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NBA PM: Los Angeles Lakers’ Progress Report

Jabari Davis examines why progress is more important than their overall record as he looks at the Los Angeles Lakers through the first third of their season.

Jabari Davis

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We continue our early season progress reports with today’s look at the Los Angeles Lakers. If you haven’t already, check out Tommy Beer’s breakdown of the New York Knicks from last week.

When attempting to grade the progress of this young and developing team, it is important to remember the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts just yet. The Lakers may have lost their last eight games, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already shown a great deal of progress from last season.

It’s also just as paramount to maintain perspective about their ultimate progress being the most significant factor in a season like this, whether you are in the midst of some unexpected, early season success or the predictable difficulties that every team endures over the course of an 82-game season. Especially when it comes to a team with so much youth at its core, don’t get too high on the highs nor low on the inevitable low points that are bound to come as the NBA’s pendulum of organizational growth swings back and forth.

The Lakers have done a good job of finally matching the right type of talent with the appropriate coach and at the proper time, but need to also maintain the patience they’ve exhibited to this point as things continue to come to fruition with this group. After finally hitting their proverbial and quite literal “rock bottom” as a franchise at the conclusion of 2015-16, the Los Angeles Lakers appear to have actually sprung back towards the surface a lot faster than some may have anticipated. That doesn’t, however, mean they don’t still have a ton of work to do moving forward.

Here is a look at the 2016-17 Lakers through just about one-third of the season (all stats as of 12/14/16):

Starting Lineup:

Timofey Mozgov: C

All of these ratings will factor in what our expectations might have been for a player, what the perception about a player has been and what the actual reality has been for this player thus far through nearly 35 percent of the season. All of that is to say that while much was made of the timing of Mozgov’s deal and the amount of money he received (a reported four years, $64 million), the reality is he’s actually been an improvement over the level of play they’ve recently received from that position and has been a positive fit with the group. Coincidentally, for the “Mozgov’s making how much?!?” crowd from over the summer, his per-36-minute numbers are pretty much in line with that of an average center in today’s NBA, much like the terms of his deal.

Although the actual productivity (8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per contest) isn’t “bad” for the amount of time he’s playing, you would like to see a bit more of a defensive impact when he’s actually on the floor. The Lakers completely lack a defensive identity at this point, and while no single player can be faulted for the myriad issues on that end they’ve displayed at times, they’ll need to individually embrace the idea of also being a part of the change for the better on the less glamorous side of the court. The Lakers still seem to get bullied in the paint with a frequency this coaching staff cannot possibly be comfortable with, and Mozgov has to share in the responsibility for that as well. Opposing players shoot 49.3 percent when directly against Mozgov, and the 30-year-old center ranks behind the likes of Jahlil Okafor (43 percent), Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky (44.7 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (45.7 percent) in the category.

As a veteran player, Mozgov needs to do his part in shoring up a defense that is currently surrendering 111 points per game and a league-worst 54.2 percent on two-point shots.

Luol Deng: C-

If Deng, himself, were to grade the first few weeks of the season, he probably would not have been very satisfied with the results. Fans and the organization alike would likely be in agreement if all were being honest and forthright. Whether a result of being slowed by nagging leg or lower extremity issues from the preseason, as has been speculated, or simply adjusting to life in a new city, organization and system, there were times (prior to his last stretch of games) where the question wasn’t, “How much more will he have in the tank by the time he’s 34 or 35?” Rather, it was already looking like, “What does he actually have left in the tank right now?”

He’s shown some life over the last seven games, scoring 16 or more points in three of them and shooting 40.9 percent from deep (9-22) over that stretch. It will be interesting to see whether the coaching staff elects to continue starting Deng (the lone player to start every game so far) now that players have returned to the rotation. The more comfortable rookie Brandon Ingram looks at this level, you’d think the more likely it would be for the coaching staff to at least consider moving Deng into even more of a support role. Regardless of where he plays in the lineup, they’ll need Deng to continue producing on both sides of the ball as he has of late.

Julius Randle: B-

Beyond showing noticeable improvement both as a finisher around the basket, Randle has continued providing the energy and effort that led to 39 double-doubles in his first 100 games in the NBA. Per NBA.com, that feat ranks him 26th among players since the 1982-83 season. His two-point percentage is at a career-high 51.8 percent (43.6 last year) and even though he’s only shooting 17.6 percent from beyond the arc, he’s at least attempting to settle into open looks here and there. He looks more comfortable facing the basket in general and has made better decisions when playmaking at times (his 3.3 APG are nearly double that of last season), but does still turn the ball over (2.8 TPG) a bit more than you’d like.

