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NBA PM: Five Teams That Could Surprise Next Season

Shane Rhodes looks at five teams that are poised to surprise folks next season.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA has seen quite the tumultuous offseason. A multitude of stars have changed teams while franchises like the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls have transformed almost overnight. It’s shaping up to be an interesting, if not an unpredictable regular season.

That being said, here are five teams that, for better or worse, could surprise with their play next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

People have been waiting for the Minnesota Timberwolves to break back on to the postseason scene for quite some time now. But, entering their 14th season since their last playoff appearance, they may finally be ready to make a return in 2017.

Tom Thibodeau’s squad has added a star this offseason in Jimmy Butler and a few reliable veterans — including Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford — to a core that already included rising star Andrew Wiggins and budding superstar Karl Anthony-Towns. While the Western Conference appears to be stacked, the Timberwolves roster seemingly consists of enough star power, hard work and grit to roll with the best of them. While no one is predicting a Finals appearance for the upstart team, don’t be surprised to see Minnesota locked into a playoff spot down the stretch next season.

New Orleans Pelicans

No one is denying the talent contained within the New Orleans Pelicans’ frontcourt. One could make the case that DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are the best in the NBA at their respective positions.

It’s just the rest of the roster that leaves a little bit to be desired.

Outside of the two big-men, the Pelicans sport a backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo. Beyond that, the roster is seemingly made up of inexperienced, non-impact players. Players like Alexis Ajinca, E’Twaun Moore and Ian Clark will contribute on the stat sheet, but they won’t help the Pelicans push their way into postseason contention. While many expect them to sneak into a playoff spot, their lack of difference making depth, combined with their recent loss of starting forward Solomon Hill to a season ending knee injury, could keep the Pelicans out of the Western Conference picture.

Los Angeles Lakers

Lonzo Ball should give all Laker fans hope.

While his father’s playoff proclamation may seem far-fetched, he’s not too far off. By no means should fans expect Ball to lead the Lakers to the postseason, but his style of play is contagious. With a team first approach, Ball will always look to make the extra pass and, in time, his teammates will begin to do so as well. And, as teams such as the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics can attest to, a system built on ball movement is a winning system. Luke Walton’s influence should not go understated as well; he knows what it takes to be a winner, having coached with the Warriors during their 2014 championship run and their record breaking 73 win season in 2015.

Again, it is doubtful that the Lakers even sniff the playoffs next season. But the culture change brought on by Ball — in addition to other offseason acquisitions Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope —  could have an immense impact on the team. Expect Walton’s squad to see a marked improvement on their 26 wins from last season.

Indiana Pacers

After sending star Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, most expect the Indiana Pacers to take a backseat in the Eastern Conference this coming season. However, the (near) future may not be so bleak in Indiana.

The Pacers acquired Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in their trade with the Thunder, two youngsters who still have some developing left to do. Oladipo, 25, averaged 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists while playing second fiddle to the Russell Westbrook show, while the rookie Sabonis, 21, averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds while playing 20.1 minutes per game. Another year of development should do them both good, as will playing time away from the ball dominant Westbrook.

The Pacers still boast plenty of versatile and/or young talent on their roster as well: Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Lance Stephenson, and Cory Joseph. Sabonis, Turner and Young form an athletic, versatile front court trio, while Oladipo will benefit from more time on the ball while playing with Joseph, Stephenson and Darren Collison. Playing in the dilapidated Eastern Conference isn’t the worst draw either. While a run to the postseason may be difficult, a grab at the seventh or eighth seed certainly isn’t out of the question for the Pacers.

Charlotte Hornets

After a down year, the Charlotte Hornets will look to rebound during the 2017 season. With health on their side and some new additions to the roster, they may very well be able to do it.

After acquiring Dwight Howard earlier in the offseason, the Hornets added Malik Monk via the draft. At this stage in his career, Howard is still a capable rebounder and can make an impact underneath the basket. At the very least, he can provide some insight to younger centers Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky. Meanwhile, Monk should provide a spark off the bench early on and, eventually, form an offensively potent duo with Kemba Walker.

Playing in the Eastern Conference, the new-look Hornets should have no trouble turning it around and grabbing a playoff spot.

The NBA is often full of surprises; some are pleasant while others are unwanted or unappreciated. However, after so much offseason movement, expect a bevy of unexpected events, good or bad, to envelope the regular season.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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