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NBA PM: Has a Prudent, Patient Phil Jackson Righted the Knicks Ship?

Despite not making a splashy signing, it appears the Knicks are finally heading in the right direction…

Tommy Beer

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Phil Jackson’s first year captaining the Knicks’ ship was far from pleasant. Choppy waters worsened into a perfect storm of inefficiency, injuries and ineptitude.

However, based on what we have seen over the last few weeks, spanning from the draft on June 25th through the first day free agents can officially sign with their new teams on July 9th, has Jackson successfully navigated the Knicks out of harm’s way? Is there now smoother sailing ahead?

******

Last summer, making his first franchise-defining decision as team president, Jackson decided to offer a $124 million contract to Carmelo Anthony, which included a no-trade clause, a player option for the fifth and final season, and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Even before Anthony underwent season-ending surgery in February, it was a questionable choice, considering no other NBA team could offer ‘Melo more than $96 million.

In addition, just a day before the 2014 Draft last June, Jackson traded away Tyson Chandler (and his expiring contract) and Raymond Felton in exchange for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and two second-round selections.

Calderon had three years and $22.2 million left on his deal at the time. The trade was made before Jackson knew the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign would go up in flames. However, Calderon struggled mightily, as injuries and inefficiency greatly limited his effectiveness.

As we know, the Knicks would go on to lose 65 games, completing the single worst season in the franchise’s history.

However, the upshot was the Knicks would be rewarded with a high lottery pick. They would also have upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this summer.

Phil would have a great opportunity to right the ship after it that had drifted way off course.

The question was: Would Jackson feel pressure to immediately restore respectability to an embarrassed organization?

Phil will be 70 years old by the time next season rolls around. His reputation as an executive was on the line, according to the tabloids in Gotham. Would he be willing to be practice patience and attempt to slowly but surely rebuild the franchise the right way? Or might he be tempted to take short cuts in hopes of instantly putting a presentable (if ultimately unsuccessful) product on the floor.

In other words, after investing in Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon last summer, would Jackson be willing to reverse course and build towards the future, as opposed to searching for quick fixes in an attempt to sneak into playoffs as 7th or 8th seed?

At the start of the offseason, the answer was still a mystery. Despite a spate of interviews to print outlets and radio programs, the cryptic Jackson wasn’t tipping his hand.

Jackson and the Knicks caught a bad break in the draft lottery when they dropped to No. 4 overall. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the top tier of talent in this draft was only three deep, according to most analysts. After Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor went off the board in succession, the Knicks were forced to choose from a handful of promising players with a mix of enticing upside and worrisome question marks.

The Knicks ended up selecting largely unknown but highly-touted Latvian prospect Kristaps Porzingis. While the pick is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player – the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. He needs to improve his low-block ability, but has the foundations of a solid post-up game. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at seven feet, three inches. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential.

The selection of Porzingis was also encouraging because it seemed to indicate that Jackson was thinking long-term. He wasn’t dead set on selecting a less risky, more established player (such as Justise Winslow), who was a safer bet and would provide immediate returns, but did not have the same upside as Porzingis. In addition, Phil decided not to trade the pick to move down in the draft while also acquiring a young veteran that would help the Knicks next season. Phil only has four years left on his contract. There’s a very good chance that he won’t even be in New York if and when Porzingis develops into the player Phil and Knicks fans hope he will be.

However, the Knicks draft did not end there. An hour or so after selecting Porzingis, Jackson did a masterful job getting back into the first round by trading the one-dimensional Tim Hardaway Jr. for the No. 19 overall selection, which he used to select point guard Jerian Grant from Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4″ with a 6’7.5” wingspan) and athletic (exhibit A) guard that should be able to contribute on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a superb scorer, he is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. In college, Grant dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined.

Phil’s final move on draft night was acquiring the draft rights of the 35th overall pick, Guillermo Hernangomez, from the Philadelphia 76ers. Hernangomez is a smart, aggressive 6’11” center from Spain (and a teammate of Porzingis). Heading into the 2015 draft, there were rumors that several teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, were considering selecting him towards the end of the first round. The Knicks will likely stash Hernangomez overseas for a season or two, in order for him to gain some seasoning and keep his salary off the books until he is ready to contribute on the NBA level.

Based on the draft, it appeared Phil was content eschew a quick fix, and instead look farther down the road.

Still, free agency would begin the very next week, and would obviously have a major impact on both the Knicks short and long-term future.

*****

Some Knicks fans will complain that Phil wasn’t able to land a big fish such as Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, or LaMarcus Aldridge. But those expectations were unreasonable. Simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure the cream of the free agent crop. Fans in both New York and Los Angeles can attest to this fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals. Kevin Durant plays for a team in Oklahoma. LeBron James is based out of Ohio. Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, David West, Greg Monroe and Aldridge being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which team gave them the greatest chance to win big.

Some frustrated Knicks fans were upset because the Knicks didn’t hit a grand slam this summer. However, this Knicks also didn’t strike out. Better yet, they avoided grounding into a double play.