The Good:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D048sXB2Pcc

Randle is patient while sizing up and attacking a bigger man, absorbs the contact and knocks it down at the buzzer.

Randle plays really solid defense on Anthony in a late-clock situation and not only forces the pass, but puts a body on Joakim Noah to secure a rebound before taking it up court to start the break. That’s the versatility the Lakers are absolutely looking for from their 22-year-old power forward. (Footage via https://3ball.io/)

The Bad:

While under far more control than before, there are still times where Randle can get ahead of himself while in a playmaking situation. He’s trying to make the right play by getting it ahead to a fellow big man in Mozgov, but doesn’t execute the pass.

You absolutely take the bad with the good when it comes to Randle because more often than not, his positive contributions outweigh any errors he makes along the way. That said, you do still have to hope he continues developing as a defensive player along with adding to his offensive repertoire over the next few years. Even though the coaching staff has made playing defense without fouling a priority in terms of focus, the Lakers still find themselves ranked just 21st in the league here (20.9 team personal fouls per game) and are trending the wrong way during this losing streak.

This could sound like a repetitive theme by the end of these assessments, but Randle’s defensive impact remains a work in progress in his second year of full-time action. Randle called the team’s defensive efforts “embarrassing” following a recent loss to the New York Knicks, and the 22-year-old power forward has definitely emerged as a voice in the locker room that is willing to shoulder responsibility for some of the ongoing issues. The effort seems to be there on most nights, but a lack of focus and attention to detail applies to the entire roster.

Nick Young: B

In perhaps one of the bigger surprises in recent years when it comes to this team, Nick Young was able to completely reverse momentum and a pretty damning narrative when it came to his future certainly beyond the terms of a contract that ends following 2017-18. This is in part because of a total team buy-in to Coach Walton’s far more favorable offensive tempo and freedom, but mainly because Young was able to reverse what was an alarming trend of declining productivity and efficiency coinciding with off-court distractions – not the combination of attributes you want to be associated with when you are in year ten and heading into what could be the most lucrative period in the NBA’s history over the next decade.

Beyond the finances of it, Young has been able to mend all necessary fences and, most importantly, he’s been able to return to the form that caused this front office to sign him to the four-year deal back in 2014. Averaging 13.4 PPG, Young is actually on pace to shoot a career-high 45.3 and 91.9 percent from the floor and free throw line, respectively. He’s also knocking down his highest percentage from deep (39.5 percent on a career-high 6.2 attempts per contest) since the ‘09-10 season.

D’Angelo Russell: B-

When healthy, Russell has also been a player that has shown definite signs of improvement for the Lakers. The Lakers have to hope he can remain in the lineup moving forward, not only because they went 3-9 during the time he missed following a PRP treatment a few weeks back, but also because we’d all like to see what his continued progression might look like throughout his early career. Like most young players, and potentially more importantly than with any other player, Russell could be exponentially more effective and impactful if he took as much pride in becoming a better defender as he did in knocking down big shots and reminding us about how frosty his capillaries happen to be.

That might seem like a shot, but it is actually said with true respect to how special of a player he truly can be. At 15.3 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds (up to 38.7 percent from beyond the arc, 77.5 percent from the charity stripe), Russell has shown an ability to truly elevate his game on certain nights to the point where you can really start to believe the hype.

The key for Russell will be in finding a way to bring a consistent effort in all aspects of the game, whether he knocks down his first couple shots or is asked to impact the game in other ways. Although not the type of freakish athlete that imposes his will on the game like a Russell Westbrook, at 6-foot-5 Russell should be able to utilize his size and stature in certain matchups beyond just the occasional post-up or two.

Again, this is all viewed through the lens of Russell’s potential to continue to develop into a special player in this league. When he takes care of the ball and utilizes sound defensive principles, Russell possesses enough intangibles to impact the game in a plethora of positive ways regardless of how he’s shooting. When he’s hot from the floor and also looking to create for others while focusing in on the defensive end as well as he has on occasion thus far, Russell has given reason to disregard all outside noise and revisionist history about whether he should or should not have been the player the organization selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. Thing is, it’s up to Russell to continue proving why they made the right decision, and he certainly seems up to the challenge of at least attempting to do just that.

Reserves:

Larry Nance Jr: B

Nance Jr. has been a really nice rotation player for these Lakers (19th power forward league-wide in Real Plus-Minus), and part of why they’ve been one of the best bench units in the league all season. He’s a “hustle guy” who also has skills around the rim and with the ball in his hands. He plays the passing lanes, provides support as a weak side defender and is a willing and capable passer on the offensive end. Every team needs a team oriented, jack-of-all-trades guy willing to do the dirty and less heralded work that doesn’t always show up in the box score or on the highlight package.

https://vine.co/v/5QjBj9q6D7w

Oh yeah, he’ll also do that to you, too.

