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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Grizzlies Are Stuck

The Grizzlies’ struggles of late would usually signal a rebuild, but Matt John believes that’s going to be harder than people think.

Matt John

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Grit-and-Grind is unfolding, and it’s unfolding fast.

After a blistering 12-5 start to the season, the Grizzlies are falling hard in the standings. The team has only won seven of its last 27 games – good for a record of 19-25 – which has them placed currently 14th in the bloodbath that is the Western Conference playoff race.

For a team that’s gone through pretty much nothing but turmoil over the past couple of seasons, it’s been more of the same this year. They butchered a trade over name confusion, a few of their core guys are out awhile – including one for the season – and they’ve even had a scuffle in the locker room.

It’s only going to get worse from here. The Grizz have lost nine of their last 10 games, and over their next several games, they’ll be facing the Celtics, Raptors, Pacers and Nuggets, five of arguably the best ten teams in the league. They’ll also be facing the Timberwolves, the Hornets and the Pelicans in that time, which won’t be a cakewalk either.

Memphis is currently five games in back of Utah for the eighth seed, and of all the teams vying for a playoff spot in the West, they have the lowest point differential with minus-2.2, which is fairly lower than the team that comes after them – Sacramento – with minus-0.8.

It’s not fun to watch a franchise’s most glorious era end so anti-climactically, but with everything that’s gone wrong for Memphis, it’s time for them to consider rebuilding. What’s unfortunate for them is that if they go for that route, things are going to get complicated.

Let’s start with what they owe Boston. Thanks to the Jeff Green trade back in 2015, the Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight protected pick this season. If that rolls over to next year, it becomes a top-six protected pick. If it rolls over to the year after that, it becomes completely unprotected.

Zach Lowe stated in a recent podcast with Bill Simmons that the Grizzlies would prefer to fork over their pick to the Celtics now instead of potentially giving them another golden lottery pick as Brooklyn did. That makes sense if a rebuild is in their immediate future. However, if they continue to slump the way they have, giving Boston that pick might be even harder.

Besides the fact that none of their competitors in the West look to be slowing down, the playoff hopefuls in the East are also going to give it their all to make the playoffs. As it stands, Washington, Orlando and Detroit, who all have nearly identical records with Memphis, are all much closer to Charlotte for the eighth spot in the playoff race than they are to Atlanta for the 12th spot. In layman’s terms, they’re not in a position to tank, so don’t expect them to.

The only teams that are most definitely out of the playoff race are Phoenix, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and New York. Memphis finishing right after those teams could definitely be in play, which would mean they keep the pick, and Boston gets a chance at an even better one next year.

That might not be the best thing for the Grizzlies since Marc Gasol and Mike Conley aren’t getting any younger. Regardless of the Boston pick, it may be in Memphis’ best interests to trade both of them with how things have gone. If Marc Stein’s most recent reporting involving Gasol is correct, then that should be the case.

Trading Conley would not be hard. Now that he’s past his injury issues, he’s put up his usual numbers, has a manageable contract (relatively speaking) and could legitimately help someone’s playoff hopes. In Gasol’s case, not so much.

Gasol’s age appears to now be catching up to him. Like the Grizzlies themselves, he started the season on a tear. Over the first month and a half of the season, the 33-year-old looked as good as he’s ever been, averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, four assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals. He did this all while shooting 48 percent from the field, including 41.7 percent from three on 4.6 attempts a game.

Since then, he’s looked alarmingly average. Since the start of December, Gasol’s averaged 12.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, five assists, 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. His shooting percentages in that timespan are jaw-dropping, shooting only 39.6 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from three.

Gasol’s decline happening at the same time as Memphis as a team is not a coincidence. He is one of the two undisputed leaders of Grit-and-Grind. When a leader starts to slow down, the rest of the team follows suit.

That’s what makes trading for him, his $24+ million contract and his player option for next season a catch-22 for interested parties. If Gasol plays like he did during the first month-and-a-half of the season, odds are that he’ll opt out and look for his next payday on the market. If Gasol continues to play as he has from December up until now, odds are he’ll opt-in for next year for financial security.

Are teams going to give up that much for a half-season rental of a star or for a player who is past his prime who will be paid over $20 million?

There are teams who could definitely use a big like Gasol. The price tag and/or their cap situation may scare them out of trying to acquire him.

The Lakers, who have the contracts and young talent to make a trade for Gasol, could use an upgrade at center, but they’re probably not going to take their chances of letting Gasol eat up their cap space since they hope to bring in another star this summer via free agency.

The Raptors, who have similar assets as LA, could use Gasol as a potential upgrade over either Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas, but it’s very risky to mess with what’s working this far into the season for someone who is showing more and more signs of decline.

If Gasol really goes on the trading block, Memphis cannot expect much in return for him given his recent play. That’s not their fault. They came into this season hoping to keep Grit-and-Grind alive for as long as they could. If they had struggled despite Gasol’s All-Star level play at the start of the season, he probably would have been traded a while ago. If he and the team continued playing excellent basketball throughout the season, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. This all really is just a timeline of unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances culminating into an unwinnable situation.

Now, the Grizzlies could ride this out and not change a thing. Let what’s left of the Grit-and-Grind era fade into the sunset. By doing so, they’re risking letting Gasol walk for nothing this summer as well as giving Boston a better chance at a top pick. That pick they owe Boston could really go either way regardless of what Memphis does. The alternatives aren’t really that much better regardless.

