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NBA PM: A Season Of Career-Years

James Blancarte takes a look at the career-years of players that aren’t leading candidates for the regular season awards.

James Blancarte

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As the regular season winds down, the debate over regular season awards heats up. These discussions draw together members of the media, casual and hardcore NBA fans and even the players themselves. In some years, certain players will be viewed as the consensus choice for a specific award and there won’t be much discussion or debate. This season, there is no clear favorite for several awards, including Most Valuable Player, potentially Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year.

This year, several players are having a career-year based on statistics and overall impact. While many candidates for the major awards are earning praise and attention as part of the collective debate, there are many more players having career years that are not getting enough attention. Here, we will look beyond the lead candidates for these awards to recognize a few other players who are having impressive seasons, which may go unrecognized when the regular season awards are handed out.

Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz

In a number of ways, this has been a spectacular year for the Utah Jazz. The team has not made it to the postseason since 2011-12 and is now settled into a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers. If not for a recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz would still be in possession of the fourth seed and home court advantage. Home court or not, Utah is thrilled to return to the postseason despite being plagued by injuries all season. Starting power forward Derrick Favors and starting point guard George Hill have missed significant time this season (31 and 33 games respectively) due to various injuries.

In their periodic absence, forward Gordon Hayward has stepped up and is having a career-year. Hayward was rewarded earlier this season by being named as a first-time All-Star. Hayward has maintained his excellent play since All-Star Weekend and has been a key contributor for Utah.

In 72 games, per Basketball-Reference, Hayward is averaging career highs in points (22), rebounds (5.4), free throw percentage (84.4) and is posting overall strong shooting numbers, including a career-high true shooting percentage (57.8). Hayward has been able to reach many of these career highs (and more) by being the featured player on offense with a career-high usage rate (27.7 percent) and a career-low turnover percentage (9.4). Simply put, Utah’s offense revolves around Hayward more so than in past seasons, which plays a major role in Utah’s excellent play this season.

In addition, Hayward is setting new personal bests in advanced statistics such as value over replacement player (VORP), box plus-minus (BPM), win shares (WS) and player efficiency rating (PER). Of course, these advanced statistics can’t be solely relied on to show how effective Hayward has been this season, but they in effect confirm what is apparent to anyone who has watched Hayward play this season.

One area where Hayward has thrived is in the pick-and-roll (P&R). As the P&R ballhandler, amongst qualifying players, Hayward is scoring .98 points per possession (11th in the league), which places him ahead of P&R maestros like Clippers point guard Chris Paul and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. In addition, Hayward has maintained a 49.1 effective shooting percentage in P&R play (top 25 in the league).

Hayward is having a career-year for Utah at the right time. The roster has grown and developed together for a few seasons, several players are in or just hitting their respective prime years and the team now has some veterans to stabilize the team in high-pressure situations. Hayward has been great all season for Utah and now has a chance to show off his play in the postseason against the Clippers.

John Wall – Washington Wizards

John Wall and guard Bradley Beal (discussed below) are at the forefront of the Washington Wizards’ success this season. The team is in position to potentially make a run in the playoffs as they are the fourth seed and are set to play at home against the erratic Atlanta Hawks in the first-round.

Wall, currently in his seventh NBA season, is having a career-year and has been at the center of Washington’s success this season. Wall is averaging a career-high in points (23.1), steals (2.1), assists (10.7), free throws and free throws attempted, field goal percentage and PER (23.2).

In addition, Wall’s usage percentage (30.6) and his assist percentage (46.9) are career-highs while his turnover percentage (16.2) is the second-lowest of his career. Essentially, Washington’s offense runs through him more now than in past seasons and he accounts for nearly half of all assists to his teammates while he is on the floor (while limiting his turnovers). Quite an accomplishment.

Digging deeper, Wall is experiencing career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS. Simply put, Wall has been better than ever this season.

Wall credits head coach Scott Brooks with helping him improve this season.

“[Brooks is] like, ‘With your speed you settle for too many jump shots – you can get past people, you need to attack a little bit more,’” Wall explained.

This season, Wall has thrived by attacking the rim and passing on mid-range jump shots. With speed, athleticism and great body control, Wall is utilizing his best assets while passing on less efficient shots, which is paying off in a big way for Washington.

Wall has always been one of the fastest players in the league and is now exploiting that more often and more effectively than in past seasons. Amongst qualified players, Wall is ranked ninth in transition frequency (22.4 percent) while maintaining a 60.3 effective field goal percentage. Wall is a one-man fastbreak and is consistently generating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Wall isn’t a candidate for any major award this season, but he deserves recognition for having a career-year and more importantly leading Washington to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards

Like Wall, Bradley Beal is having a career-year and has been crucial to Washington’s success. Coming into this season, Beal had yet to sufficiently answer two crucial questions that have plagued him for years. After averaging 62 games a year due to injuries, could he stay healthy? Earlier this season, Beal acknowledged that issue had bothered him.

“You want to be that guy that shows up each and every night, regardless of what ailments you may have,” Beal stated.

Also, after rumors of discord between the pair, could Beal and Wall co-exist successfully? In his fifth year, Beal has been able to answer the above questions with a resounding yes.

Wall set the record straight earlier this season and recently addressed the on-court relationship with Beal.

“I normally have the ball. I’m going to get my shot whenever I want to. But my job is to get him going. That’s where we are a better team,” Wall said.

