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NBA PM: Mr. Irrelevants Exceeding Expectations

Isaiah Thomas and Robert Sacre talk about how they overcame their Mr. Irrelevant status … The Memphis Grizzlies are back

Alex Kennedy

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In most years, the final pick in the NBA Draft never plays significant minutes in the league. Mr. Irrelevant is usually just that, someone who gets to hear their name on draft night and then fade into obscurity shortly after.

Looking back on drafts from the last decade, there are plenty of No. 60 picks who fit this description – players like Milovan Rakovic, Rashad Wright, Andreas Glyniadakis, Corsley Edwards and many others.

However, in recent years, players who were selected last on draft night have surprisingly ended up being contributors in the NBA. Three of the last six Mr. Irrelevants have played multiple years in the league.

Isaiah Thomas, who was Mr. Irrelevant in 2011, is obviously the best example, as he has become a key member of the Sacramento Kings’ young core while averaging 19.9 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals. The Kings have brought in a number of other point guards – from Jimmer Fredette to Aaron Brooks to Greivis Vasquez – but Thomas has beaten out all of them to keep his starting job.

Robert Sacre, 2012’s Mr. Irrelevant, is in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers and he has played in 32 games this season. Sacre has also started 11 games in his two years with L.A. The seven-footer from Gonzaga has exceeded all expectations, considering he was a long shot to make the Lakers’ roster.

Semih Erden, who played one season with the Boston Celtics and two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2008 NBA Draft.

Thomas and Sacre have used the Mr. Irrelevant label as motivation throughout their first few years in the league.

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and that just motivated me even more,” Thomas told me last year. “I went into every game thinking, ‘Okay, this team passed on me. They didn’t pick me.’ Every day, it was on my mind. I wanted to go out there and show them that they missed out on something special. I looked at other players and thought, ‘This guy was drafted ahead of me. I may not be better than him, but I’m going to outwork him.’ It made me work harder because I wanted to show the NBA and the world that I could compete on this level. I think I did an okay job of that … I’m always going to have doubters and I love proving them wrong. From day one, when I first picked up a basketball, I had doubters. They said I was too short. They said I wasn’t going to succeed in high school. They said I couldn’t duplicate that success in college. They said I couldn’t play in the NBA. I just laugh at it because I know that I’m working my butt off every single day to become the player that I am. I’m always going to have doubters. I use it as motivation to work even harder.”

“It motivates me every day,” Sacre said of being picked last in the draft. “Every day, I know that I can’t let up or take a day off. It wasn’t just given me, I had to work for every bit of it. It just motivates me every single day to come in and do my job.”

Thomas and Sacre both realize how fortunate they are to be in the league. While they worked hard to get where they are, they understand that they easily could’ve been waived in training camp several months after being drafted, as most Mr. Irrelevants are. Sometimes, it’s just about numbers and it doesn’t matter how a player has performed or how hard they worked. Thomas made the Kings even though Sacramento had drafted another point guard in the lottery (Fredette) and Sacre made the Lakers even though he was the squad’s lone rookie and the team was expecting to contend with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.

“It’s a blessing from God, I didn’t even know if I was going to make the team,” Thomas said last year. “Then, during the first two months of the season, I didn’t know if I was going to play at all. I just tried to stay patient and control the things that I could control. I didn’t let my highs get too high or my lows get too low. I just kept working. I was in the gym before and after practice, before and after games. I wanted to show that, no matter what, I was going to be in the gym and I was going to get better.”

“I’m very fortunate to be in this situation,” Sacre said. “There are only 450 of us in this league so if I can be one of those guys then I’m very grateful. It’s been great being a Laker. I’m fortunate to be part of an organization with such great history. To be able to play here, it’s an amazing deal. It’s been awesome. I feel like I’m part of a team that has a lot of tradition. And with the vets that we have, I can always learn from them.”

Being the final pick in the draft isn’t fun, because there’s no guaranteed money and the player is often viewed as expendable by the team. In fact, by the time the last few teams are selecting on draft night, most agents are actually hoping that their client doesn’t get picked so that he can go undrafted and choose the best situation as a free agent. That gives the player some control and they can go to a team that doesn’t have a logjam at their position.

For Thomas, he had to overcome even more obstacles because he also had the lockout to deal with.

“There were so many obstacles,” Thomas said last year. “There was a lockout, no summer league and then a shortened training camp. There were a lot second-round picks, people in a similar position as me, who didn’t even get invited to training camp. Thank God, I was invited to training camp but I didn’t know if I was going to make the team. I just worked as hard as I could and tried to show them that I could play at this level.”

Players like Thomas, Sacre, and Erden managed to overcome those obstacles to stay relevant for far longer than anyone expected.

Here Come the Memphis Grizzlies

After struggling early in the season and sitting near the bottom of the standings, the Memphis Grizzlies have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the NBA.

Memphis has won four straight games and nine of their last 10 contests, with victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets (twice) and Oklahoma City Thunder among others. The Grizzlies are now just a half game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference with plenty of time left in the season to continue climbing the standings and once again solidify themselves as a contender in the West.

It took some time for the Grizzlies to start winning, which is understandable since they’ve spent the early part of the season adjusting to a new head coach in Dave Joerger and a number of new players including Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Courtney Lee, James Johnson, Nick Calathes and Jamaal Franklin. Now, it seems like everyone is on the same page in Memphis, and they’ve started to see results.

“The demeanor and the focus are at a high level right now,” Lee said following the team’s road win over the Blazers. “We’re going into every game telling ourselves we’re going to win the game. We just need to go out there and execute on both ends and we’ll get the win.”

“I’ve been very happy with our focus in practices and shootarounds and preparation for the game,” Mike Conley said. “So it’s spilling into the first quarters, second quarters, and it’s giving us a good start to games that we haven’t had in the last couple months.”

It’s also no coincidence that the Grizzlies immediately started playing better once Marc Gasol returned from injury. Gasol is extremely important to that team on both ends of the floor, and his absence only confirmed that. The team’s defense improved significantly with Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, back on the floor. They’ve been dominant on that end of the floor recently. Memphis has won their last five road games, holding each of their opponents below 90 points. That’s the longest such streak in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Gasol also makes a huge impact on the offensive end by scoring, passing and drawing defenders. The team really missed his contributions during the 23 games that he was sidelined.

Conley has done a fantastic job this season as well, averaging a career-high 18.2 points, 6.3 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Conley is a key cog for Memphis and has been getting some All-Star buzz. If he played in the Eastern Conference, he’d likely be an All-Star lock. But that’s not the case in the West where he has to compete with Chris Paul, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Tony Parker among others, all of whom are in the mix to be reserves. Joerger has praised Conley all year, calling him “absolutely fantastic” and saying that he is one of the best floor generals in the NBA.

“I like my guy,” Joerger said of Conley. “I won’t say anything about anybody else’s guy, but I love our point guard.”

“He’s a complete player,” Lillard said of Conley. “He can shoot outside, he can attack the basket, he can go left, he can go right and he’s quick. He knows the game and his team screens for him, so that makes him a tough guard.”

No team will want to run into the Grizzlies come playoff time. Despite their early struggles, they’re still a tough out due to their swarming defense, balanced attack and ‘grit-and-grind’ physicality.

“We’re very physical,” Joerger said. “I don’t think we’re a fun team to play.”

They certainly haven’t been fun to play over the last three weeks.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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