Although, the subsequent apology may or may not be something to expect.

Tarik Black: B

Every team needs a player willing to stick his nose into the action on defense and be happy to simply play clean-up duty on the offensive end, and Black is one of several guys the Lakers have to execute such a role.

He’s missed the last five games due to an ankle sprain, but Black’s relentless pace and effort had been a big part of what was working for this group to start the year. Black (32nd among centers in RPM) may only average 15.4 minutes per contest when available, but he tends to get his money’s worth in terms of action and production when on the court. In fact, along with impressive per-36 numbers (13.7 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.4 RPG), his per-100-possessions numbers are more impressive than some guys starting at the position around the league.

Brandon Ingram: C+

Ingram is a guy that came in being sold as a player with the potential to be an offensive weapon, but so far this coaching staff has actually been able to capitalize on the one-year Duke product’s well-rounded skill set. 

Ingram closes out well and avoids the foul, then grabs the rebound and pushes the ball up the length of the court in four dribbles.

The conclusion of the previous play, and although Ingram doesn’t convert the finger roll, he applies the pressure that has defenders on their heels. Then he fights for the rebound and resets another possession for the Lakers.

Ingram doesn’t knock the shot down, but probably gets a bit of contact (sorry, rookie). The key to the play is the amount of separation he’s initially able to get and how comfortable he looks settling into those shots.

Even though Carmelo Anthony is 6-foot-8 and right there in front of Ingram to contest, he smoothly rises above and knocks down the deep ball.

Even though he ultimately gets called for the foul, it’s mainly because he still isn’t quite strong enough to avoid being shed by the offensive player. Even though the offensive player is the very talented and very tall Kristaps Porzingis, Ingram appears to have the length to stay right there with him once he adds some core strength.

Again, even though his floating baseline jumper doesn’t fall, Ingram’s decisive move at such a key moment of the game wound up drawing the double-team from Porzingis and permitting Clarkson to sneak in for the put-back.

He has been able to score in double figures in eight games and has shown evidence of eventually becoming more of a scorer at this level, but the 19-year-old was asked to be a jack-of-all-trades of sorts when the team lost the starting backcourt and reserve guard Jose Calderon (all within a game or two) for an extended stretch a few weeks back.

It should also be noted that his overall grade may seem to indicate less of a true appreciation for all that has been asked of a rookie swingman, but in actuality it is because you get the feeling that so much more could and likely will be there on the horizon for a young man that will be adjusting to the physical side of the NBA for the next couple seasons.

Although some may worry that his laid back vibe may bleed over into his actual approach, it is probably what led to him being able to handle being affixed with so many responsibilities while simply trying to adjust to life at this level. The young man just turned 19 in September and was worrying about things like Senior Prom just about 16 months ago. Let’s pump the brakes when it comes to questioning whether he’ll already be a bust (as some have), simply because he didn’t hit the ground at a full sprint.

We should also be reminded that simply because someone isn’t the most outwardly expressive, that doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting the moment in terms of intensity from an internal perspective. Also, simply looking at his box score won’t always paint an accurate portrait when judging his overall impact on the court. The more you watch for his individual impact and actual movements on the court, the more you realize that he is generally either in the right position or trying to do the right things on both sides of the ball whether or not the effort is successful.

Jordan Clarkson: C+

Clarkson’s scoring off the bench alongside Lou Williams was also a key part of the early success, but his numbers and overall efficiency seemed to dip when the Lakers endured those injuries. Keep in mind Clarkson is actually a year ahead of Russell, Randle and Nance Jr. in terms of on-court experience, so the expectations for his learning curve are naturally a bit higher. He’s obviously comfortable in a scoring role (14.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.3 APG), but this team could also use a bit more of a focus on being a well-rounded contributor at times. He isn’t asked to do all that much playmaking when everyone is healthy, but when he does, they need him to make better decisions (2.0 turnovers per game) and avoid being guilty of tunnel-vision when attacking off the dribble.

Like others, Clarkson came into the season saying all the right things about being more of an impact player on the defensive end and embracing the idea of being a difference-maker on that side of the court. Unfortunately, his defensive rating (113) is actually worse than last season, and the trouble for the Lakers is that it falls in line with several of his teammates: Mozgov (115), Russell (112), Williams (112), Deng (111), Randle (110). For those unsure of what that rating means, it is the number of points per 100 possessions the opponents score when each player is on the floor. To quote the great 20th-century fictional character philosopher Pete Campbell (‘Mad Men’ fans, eat your hearts out) that’s not great, Bob. But at the same time, it’s not something to necessarily throw the baby Lakers out with the bathwater over. It will continue to be a work in progress for each player, for this team as a whole and for this staff.

