Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy and CineSport’s Noah Coslov preview the 2015 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Harkless Preparing for Breakout Year
I woke up Moe Harkless from his afternoon nap. I felt bad, since this is one of the few times during the day he gets to relax due to his rigorous workout schedule at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. But the Orlando Magic had just hired Scott Skiles as their head coach and I texted him to see what he thought of the move. I had no idea he was sleeping, and it’s not my fault he’s a light sleeper.
Fortunately, Harkless woke up to good news, because he’s thrilled with the hire.
“Everything I’ve heard about him has been good,” Harkless said. “I’ve heard he’s a hard coach and he expects a lot out of his players. That’s the kind of coach we need as a young team, we need to be held accountable and he’s the guy that’s going to do that for us. Also, he’s a defensive-minded head coach, which I think is perfect for me because I love playing defense and practicing hard. I love all that stuff so having him coming in with his mindset is a great opportunity for myself. It’s a new opportunity for me to earn some more playing time too. Last year, I feel I didn’t really play a lot so it’s an opportunity to earn some minutes back and just be able to play my game. I’m looking forward to it and looking forward to working with him.
“Coming into the league, my goal was to be on an All-Defensive Team and that’s still one of my goals. With Scott Skiles coming in and his emphasis on defense, I definitely think he can teach me a lot and help develop me to be that guy. It’s definitely something I’m willing and able to do. I’m looking forward to working with him and learning from him.”
Harkless is determined to have a breakout 2015-16 season for the Magic under the guidance of a new head coach. After starting 59 games as a rookie and averaging 8.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 26 minutes per game, his playing time decreased over each of the last two seasons. As a sophomore, he started 41 games and averaged 24.4 minutes. He posted similar stats and his three-point shooting improved significantly from 27.4 percent to 38.3 percent on more attempts.
Then, last year, Harkless basically fell out of the rotation altogether for some reason. Under former head coach Jacque Vaughn and then interim coach James Borrego, he played in just 45 games (starting only four) and averaged 15 minutes per game. There were many nights where he was a healthy scratch from the lineup. His Magic teammates were confused and privately questioned the decision.
Throughout the year, Harkless tried his best to remain positive. He was supportive of his teammates while also working hard and staying prepared for the limited opportunities when he was given significant minutes. In the few games he played 30 or more minutes, he averaged 16 points (on 53.8 percent shooting from the field), 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 3.5 steals. Now, he’s hoping he can showcase his game to the new coaching staff and earn a larger role going forward.
“I’ve always felt like I’m a guy who works hard and puts in the extra time in the gym, so last year not playing definitely humbled me a bit,” Harkless said. “For whatever reason, I couldn’t get on the court. I like to think I always stayed ready. I brought it every day in practice. Even the old coaching staff complimented me on that. They said it’s hard to do, but that I kept bringing it. I think I did a good job last year just staying ready mentally and being ready for any situation I’m going into.”
Harkless knows that this is an important summer for him and he’s determined to produce in his fourth NBA season. The 22-year-old is working extremely hard to prepare for next year. He started training at St. John’s in early May with some of their players preparing for the 2015 NBA Draft. Then, he arrived at the IMG Academy several weeks ago and plans to spend the rest of the summer there.
“I took a couple weeks off immediately after the season and then I went up to New York and worked out with some of the guys at St. John’s,” Harkless said. “I saw how hard those guys were working as they were getting ready for the draft. It reminded me how hard it was to get in the league, and it’s even harder to stay [in the NBA] so I wanted to get back to work early. I started working out with those guys and once they all graduated, I came down here at IMG early and just got going.”
He is doing two-a-days at IMG, working on and off the basketball court, following the recommendations of a nutritionist and dedicating every day to improving.
“I’ve been working with [IMG Head Skills Trainer] Dan Barto every day on my shooting,” Harkless said. “We’re focusing a lot on my shot, and also doing a lot of work around the basket with different ways to score like floaters, layups and finishing through contact. I think I had a lot of trouble finishing through contact last year and I think that’s where the weight room comes in too. I’m getting my body stronger, continuing my development and just getting better. I think all the stuff I’m doing here is definitely helping me. Honestly, there’s no better feeling than just being around basketball all day. I could stay here all day long and I’m happy to be here working out.
“I’m usually up at 7:30 and I get breakfast, then I get here at about 8:15 because we start working out at 8:30. We’re on the turf [doing drills on the IMG football field] at 9:00 until usually around 10:00. We’re in the weight room after that, until about 11:15. At 11:30, we’re in the gym until 1:00. Then, we get a break until 5:00 and that’s when we get another workout in – usually a lot of shooting or we play pick-up games. Then, afterward, I’m just relaxing at home, watching the playoffs and preparing for the next day.”
