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NBA PM: Buying Time While Stars Rest

Ben Dowsett looks at teams who slow the pace to control damage when their respective star sits.

Ben Dowsett

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Star players are the largest single factor driving NBA success, a reality that’s only magnified in the playoffs. You don’t win a ring without one, and even that well-worn turn of phrase isn’t specific enough; non-Spurs title winners over the last decade have really only featured the same handful of superstar players at the helm.

A star’s on-court impact is under an even greater microscope in a hyper-focused playoff environment, meaning the flip side is naturally true as well: Any minutes with a team-driving star off the floor become opportunities for the opponent to gain an advantage.

These minutes are reduced in the playoffs as rotations tighten, but even the biggest names in the game have to sit for a couple stretches every night. In some cases, these non-star stretches are like walking on eggshells for a coach; simply praying nothing cracks too badly before you get to the other side.

One solution that’s long been used by savvy bench bosses, and might be finding a bit more popularity around the league: Utilizing pace.

Pace has occupied an interesting corner of basketball analytics since metrics like it became more popular within the last decade. It’s been used as an offensive weapon, first by Mike D’Antoni’s mid-2000s Suns and then, more recently, by the juggernaut Warriors. Other teams have mined the opposite end of that spectrum, possibly with the Dubs directly in mind.

In the end, the actual “pace” statistic housed on NBA.com and elsewhere – simply the number of possessions in a 48-minute span – isn’t much of a singular indicator of anything. Every year we see certain fast-paced teams succeed offensively while slower ones fail, but we see roughly just as many cases where the opposite is true.

That doesn’t mean pace can’t be used as a tactical weapon situationally, though, and the postseason offers a few good examples.

Take Milwaukee, for instance. The Bucks are worse when Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t playing – nearly a four points per-100-possession gap during the regular season, which is actually a little less egregious than you might expect. Given team construct, however, it’s no surprise that this number is badly magnified during the postseason, where the Bucks have very few other individual players capable of consistently generating the sorts of advantages Giannis does regularly. Toronto has outscored Milwaukee by over 16 points per-100 without Antetokounmpo on the floor so far this postseason.

That sounds much worse than the actual raw impact, though. Since Giannis has only spent 15 minutes off the court in the series, it only actually equates to an eight-point gap in the Raptors’ favor when he’s on the bench. Being outscored by a point every two minutes certainly isn’t good, but it feels more manageable when there are only a couple short stretches like that per game. And the thing is, it could be worse without pace considerations.

The Bucks actually played a little faster without Antetokounmpo on the floor for the regular season, but that’s reversed since the playoffs started. They’re playing about three possessions per-48 slower when he sits – this isn’t a huge gap, but it’s still noticeable.

The Bucks have run their non-Giannis offense almost exclusively through Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton, each of whom has played 14 of the 15 minutes Antetokounmpo has sat. Milwaukee often sets up Monroe or Middleton at the high elbow, then runs a series of actions around them. If they find easy points laying around, then sure, they’re taking them.

Sometimes they’ll run early pick-and-roll action – again, hunting for easy points if they’re available. If nothing materializes, though, they simply go to work individually, attacking the few small mismatches the Bucks might have on the court.

Monroe misses the layup here, but it’s one he often makes. More importantly, note a couple vital items.

For one, the possession takes virtually the entire shot clock; this isn’t happening every time, of course, but the Bucks are clearly in no hurry if they can’t generate a great look early in the clock.

For another thing, this kind of Monroe attempt is “safe” for Milwaukee going the other way. All four other Bucks on the floor can get back on defense, eliminating any potential transition opportunities and controlling the tempo. The Bucks have allowed zero fast break points with Giannis on the bench in two games against Toronto, forcing the Raptors to walk the ball up and play against a set defense every time down the floor.

Are the Bucks essentially buying time for Giannis during these minutes?

Look, nothing in the NBA is that cut-and-dried, and that’s certainly not the message from Jason Kidd to his locker room. NBA players didn’t work their entire lives just to function as a buttress; you wouldn’t get much out of them if you outright admitted that their minutes were just a race against the clock before better guys could come back on the court.

Kidd can still make adjustments with the theme in mind, though, and it seems like this is exactly what’s happening. Giannis only has to sit for four or five minutes per half, so extending every possession a few seconds longer than average – and trying your hardest to force the opponent to do the same – can make a real difference. If you’re falling behind by a nearly a point for every five possessions, like the Bucks are without Antetokounmpo against the Raptors, shaving a few possessions off every time he sits down starts to sound like a good idea. There are ways to encourage it without explicitly demanding it out of players.

Other teams have showcased similar lines of thought. The Washington Wizards’ starting lineup played nearly 500 more minutes than any other five-man unit in the league during the regular season, an obscene gap. That naturally means they played a lot of platoon-style bench units with all their best players off the floor.

Whether explicitly intentional or not, those bench platoons played a lot more slowly than the starters, which is good because they were a train wreck when John Wall or Bradley Beal was off the floor. They got uncharacteristically sped up in the second half of Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, which they had well in hand, and it nearly cost them the game before Beal’s hot shooting and some Wall heroics pushed them over the top. They were back in character for Game 2 (head coach Scott Brooks has also done a bit more staggering in the playoffs so far).

The knife cuts in the other direction, too. Are the Clippers making a concerted effort to slow the game down when Chris Paul sits (they didn’t in the regular season), or are the Jazz – a molasses-level slow unit across the board – leaving points on the board by failing to up their tempo while CP3 is out of the game?

The 15.6 points per-100 by which Utah is outscoring L.A. while Paul sits may sound like a lot, but when it’s just 26 of these minutes, at a glacial 88 pace? That’s actually only a minus-four over two games.

The same could be said for the Indiana Pacers. They’ve only had 11 minutes without LeBron James on the floor so far in two games, so the sample is extra small, but they haven’t sped things up at all in either game despite the Cavs’ total ineptitude without James. Indiana lost by one point in Game 1, a game in which they gained nearly a full point for every two possessions LeBron sat on the bench. Basketball isn’t quite this linear, but if they could do it over again, you think maybe they’d try to eke out a few extra possessions during those minutes?

To be clear, this isn’t some revolution that’s swinging a postseason series. There’s no way of knowing whether even a single playoff game we’ve seen so far could have swung if one team or the other took a different approach here, and honestly, the answer is probably no.

The margins aren’t large in the NBA playoffs, though, and these coaches know it. If you can add half a point to your expected total for a game by tweaking your approach a little, you do it. Stars can’t play the whole game, and teams who rely on a singular driving force could be down the right track in looking to minimize the damage that’s done when that force has to sit down.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?

Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.

Steve Kyler

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No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions

The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.

The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.

Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.

One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.

In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.

For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.

The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.

The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.

The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.

The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.

Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.

The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.

Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.

The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.

The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.

Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton@jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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