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NBA PM: Dallas Experimenting With Roster

With a group of veterans and young talent, Rick Carlisle has to balance winning now and developing for the future.

James Blancarte

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On September 28, 2017, a vote of the NBA Board of Governors made official what had previously been rumored. The NBA would be instituting a version of lottery reform. The goal would be to end the alleged practice of NBA teams purposely losing, or “tanking” games for the purpose of increasing the odds of getting top picks in the NBA’s annual draft lottery.  Before this change goes into effect, the league will operate under the previous draft percentages once more for the 2018 NBA Draft. The older percentages are much more favorable to the league’s worst teams. Whether these new rules, once in effect, will stop or substantially slow teams from tanking is yet to be seen.

Early in the season, some teams have certainly surprised with their performances thus far. The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers sit on top of the Western Conference and the Orlando Magic have suddenly found a winning formula. However, even before the calendar turns to November, a few teams are already looking beyond wins and losses for signs of progress as they mount what seem to be losing campaigns, such as the Dallas Mavericks.

The Dallas Mavericks did have a strong win against the Grizzlies and recently went down to the wire against the Philadelphia 76ers. However, the Mavericks are 1-6 with a -9.4 net rating on the season. Right now, only the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls sport a worse net rating at this point. Surprisingly, the Minnesota Timberwolves are just above the Mavericks with a -7.8 net rating to go along with a middling 3-3 record after trading for Jimmy Butler this offseason. For reference, FiveThirtyEight.com projected the Mavericks to finish with a 26-56 record and to sport a -5.7 net rating. At this rate, the Mavericks will finish the season with an ever worse record than FiveThirtyEight projected.

The Mavericks have talent but they find themselves in an awkward position. Harrison Barnes continues to be a strong scoring option and focal point on offense. Seth Curry could have continued his strong play from last season but has been injured to start the year. Rookie Dennis Smith, Jr. starts every game and has stepped into the void. The team starts Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki at center in some games.

Nowitzki, now in his 20th season, is known for his elite shooting and offensive moves. However, Nowitzki doesn’t really have the strength or rebounding prowess to play center and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most opposing power forwards. Unsurprisingly, he sports a -10.1 net rating when he is on the court. If the team was only focused on winning, it would be best to bring Nowitzki off the bench where his scoring would be welcome and his defensive shortcomings would be less of an issue.

“Obviously, I’ve said that we want to compete and we want to make the playoffs,” Nowitzki told ESPN late last season. “If that means I’m the 10th man, so be it.”

Instead, head coach Rick Carlisle placed his faith in Nowitzki to start the season.

“At this point in time, Dirk at the 5 position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team. And I just don’t think Dirk is the guy that is going to come off the bench as long as I’m here.” Carlisle said. “There’s a very good chance Nerlens is going to come off the bench.”

Fans in Dallas love Dirk but there are issues with playing an aging star over younger players who have untapped potential and more long term value for the franchise.

With Carlisle’s comments, Noel remains in a tough position. It’s hard to question the coaching of Rick Carlisle. Although Dallas has not been competitive the past few years, he continues to be regarded as one of the league’s best coaches and has the 2011 Mavericks’ championship as proof.

Back in March of 2017, Carlisle declared Noel a starting caliber center.

“I do think he’s a starting center in this league. That’s why we traded for him.” Carlisle stated. “But we’re in an experimental mode here.”

When this season came around, Carlisle’s tune had shifted as he stated his commitment to keeping Nowitzki in the starting lineup.

In his fifth season, Noel has experienced some success in the NBA. However, his first two seasons were arguably his best and he has yet to match the levels of production he reached while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, who were in the midst of a massive rebuild. Noel went into the offseason as a restricted free agent hoping that a team would find his skill set and potential intriguing enough to offer him a lucrative contract.  Unfortunately, an appealing multi-year offer never materialized and Noel was forced to accept a one-year qualifying offer and await his pay-day as an unrestricted free agent in 2018.

So far, Noel has started four of seven games and has seen his role and minutes go up and down. He’s currently logging 19.1 minutes a game, which would be a career low for him. With his role uncertain and constantly in flux, Noel will likely continue to make the same mistakes that could be corrected with more consistent playing time. While playing time shouldn’t simply be handed to Noel, it’s reasonable to argue that a player at his age with his skill set should be given more of an opportunity to develop and contribute.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dennis Smith, Jr. has gotten off to a notable start to his rookie season and is earning a sizable role with the team. While teams are most often cautious with true rookies and bring them along slowly, don’t count Dennis Smith, Jr. on that list. Drafted 9th in last year’s NBA Draft, Smith, Jr. has been a revelation for the Mavericks. He was voted by fellow rookies as most likely to win rookie of the year and has not wasted his time in displaying his abilities on the court. So far, he is fourth on the team in minutes per game (30.3), he is averaging 13.2 points and 6.6 assists and is third on the team is individual usage (24.8 percent). Only J.J. Barea and Devin Harris have a higher usage rate and both play far less than Smith, Jr. After a recent game, Mike Conley, Jr. was highly complementary of Smith, Jr.

“He’s going to be something special in the league and they’ve got a good one,” Conley said. “It’s fun to compete against him.”

Dallas possesses their own first-round draft pick and likely has its eyes on landing a top pick in 2018. So far, this season, it looks like Dallas is trying to figure out where its long term pieces will fall into place in the team’s larger puzzle. With Noel playing on a one-year deal, his role seems to be less of a priority than many may have expected. However, Smith, Jr. will likely be with the team for years to come – especially if he can continue building on his early season success.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers

The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte

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If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.

In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.

“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”

What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.

Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.

Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.

Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.

Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future

Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.

Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”

Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.

There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.

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Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago

After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.

Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.

Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.

But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.

Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.

For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.

So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.

It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.

His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.

Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.

That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.

Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.

Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.

Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.

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NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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