In a career-high 76 games this season, Beal is averaging a career-high in scoring (23), assists (3.5), free throw shooting (82.2 percent), effective (56.4) and true shooting (60.2) percentage, three-point shooting, as well as minutes per game (34.9). Like Wall, Beal’s usage percentage (26.4) is at a career-high, as well as his assist percentage (16.1), PER (19.9) and he is maintaining a near career-low turnover percentage (9.7).

Simply put, Beal is playing more games, more minutes per game and has still been more efficient. In addition, he has career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS (8.2, doubling his previous high of 4). Basic and advanced statistics indicate this is his finest campaign yet.

One of the biggest improvements for Beal has come from his shot selection. Wizards fans will recall that Beal would often pass up open three-point shots inexplicably. Not anymore. This season, 41.9 percent of Beal’s shots are coming from three-point range (by far a career-high) and his three-point percentage (40.6) is essentially tied with his prior best marks. Cut out the low-percentage mid-range floaters and replace them with high-percentage three-pointers and this is what can happen for a player like Beal.

Like Wall, Beal does a lot of his damage on the fast break. However, unlike Wall, Beal doesn’t thrive on volume but is instead much more efficient in fewer opportunities. With a lower transition frequency (17.5 percent, compared to 22.1 percent for Wall), Beal scores 1.33 points per possession in transition, good for fifth in the league amongst qualifying players, and shoots a higher effective field goal percentage (68.7 to Wall’s 60.3). With both guards attacking in transition, Washington features a dangerous transition game that can be difficult for any opponent to deal with.

This has been a breakout season for Beal. Injuries haven’t been an issue and he has tailored his game in such a way that makes him even more effective for Washington than he has been in previous seasons.

Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is the unquestioned leader and best overall player for Boston. Until a few months ago, his name had even been in the discussion of potential MVP candidates. Although arguably no longer the case, we should recognize how tremendous Thomas has been this season.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who is seemingly always stockpiling assets, has long sought to acquire a superstar to lead Boston. Although the search goes on, Thomas has emerged as a homegrown superstar for the Celtics this season.

Thomas has achieved a dramatic increase in scoring (a career-high 29.2, up from 22.2 last season). He is also posting career-highs in free throw shooting (90.9 percent), effective (54.8) and true shooting percentages (62.7) and a near career-high in assists. Thomas is sporting an incredibly high 34 percent usage rate while maintaining nearly a career-high in assist percentage (32.5) and a career low in turnover percentage (10.6). Finally, Thomas has hit career benchmarks in VORP, BPM and WS.

Thomas has been very good individually and is a principal reason that the Celtics hold second-place in the Eastern Conference. Thomas has been able to achieve many of the above results by playing as efficiently as possible by attacking the rim and hitting three-point shots.

What has also set Thomas apart has been his incredible play in fourth quarters. Earlier this season, his clutch scoring earned him the Game of Thrones inspired nickname, “The King in the Fourth.”  As of April 10, Thomas is averaging 9.8 points in fourth quarters, second only to Oklahoma City Thunder guard and MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.

Thomas has been able to hit this level of success despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9) and despite opposing defenses focusing their attention on him (without much success).

Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are teetering on the edge of playoff success or doom. After a loss on April 9 to the New Jersey Nets, the Bulls are tied for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Bulls’ management has been criticized for failing to properly surround Jimmy Butler with players that compliment his skill set. Specifically, the Bulls added ball-dominant veteran guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, as well as recently trading away three-point threat Doug McDermott. With little spacing and erratic play from several players throughout the season, Chicago has failed to maximize Butler’s considerable talent.

Despite the mismanagement, Butler is averaging a career-high in points (24), assists (5.5), rebounds (6.2), free throw shooting (including a career-high 86.4 percent) while maintaining a near career-high shooting percentage from the field and a career-high true shooting percentage (56.6). Butler has done this with career highs in usage percentage (26.6), assist percentage (25.1) and his third lowest turnover percentage (9.4). Additionally, Butler is posting career-best marks in VORP, BPM, WS and PER.

Butler is dominating the ball while scoring efficiently, making plays for others and keeping his turnovers down. In a season where he has been surrounded by overlapping talent, been involved in locker room drama and been the subject of significant trade rumors, Butler has managed to carry his team and post career-high marks in several statistical categories.

C.J. McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum forms the second half of another brilliant backcourt pairing. Like Wall and Beal, Damian Lillard and McCollum are the collective engine that makes their respective team run. Behind Lillard, and the career-year of McCollum, the Trail Blazers recently clinched the final playoff spot in the West and are set for a rematch against the Golden State Warriors as the eighth seed. The spotlight tends to shine brightest on Lillard, who has posted several great seasons. With this in mind, let’s focus on McCollum’s career-year.

McCollum’s most successful campaign is marked by career-highs in points (23), blocks, rebounds, free throw shooting, both effective (54.4) and true shooting (58.5) percentage, three-point shooting (42 percent), as well as minutes per game (35). Like the players above, McCollum is posting a career-high in usage (27.5 percent) while achieving his lowest turnover percentage to date (9.9). He is both scoring and serving as a secondary ball-handler, which is a nice luxury for Portland. Finally, his PER (19.9), VORP, BPM and WS ratings are all at career-highs.

Overlooked in this career-year is how effective McCollum’s scoring has been in the fourth quarter. In fourth quarters, McCollum is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range and has a 54 percent effective field goal rate, both of which outpaces Lillard comparatively. Again, Lillard is the face of the Trail Blazers, but McCollum is arguably just as important to the team’s overall success – especially this season.

*****

Honorable Mentions include Lillard, Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

Players purposely omitted since they are leading candidates for the major regular season awards include: James Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green.

 

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NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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