Watching the postseason games has made Harkless hungry for a taste of the playoffs. The Magic entered last season with playoff aspirations, but failed to live up to expectations (winning just 25 games). Next season, under Skiles, Harkless and his teammates are hoping to finish as one of the top eight teams in the East and experience the postseason.
“It’s absolutely motivating,” Harkless said of watching the playoffs. “I love competing at a high level like that and watching it on T.V. and how hard those guys are going, I can’t wait until I get the chance to perform on that stage and be in that situation where I’m fighting for the championship.”
In addition to his training regimen, Harkless has also been watching film and studying a number of players. He wants to add some more moves to his arsenal, and he’s watching to see how certain players fill a specific role for their respective team.
“There’s a few guys who I study,” Harkless said. “One guy, in particular, is [Memphis’] Jeff Green; he’s a guy who I could see myself being like. [Houston’s] Trevor Ariza is another guy I watch. I’m probably more like Jeff Green because he can do everything, and does everything well on both ends of the floor. He can pretty much change the game with his length, athleticism and his activity so I think he’s a good guy for me to look at with my body and style of play.”
At IMG, Harkless is training with a number of draft prospects (such as projected lottery pick Cameron Payne) as well as NBA players like Utah’s Rodney Hood. Going up against Hood in one-on-one drills and in pick-up games has helped the development of both players.
“Just to be able to go at this with another player in the league [is great], and I commend him for being here so early too,” Harkless said of Hood. “Just being able to work out and play five-on-five together is good for both of us. We’re two completely different players, but I think we can use each other to get better.”
While IMG will be where Harkless spends just about every day of this summer, he will leave for a few trips to work out with his Magic teammates. He’s trying to plan a team get-together for later this offseason, where everyone can work out together and bond off the court (just as Jameer Nelson used to do each year with teammates when he played for Orlando). He is also planning to bring Magic point guard Elfrid Payton to IMG for some time, and fly to other training locations around the country to work out with teammates like Victor Oladipo and Kyle O’Quinn.
“I’m definitely trying to keep in touch with those guys and work out with them,” Harkless said. “I’m trying to get guys together this summer to just bond some more. Hanging out off the court is just as important as our relationships on the court [in order] to build a good team.
“I actually just got done talking to Kyle, he works out in Las Vegas so me, Kyle, Elfrid and maybe Victor will all go out there to work out and play pick-up for about a week this summer and just enjoy each other’s company. It’s hard sometimes to get together in the summer time, but those are my brothers so we definitely want to do that. I also want to get Elfrid down here [to IMG Academy] and I plan on spending a week in D.C. with Victor.”
One thing that outsiders may not know about Harkless is that he’s close friends with just about every player on the Magic. He bonds with everyone off the court and gets along with the whole group. He is great for team chemistry, and that’s part of the reason why a number of teammates were so confused and critical of the decision to diminish Harkless’ playing time.
Harkless is Orlando’s glue guy – a role that is usually filled by a veteran, not a 22-year-old. But he is very mature and understands the importance or being close with teammates and how that can impact a team. This isn’t a role that Harkless goes out of his way to fill, it’s just who he is and he loves being around his teammates and making friends.
“I feel like I’m a guy who gets along with everybody well and I try to use that to keep the peace whether it’s in the locker room, on the court or in practice,” Harkless said. “I try to keep everybody happy, so I guess you can say that I am the glue guy on this team, like you said. It’s definitely a role that I’m willing and able to handle.”
Harkless is doing all of the right things to have a strong 2015-16 campaign and take advantage of his fresh start under a new coaching staff. He’s hoping all of his hard work pays off in the form of playing time, on-court success and, most importantly, his first trip to the playoffs.
NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20
Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.
The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.
Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.
Robert Covington – Houston Rockets
The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.
The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.
But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.
The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.
Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.
Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.
The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.
Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.
Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation
Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.
There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.
The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.
Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.
Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.
Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.
Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.
But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.
It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.
Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.
Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.
Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.
Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby
NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble
The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.
We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.
While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.
Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.
Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.
That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.
After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.
Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.
|Offensive Rating||106.4 – No. 23||106.8 – No. 21|
|Defensive Rating||111.7 – No. 23||113.5 – No. 27|
Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.
Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.
|Offensive Rating||111.9 – No. 15||115.1 – No. 4|
|Defensive Rating||109.3 – No. 11||110.3 – No. 13|
Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.
In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.
If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.
If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division
David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.
We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.
It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.
The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.
The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.
The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.
The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.
Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.
The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.
They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.
But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.
Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.
In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.
There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?
Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.