At the start of the process, the worst case scenario for the Knicks during this free agency period was not failing to sign a single big name free agent. No, the worst case scenario would have been overpaying for marginal talent and locking up their cap space for years to come.

The understandable fear from some forward-thinking Knicks fans was that Phil would compound last summer’s mistake by going “all in” and attempting to skips steps in the rebuilding process. A focus on an immediately return to relevancy, while it may have added a few more wins to their 2015-16 record, would have likely (ultimately) ended in disaster.

NBA history lessons have taught us that it’s nearly impossible to cheat the rebuilding process. The least desirable place to be in this league is on the fringe of the playoffs, chasing the 8th seed with an aging “win now” roster.

The Knicks weren’t able to land a true difference-maker this summer, but they were able to add solid rotation pieces, while also maintaining cap space and roster flexibility going forward.

*****

Last month, there were published reports that Arron Afflalo was looking to get between $36 and $38 million over three years. That would have been too much to pay for Afflalo, who was coming off an awful season. However, it appears the Knicks will sign him to a two-year deal for $16 million, with a player option on that second season. (It is important to note that no contracts have been signed and that no deal can become official until the league-wide moratorium is lifted on July 9th). Taken in context of the market, when DeMarre Carroll and Wes Matthews will ink deals for approximately four years and $60 million, the Afflalo contract certainly seems reasonable considering his previously exhibited production and skill set.

In addition, Afflalo may become a valuable trade chip for the Knicks at the 2016 trade deadline, especially if he proves he is healthy and shows he can still produce. Remember, just four months ago (February, 19th 2015), he was traded from the Nuggets to the Blazers in exchange for a future first rounder.

The Knicks big ticket item was Robin Lopez, who will reportedly sign a four-year, $54 million contract later this week. Some fans were disappointed NY didn’t land Greg Monroe, but Lopez might actually be a better fit along the Knicks frontline. $13 million per year is a lot to pay for a player who has averaged 10 points and seven rebounds over the last three seasons, but, again, the market for starting-caliber centers had already been established.

The other positive to take away from the Lopez signing is that it’s an indication Phil Jackson and company will put an emphasis on defense. The Knicks have been near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency basically since the day Jeff Van Gundy skipped town back in December of 2001. Year after year, the NBA’s elite teams and championship contenders are those teams that defend well on a consistent basis. The proof is in the pudding: The last 14 (and 19 of the last 20) NBA champions have all finished in the top-10 in Defensive Efficiency.

The Knicks pursuit of Derrick Williams seems odd because Williams has been a major disappointment since being selected second overall in the 2011 NBA draft. He’s an impressive athlete with great physical tools, but has been relatively ineffective and inefficient on both ends of the floor at the pro level. Jackson and company must have seen something special in him and believe they can rejuvenate his career, considering they offered him $10 million over two seasons.

The Knicks best value signing of the summer will likely end up being Kyle O’Quinn. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn has averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-36 minutes thus far in his NBA career. The Knicks lack depth on the frontline, so he’ll see time backing up both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.

It sounds like O’Quinn will sign a four year deal for a total of $16 million. This is a smart gamble by Phil, as there is potentially a solid payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2016-17 season, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.

The offseason isn’t over, as the Knicks still have their $2.8 million room exception to spend, but the lion’s share of the cap space has been invested in the four players detailed above.

At this early stage, it would be a leap to heap praise on Phil for his work this summer. Just as it would be unfair to claim the Knicks offseason was a failure. The fact of the matter is that these were just the first few steps in a long and arduous rebuilding process.

Yet, it seems these baby steps have the Knicks heading in the right direction, which in and of itself, is encouraging.

Completing out baseball analogy from earlier, Phil hit a solid double this summer. He set the table for future acquisitions and improvements. This summer will generate some much needed momentum, which gives the organization an opportunity to build on that going forward.

Phil will also have flexibility, an incredibly valuable commodity. The Knicks will have only 5 players with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond the 2016-17 season (Anthony, Lopez, O’Quinn, Porzingis, and Grant). New York is also suddenly now flush with young, athletic players with varying levels of intriguing potential (Porzingis, Grant, Hernangomez, Cleanthony Early, Derrick Williams, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Langston Galloway, Louis Labeyrie…).

*****

We will only be able to fairly and accurately grade the moves the Knicks made in the summer of 2015 once we see who they sign next July and the following summer. By that time, we should have a much better idea of exactly what kind of players Jerian Grant and Kristaps Porzingis will be. Might future free agents be impressed by the nucleus Jackson has assembled and be convinced the Knicks are on the verge of taking that next step?

Still, based on what we’ve seen from Phil Jackson and New York hierarchy these past few weeks, Knicks fans have reason to be slightly optimistic for the first time in a long time.

For 15 straight seasons, the Knicks organization has gone broke year after year chasing “get rich quick” schemes. Fortunately, it appears as though Phil Jackson is willing to patiently and prudently make sound investments that may allow the Knicks to eventually build a team capable of sustaining success.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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