No matter where they go from here, there’s one thing Memphis knows for sure.

Thank heavens for Jaren Jackson Jr.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Lee Awaiting Opportunity, Staying Positive With Knicks

Drew Maresca has a chat with Courtney Lee about his situation with the New York Knicks and staying ready for when an opportunity comes his way.

Drew Maresca

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Drew Maresca caught up with Knicks guard Courtney Lee about the team's rotation and how he approaches his work despite not receiving playing time.

Basketball if a fun sport that’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It brings people of all ages great joy, employs thousands and allows millions of fans to remove themselves from their daily lives and immerse themselves in the sport of their choice.

But there is a colder side to the sport, one in which ability is overlooked in favor of intangibles. The NBA is, after all, a business. And like any business, office politics play a role. This is a side that we’re all at least marginally familiar with. We’ve all seen players traded or cut because they do not fit the team’s timeline or because they were brought in or drafted by the previous management team.

This is not to infer that there’s anything insidious about the business of basketball, but players are people with families and bills and routines just like the rest of us. Of course, teams have the right to operate as they see fit – after all, we’re talking about individual contracts worth between $385,000 and $37.5 million per year that add up to payrolls exceeding $100 million annually.

But often times, players are reduced to their contracts and cap holds rather than being valued for their contributions on – and off – the court. Players understand the business they’re in, but there’s something that feels wrong about the league’s politics when it supersedes the natural order – when effective players sit in favor of less qualified ones. This is probably most prevalent when a team fast tracks a rebuild.

And for the first time in what feels like forever, this issue is front and center in New York. To the delight of Knicks fans, the team has finally embraced the concept of bottoming out. Tanking is a notion the Knicks have toyed with and ultimately either balked at or botched nearly every season since 2001. They’ve instead chosen to side with short-term fixes over long-term solutions.

With Scott Perry at the helm this season as general manager, the Knicks are making smart, calculated decisions. They are playing their young guys, which allows for them to develop valuable experience that can’t be learned from the bench or in practice. It also has the residual payoff of more losses, which means better odds come the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery.

But losing is tough. It can cause fatigue within a fanbase, a roster and an organization. Dennis Schroder, backup point guard for the Thunder, recently spoke about his experience with the Hawks regarding this very topic with The Oklahoman.

“I wanted to be in a winning organization,” Schroder said. “You just can’t go out there and try to lose.”

Back in New York, no one on the Knicks sympathizes more strongly with what Schroder went through than Courtney Lee. Lee is in an unusual position. He is too good to get on the court for his team because playing him would result in more wins and less playing time for younger guys. But he’s relatively expensive for his age, counting for $12 million against the salary cap this season and he’s owed nearly $13 million for 2019-20.

Lee is 33 years old, but has played some of his best basketball in recent seasons. In fact, he averaged a career high 12 points per game just last season. Furthermore, he is a career 38.9 percent shooter from deep, and he is viewed as a capable defender, a good teammate and someone who doesn’t need touches to impact the game. And yet, he’s received nine consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decisions (including Thursday’s game against the Wizards in London).

Theoretically, the Knicks can point to the neck injury Lee suffered in training camp. There’s an element of plausible deniability there – he was hurt so he could still be hurt.

But Lee upended any such excuse following the 76ers game on January 13.

“I feel good,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “It happened back in training camp. I feel 100% now.”

Lee understands the business side of the NBA. He has played for seven NBA franchises in his 11 professional seasons.

“It’s not the first one,” Lee said with a chuckle regarding the DNPs. “I’ve been dealing with it, man. At this point you just understand what’s going on – the thought process behind it. The best thing I can do is just stay positive, keep cheering my teammates on and be ready for whatever happens.

“If it’s here getting in the game or getting traded somewhere, just making sure I’m staying in shape and ready to contribute. I just have to live in the moment. Have to tell myself to stay ready, stay prepared, stay in shape because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – that’s my mindset.”

And fortunately for Lee, he could reach the end of the tunnel sooner than later. The NBA Trade Deadline is less than a month away, and the Knicks would like to double down on their youth movement. Moving Lee, Enes Kanter and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. would help the team open up the requisite cap space to offer a free agent a max deal this coming offseason.

Lee could easily find himself on a team competing for a playoff spot in the very near future. He would almost certainly help the Rockets, the Nuggets and the 76ers, as well as a number of other teams. But in the NBA, it’s never that straight forward. Teams must not only see the benefit of adding the player in question, but also feel compelled to deal with the other team’s front office. And teams know the Knicks want to go shopping this summer, so nothing is guaranteed for Lee.

One thing Lee has going for him that is far from guaranteed is transparency, which he receives from New York’s coaching staff daily.

“Coach Fizdale communicates a lot,” Lee said. “He’ll talk to me before the game (about the potential for DNPs) or he’ll touch base during the game. He does a good job with that.”

Fizdale has been open about his feelings toward Lee and the position he’s in.

“Courtney has been an incredible pro,” Fizdale said in an interview with NorthJersey.com. “I mean, he’s been like a big brother to all of these guys. They love him. They love being around him. He doesn’t do things like, you see times when veterans aren’t playing, they take young guys down in certain ways. Courtney’s been the guy that’s like no, go play. And like he tells me every day ‘Coach you need me, I’m here. I’m ready.’”

Lee has echoed those same sentiments all season long.

He’s just waiting to be given an opportunity to prove it.

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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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