer your #InsidersPodcast questions.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division

In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.

Chad Smith

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The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.

As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.

The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.

Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.

The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.

Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.

The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.

With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.

The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.

Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.

Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.

The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.

A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.

Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists  — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.

The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.

The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.

Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.

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Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form

After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?

Jack Winter

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The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.

Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.

But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.

Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.

Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.

It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.

Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.

Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.

The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.

With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.

A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.

But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.

Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.

Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?

The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ The Stretch Run by taking a look at the Pacific Division franchises on the playoff bubble.

Matt John

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Well, well, well . . . we’re now entering the home stretch here, people. With the All-Star break nearing its end, the regular season stakes will intensify exponentially. The losses count for far more now than they did a month ago. The playoff seedings are starting to settle a bit and we’re starting to see a playoff bubble in our midst.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders would like to introduce a new series titled The Stretch Run. In these pieces, we’ll be looking at the teams from each division to evaluate their ever-growing bubble and the chances of reaching the postseason. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is based on the standings as of now. Needless to say, a whole bunch can change in the 25-and-change games that are left.

Today we’re diving into the Pacific Division — or, otherwise known as the top-heavy division.

There are other top-heavy divisions in the NBA at the moment — just look at the Central — but the Pacific Division is the much polarizing of them all. The best teams in the division currently sport two of the top three records in the Western Conference. The other three? Unfortunately, they hold three of the four worst records in the Western Conference.

So let’s just get this out of the way: Neither Los Angeles-based team is on the bubble. Barring a major meltdown — which is not likely when you have the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George on your squad — both the Lakers and the Clippers are most definitely making the playoffs.

There’s not much cause for concern since both are expected to make deep postseason runs — although you never know with injuries. At this point, however, the franchises may too deep to worry about breaking down, but it’s still worth mentioning. According to Tankathon as of Feb. 18, the Lakers and Clippers have two of the league’s 10 easiest schedules from here on out, so all that has gone well should end well.

As for their other Pacific Division compatriots, well, those three are obviously in different places.

Just to tie up any loose ends before diving in, the Golden State Warriors are out, too. And they’ve probably been out since the day Stephen Curry broke his hand. To recap: The Warriors have the worst record in the league; currently trail behind Memphis by 16.5 games for the No. 8 seed with 27 contests left; Curry’s not expected back until March at the earliest. Hell, when Klay Thompson will make his season debut? Or, better yet, who knows if Klay Thompson will make his season debut at all?

The postseason boat has sailed for the boys in the Bay Area. After back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals, the gang needed a chance to catch their breath. If Curry and Thompson both make it back before season’s end, we’ll get a brief glimpse of Golden State’s new big three plus Andrew Wiggins. That doesn’t breed excitement as much as it breeds intrigue.

Thanks to the updated lottery rules, Golden State can compete at full strength without endangering their odds. Even better, don’t forget that high pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft. The perennial contenders may have had a downer season but, in the long run, this may have been the best route for them.

Therein lies the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. Any postseason hopes are dim but all hope is not lost. First off, although both combine for two of the four aforementioned worst records in the conference, take it with a major grain of salt. They are currently No. 12 and No. 13 in the conference but the Suns are behind the Portland Trail Blazers by only three games for ninth, while the Kings lag the Blazers by only half a game more.

The hard part, however, is that Phoenix and Sacramento are both well behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed — 6.5 and 7 games, respectively.

Again, though, all hope is not lost for them. At least, not entirely as the Grizzlies will have the toughest schedule for the rest of the season. Out of their final 28 games, Memphis faces 16 teams over .500, while 18 of them are against tougher Western Conference foes. Getting past them is doable, but they would have to leapfrog Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the process.

But who is more likely to complete that feat?

If we’re comparing their strength of schedule, it’s Sacramento. The Kings have the 10th-easiest schedule from here on out. Even though they’re facing 18 Western Conference teams of their own over the last 28 games, only 13 are against those over .500.

Phoenix, by contrast, has the eighth-hardest remaining. They may have fewer games in which they face Western Conference opponents — which could work against them seeing how head-to-head record impacts conference standing — but they also play more teams over .500 than Sacramento (15).

The Suns have a half-game lead over the Kings, but the Kings have an easier path ahead opponent-wise.

Unfortunately for both, the franchise with the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season appears to be the young and frightening New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are starting to look like the dangerous sleeper we all thought they’d be now that Zion Williamson has arrived.

Sadly, that could spell doom for the Suns’ and Kings’ playoff hopes,

Both teams have been decimated by player absences — and pretty much from the beginning too. Phoenix lost Deandre Ayton literally one game into the year due to a suspension. Sacramento ended up missing De’Aaron Fox for a long stretch because of an early ankle sprain.

And even though those were the most prominent injuries, they’ve dealt with several others as well. Aron Baynes hasn’t played in a month, while it may be a while longer before Richaun Holmes takes the court again. Even Marvin Bagley III has struggled to stay on the court for most of the season.

As for how they compare for how they’ve done, there’s more evidence supporting Phoenix as the better team between the two, but only slightly. Phoenix has both a better point differential — minus-1.2 to minus-2.9 — and net rating — minus-0.9 to minus-2.6 — than Sacramento does. The Suns are not in a league above the Kings in either area, but the statistical differences would show that the former has played marginally better.

In the end, Sacramento entered this season with much higher expectations following the franchise’s most productive effort since 2006. On the other hand, Phoenix came into this season with the same small-level outlook they’ve held for quite some time.

So even though the Suns have exceeded expectations and the Kings have fallen well short, the two sides find themselves virtually tied.

Given the deep holes they’ve dug themselves heading toward March, however, it seems more than likely that the Suns and Kings will be spending the playoffs from their couches.

At this point, both franchises are in a newly-found position of promise but that still does not guarantee a postseason berth. Despite the valiant efforts, Phoenix and Sacramento will have the same closing remark when the season closes out: Better luck next year.

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