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NBA PM: Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?

Can Paul Pierce provide the leadership, toughness and production necessary to turn the Wizards into an East contender?

Alex Kennedy

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Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?

Washington Wizards shooting guard Garrett Temple was just trying to give his veteran teammate Paul Pierce a compliment. After Pierce hit consecutive fade-away jumpers late in the Wizards’ game against the Orlando Magic to seal the victory (Washington’s first of the year), Temple was impressed, but may have used the wrong words to express that.

“It brought back memories,” Temple said of Pierce’s daggers. “I was just thinking about what he used to do with the Celtics, and that’s why we brought him in. Like he said when he hit that shot in Toronto [during last year’s playoff series], ‘That’s why they brought me here!’ That’s why he’s here. To settle us down and get us in a good spot in those situations. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Minutes later, Pierce heard about Temple’s comments and was asked if he turned back the clock to hit those key shots.

“Turned back the clock to when?” Pierce asked, half joking and half annoyed. “I never went nowhere. I never went nowhere; I’ve still been here. I was doing that last year, the year before and the year before that.”

This 30-minute stretch shows exactly what the Wizards are getting with Pierce: poise in all situations, veteran leadership, clutch shots and unwavering confidence. The 37-year-old inked a two-year, $11 million deal with Washington over the summer because he felt they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Now, he’s doing everything in his power to help the Wizards take the next step and become an elite team.

Washington is a young squad that is extremely hungry after experiencing a little bit of success in last year’s postseason. Last year’s group managed to win 44 games, which was good for fifth place in the East. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in six games.

Pierce has experienced just about everything a player can in the NBA, so he’s an amazing resource for these young Wizards. Pierce said that he’ll do his best to offer his help throughout the course of the season.

“I just try to keep everyone focused,” Pierce said. “I want them to understand what it’s going to take when you’re coming off of a loss and in a back-to-back situation. That’s what I’m going to give them all year long. If we’re going to try to take that next step from what the Wizards did a year ago, then it’s got to be mental. It’s got to be every night, consistency in practices and in games.”

Every player in the locker room has a ton of respect for Pierce and listens intently when he dispenses wisdom.

“[He brings] a lot of great leadership,” Wizards point guard John Wall said of Pierce. “He’s a veteran presence, someone who knows what it takes to win championships. He has a tough mentality. He’s someone who knows what you need to do in order to win in this league. The level he’s been on is what us [other] guys are trying to get to. It’s just that veteran leadership and presence and the humbleness to want to win and compete.”

“He’s a great leader off the court,” Temple said of Pierce. “I didn’t know what his leadership skills were like, but he’s a great leader off the court. He understands [the importance of] having a routine, being a professional, being positive, sticking together as a team and understanding it’s a long road in an 82-game season. He knows if you stick together, good things can happen.”

Wall has been picking Pierce’s brain, just as he does with his coaches, because he knows that the veteran has a lot of knowledge to offer. But Pierce isn’t just a strong locker room presence, as he remains a significant contributor on the court. Through three games, Pierce is averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 26.7 minutes. He has been productive (and come up big when Washington needed him most), but he admits he is still trying to get acclimated with his new team and develop chemistry alongside his new running mates.

“As each game and each practice goes along, and as we continue to build our chemistry, I’m definitely [getting more comfortable],” Pierce said. “We have to find ways to win when we have chemistry issues at times, because we’re still getting to know each other, but [those] are the type of games we just have to grind out.”

The 10-time All-Star seems to know his role in Washington. He’s the first one to point over to Wall and describe him as “our All-Star and our best player.” He identifies the trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat as “our leading guys.” He says that he’s there to improve the Wizards’ supporting cast, and be one of several options that the team has in late-game situations.

“It’s never scripted, but that’s what I’m capable of giving this team, another guy that they can go to in crucial situations,” Pierce said. “I think we have a number of guys that they could go to, with me being one them. That’s what I can give us.”

One of the biggest things that Pierce has stressed since joining Washington is the importance of a balanced attack. Pierce has won a championship and has seen that it takes contributions – as well as sacrifices – from everyone on the team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Boston Celtics’ 2008 title team didn’t feature a single 20-points-per-game scorer. Instead, they had Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo each averaging double-digits (ranging from 10.6 points to 19.6 points) and spreading the wealth around.

“It’s got to come from a number of guys,” Pierce said. “That’s what we have to pride ourselves on this year. We have to have a great balance. Some nights it’s going to be one guy who goes off for 20 or 30 points, but on most nights we’ll try to get a balanced scoring [attack] by moving the ball around and sharing opportunities.”

Washington is 2-1 and while Pierce is happy with the wins, he has said several times that the Wizards still need to find their identity in order to realize their full potential as a team.

“We want to be a team that holds teams to like 42 percent or 41 percent on field goals, keep them under 100 points, out-rebound them by a large margin,” Pierce said. “It’s good to win, but we’re still trying to find that.”