There’s no doubt Clarkson has proven he can play the game and even score at a relatively high level in this league, but if the former 46th overall pick wants to take yet another step as a player, it will have to come in the form of providing a more well-rounded and consistent product when on the court.

Lou Williams: A-

Williams is legitimately in the midst of his best season in the league, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for these Lakers. He’s averaging his highest number of points (19.3) off the bench for this group while shooting at career high levels pretty much across the board (45.4 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep, 49.1 two-point percentage). The 30-year-old veteran, already in his 12th year in the league, is also up to 26th among point guards in Real Plus/Minus while boasting an 116 offensive rating per 100 possessions.

All of those are reasons why, even though he’s been a fantastic scoring influence on these guys, it wouldn’t be shocking to see opposing teams begin to really inquire about his services over the next couple months. The Lakers may not ultimately be in a position to fully capitalize on a scoring machine like Williams during a playoff run, but there are plenty of other teams that will be on the market for his services. Although they are certainly in no rush to get rid of a guy that has easily been one of their best players this season, it will be interesting to see if an opposing GM finds a way to present this front office with an offer they simply cannot refuse.

Jose Calderon: C

Calderon played sparingly until the injury bug hit this rotation, but prior to his own right hamstring strain that has sidelined him for the past five games, the 35-year-old point guard was able to put in some productive and efficient minutes for the Lakers. The initial estimates for a return ranged anywhere from early next week to as far off as toward the end of the year, and we have received no concrete update about his condition. No matter how much it actually was, the Lakers have seemingly missed what Calderon was providing in his absence. Perhaps their roster balance (when at full strength) truly was the strength behind their 10-10 start to the year.

Marcelo Huertas: C

Huertas continues to be a solid third point guard who generally tends to see playing time when others are missing extended stretches. His overall limitations and defensive deficiencies, in particular, would seem to be a factor in why he didn’t make his debut in the league until after the age of 30, but Huertas does continue to bring a professional attitude and approach to that locker room and practice and seems to be very well received by his teammates.

Thomas Robinson: B+

When news of Robinson’s one-year deal with the Lakers came in late-September, it was met with a raised eyebrows. This is now the sixth NBA jersey the former No. 5-overall pick has worn in just his fifth season in the league. Any doubt whether he truly wanted to make it at this level was cast aside when he outworked other, younger prospects to earn a roster spot. The biggest testament to his professionalism is how he stepped right in for Tarik Black, providing quality minutes as a reserve for both post positions (including his most recent four-point, six rebound, three-steal and two-block performance in 19 minutes against the Kings) after playing a grand total of 21 minutes over the team’s first 15 games of the season.

Metta World Peace: Incomplete

Outside of a few minutes to simply change the pace or an attempt to influence the defensive intensity, World Peace has mainly served in a mentorship role for these young Lakers. Whether you agreed with the team’s decision to occupy one of the final roster spots with the 37-year-old forward now in his 17th NBA season, by all accounts World Peace is providing the type of support, insight and practice/work ethic examples you want for a young roster.

Ivica Zubac: Incomplete

Zubac has only seen action in five games for a grand total of 35 minutes, so attempting to assess his performance wouldn’t be realistic. He’s played well during his time with the Los Angeles Defenders (Lakers’ D-League affiliate), showing a wide array of skills on the offensive side plus promise and a willingness to compete on the defensive end.

The Lakers have wisely utilized the ability to send players with under three years of experience to their affiliate an unlimited amount with Zubac. The mix of practice and in-game knowledge with the Lakers with the on-court experience he’s getting with the Defenders (16.8 points, 9.4 rebounds in 29 minutes per contest through eight games) should continue to expedite his learning process.

They are no longer playing an antiquated brand of basketball, and most importantly seem to no longer embrace an outdated philosophy when it comes to the on-court and front office decision-making that has plagued them in recent years.

At the very least, they’ve put themselves into a position as an organization to have choices moving forward. Whether they keep the current rotation intact or even ultimately elect to shake things up with the roster before the deadline, the Lakers have quickly gone from a team that looked dead in the water to one that shows some serious promise. You just hope that all parties involved will maintain the patience it takes to not only develop as individual players, but to also allow for the growing pains that will come when cultivating the type of chemistry it takes to win as a unit at a high level.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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