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NBA PM: Kemba Walker Should be an All-Star

Kemba Walker is having his best NBA season, and the numbers suggest he should be an East All-Star.

Cody Taylor

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Kemba Walker Proving to be All-Star Worthy

Each season around this time, we begin to see lists discussing which players deserve to be an All-Star.

Now that the starters have been revealed for the upcoming game, debates will begin on who deserves to be named as a reserve player. Eventually, the conversation will shift to those players that were snubbed from the game.

Perhaps one of the biggest All-Star snubs last season was Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. He had been quietly putting together a great season, but ultimately failed to earn the vote from the coaches around the league.

Walker finished last season averaging 17.3 points, 5.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He finished fourth among Eastern Conference point guards in scoring, eighth in assists, third in assist-to-turnover ratio and ninth in steals.

While fans and coaches failed to vote Walker into the All-Star game last season, Walker has proved this season that he can’t be ignored again.

He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his play last week after averaging 34.8 points per game, including a 52-point outing on Monday against the Utah Jazz and a 40-point performance against the Orlando Magic on Friday.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a teammate on a tear like that and I’ve played with some really good scorers,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “He’s just aggressive. He wants to win; he’ll do anything to win. If he feels like he has to keep scoring the ball, he’s going to do it.

“He’s making the right plays, though. He’s getting assists as well. He’s rebounding as well. He’s going to give you his all each and every night and I think that’s why he’s playing so well.”

Walker is in the midst of his best season to date. In his fifth year in the league, Walker is averaging a career-high 20.5 points per game, which ranks eighth in the East and third among point guards.

Perhaps his biggest improvement has come in the form of his shooting. He’s raised his field goal percentage from 39 percent last season to 43 percent this season, while his three-point shooting has increased from 30 percent to 37 percent.

“I would never thought that this would happen, but I’m playing pretty well,” Walker said. “I’m just playing off of my teammates, letting the game come to me. [I’m] just trying to make shots or get my teammates involved and trying to do it to the best of my ability.”

Players are often judged by how they use their time away from the court. The summer months are what defines players. This past summer, Walker worked extensively on his shooting and his pick-and-roll game. He’s added a Steve Nash-type of element to his game when it comes to his pick-and-roll play. He even spent a few days over the summer working with Nash to help refine some of his skills.

“Hard work pays off every time,” Walker said. “I don’t think there is nobody in this league who say they work harder than me. Maybe as hard, but not harder. It’s just showing. It’s showing.”

Given Walker’s great play as of late, it should come as no surprise that the Hornets posted a 3-1 record on the week. The team looked dead in the water against the Magic on Friday night. The Magic led the Hornets 94-79 at the end of the third quarter and looked to be fully in control of the game.

There was a point at the end of the third quarter in which Walker told head coach Steve Clifford that he didn’t want to leave the game. That ended up being the best thing to happen for Charlotte as Walker played every minute of the fourth quarter and overtime period and scored 17 of his 40 points down the stretch to lead the Hornets to a 120-116 win in overtime.

So, is this Walker proving to the rest of the league that he should be an All-Star?

“I’m just playing basketball,” Walker said. “[I’m] trying to win games and get to the playoffs. If I can make the All-Star game, that’s great. If not, who cares? I just want to win. I want to just keep getting better everyday. I want to make the playoffs, man. That’s the main goal.

“I want to win, man. I’m trying to do everything. I’m definitely a lot better, but I’m older. This is my fifth year. I’m starting to get a little bit more comfortable. I just want to keep it rolling.”

As it stands, Walker faces tough competition to earn a spot on the All-Star roster. Dwyane Wade and Kyle Lowry were voted in by the fans to start the game in the backcourt. After Lowry, only Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas averages more points per game than Walker (among point guards).

It seems likely that Jimmy Butler or DeMar DeRozan will be voted into the game by the coaches, leaving Walker’s chances of earning a spot pretty slim. It could be possible that Walker will again headline the snub list this season.