Pierce’s toughness, leadership and production should only help the Wizards find that desired identity. Once they do that, don’t be surprised if Washington emerges as one of the East’s top teams. That’s exactly what Pierce was banking on when he inked his deal with the Wizards this summer, and he’s confident that the franchise has what it takes to go on a deep postseason run as early as this year.

Bounce Brothers Ready for Lift Off

The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the NBA’s most athletic young tandems in rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Both players are high flyers and have what it takes to compete in the NBA’s dunk contest. The 19-year-olds, who have dubbed themselves the Bounce Brothers, have a ton of potential and could be franchise cornerstones for Minnesota going forward.

Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and LaVine was the No. 13 selection. Both players are having a lot of fun as they make the transition from college to the NBA.

“It’s fun; we’re all young and we played against each other growing up, so it’s good that we get to go out now and go on this journey together,” Wiggins said. “I’m comfortable here. The teammates show nothing but love. They’re great, great to be around, and the coaches are great to be around too. They push me every day. … It’s just crazy, from my first time stepping off the plane, people were greeting me at the airport, walking [me] home, walking [me] back to the hotel that I stayed in for the first couple days. It’s all just a big excitement coming here.”

“It’s going by so fast, it’s really felt surreal,” LaVine said. “I had my dream come true within the last six months. I was just in high school, I just graduated high school, so things went fast but I’m ready to just put on for this city and do great things. I feel like I’m a hard worker, and I’m ready to get in the gym and work.”

Wiggins has been starting for the Wolves, providing solid production on both ends of the floor but his stats don’t jump off of the page. LaVine has only appeared in one game, and it was in limited minutes. It’s clear that Wiggins is more NBA-ready than LaVine, who is extremely raw and was viewed as more of a project since he needs to develop and settle into a position. However, both players have worked extremely hard and earned the respect of their teammates.

“They’re students of the game,” Kevin Martin said of Wiggins and LaVine. “They understand where this organization views them four or five years from now and they’re making the steps in that direction to get confidence of Flip and his staff to get to that point.”

LaVine watches a ton of film, even of bad games, which impressed his veteran teammates. Head coach Flip Saunders jokes that LaVine is the only player upset when practice is canceled, because he wants to be in the gym all day, every day. LaVine has also made an effort to bulk up after seeing NBA bodies and realizing how strong pro players are.

Wiggins has also been putting in work. Right after he was traded to Minnesota in the offseason, he started training at the team’s facility to learn the system and develop chemistry with his teammates. Wiggins enters the NBA with superstar expectations and his teammates are buying into the hype.

“He’s a great player and the most important thing is he wants to learn and he’s willing to learn,” Ricky Rubio said of Wiggins. “He’s going to be great in this league.”

“I put a lot of responsibility on myself,” Wiggins added. “You have to believe that you can be the best and do what you can do before anyone else can believe it for you.”

Wiggins and LaVine both find themselves in the same situation as rookies in Minnesota with a ton of potential, but their paths to the NBA were completely different. Wiggins has been hyped up for years, since a mixtape labeling him as the best 14-year-old in the world surfaced. He was one of the most famous high school players in recent memory, and was a household name before he had committed to a college.

LaVine, on the other hand, was ranked the 44th-best player in the class entering high school and very few people thought he could be a one-and-done player entering his lone collegiate season at UCLA. However, he played well for the Bruins and started to get some attention. Still, he had to perform well in workouts and interviews in order to climb into the lottery.

“[Going back to] high school, I haven’t been a highly touted player,” LaVine said. “I’ve gone through all the national camps and different things like that and I feel like I’ve proven myself, but it just seems like I always just had to get over that edge to change people’s mind. So if I got to keep changing people’s minds, I’m fine with that. I like making my doubters eat their words. From high school, I was known as a scorer; I averaged about 29 in high school my senior year. Then going to college, I had a different role – coming off the bench, being able to show a little bit more of my athleticism. Now, with Coach Saunders, I feel like I’m in the best situation out of everybody. I’m so thankful. I love that dude to death, man. I have all my trust in him, it’s just great.”

“It’s been a big learning curve,” Wiggins said. “Flip’s a great coach. Every day we practice, I’m getting better. Every day, I’m learning more stuff. He had all the rookies in before everyone else, because the vets already know the system and they know the plays. They’re very intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball, and for a rookie it’s more of a learning curve.”

Wiggins and LaVine will get more comfortable as the season progresses and we’ll get a glimpse of what the future may hold for these two. Veteran Thaddeus Young has seen them in practice every day, and was so confident in Minnesota’s talent that he told Basketball Insiders the team could compete for a playoff spot as early as this season. Whether that’s realistic remains to be seen, but the Wolves certainly seem headed in the right direction and have put their future in the hands of two exciting, high-flying teenagers who will be a lot of fun to watch develop.

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 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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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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