While Walker won’t openly admit he wants to be an All-Star, his teammates and coach believe he should be playing for the East in Toronto on February 14.

“No question [he should be an All-Star],” Williams said. “That’s not taking away from any other players out there in the Eastern Conference. I think he’s done his fair share, definitely.”

“I don’t to get to vote for him,” Clifford said. “You don’t get to vote for your own guys, but I certainly would.”

Walker’s goal of returning to the playoffs this season looks like it’s going to be a battle until the end. The Hornets enter tonight’s game at Sacramento with a 21-23 record, two games out of the last playoff spot in the East.

Prior to the start of last week, the Hornets had gone just 1-9 over their previous 10 games. Things could be beginning to look up as they’ve won three out of their last four games, but they begin a four-game West coast road trip tonight.

It’s clear that as long as Walker is playing, the Hornets will virtually always have a chance to compete. All-Star selection or not, the Hornets are experiencing success thanks to their most valuable player whether the rest of the league wants to admit it.

Ish Smith Happy to be Back in Philadelphia

Despite owning the worst record in the league, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a much-improved team over the past month. The improvement seems to be directly linked to the return of point guard Ish Smith.

Philadelphia re-acquired Smith on Christmas Eve from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for two second-round picks. Prior to Smith returning to Philadelphia, the team had just one win on the season. They now have six wins with Smith back, and have gone 5-9 since his arrival. While the numbers suggest otherwise, Smith denies being the reason for Philadelphia’s turnaround.

“No, it’s not me,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “I was so happy to be back with the guys and the team. I felt like the last 30 games, I built a relationship with the guys.

“I think more or less it’s just the camaraderie we have. We’re having fun playing basketball. It’s not me at all. Before I got here, [they were] playing really good basketball. So I don’t think it’s me. I just think as a team, we’re growing up.”

Smith won’t take credit for the Sixers’ improved play, but the stats show that the team has been better since he’s arrived.

During the first 31 games of the season, the 76ers scored 91.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked dead-last in the league. In 14 games with Smith playing, the team has improved that number to 98.5 points per 100 possessions.

The defense has improved too, as the team is giving up 102.9 points per 100 possessions, which is 10th in the NBA since December 26.

Over the last month, the Sixers have posted a better record than the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns.

“We’re just playing hard,” Smith said. “I think we’re growing up – knowing what are good shots and what are bad shots, knowing the defensive schemes, what Coach [Brett Brown] what really wants for us. Offensively, moving the ball [and] playing off of each other. I think just overall, we’re playing good basketball. We’re growing up.

“Like I said, this is a huge step for us, just kind of closing out these games down the stretch. I can name numerous games with the exception of two that if we would have locked the game down and closed it out the right way, we probably would have won.”

Smith’s story this season has been incredible considering how well he’s played. He began this season in training camp with the Washington Wizards. Then, the Wizards waived Smith on October 24, just three days before the start of the season.

Two days after being waived by Washington, Smith signed with New Orleans just one day before the Pelicans were set to begin the season against Golden State.

In his debut with the Pelicans, Smith was forced to play a big role due to a number of injuries. Smith delivered, contributing 17 points, nine assists and three steals in a game-high 38 minutes in a loss to the Golden State Warriors. The Pelicans would eventually get some healthy bodies back, effectively ending Smith’s tenure in New Orleans.

In 14 games with the Sixers, Smith is averaging a career-high 15.9 points, 8.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Smith’s 6.5 assists this season (between New Orleans and Philadelphia) currently rank 11th in the league, while his 8.1 assists per game with the Sixers rank second in the East.

“I think the biggest key is being ready and staying ready,” Smith said. “[It’s also about] having faith that your next turn is your right turn. Just keep pushing, keep pressing and keep working. When your number is called, be ready. Know when your number is called, you have to be ready and play good basketball.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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