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NBA PM: Players Who Flourish During the Postseason

Ben Dowsett looks at several players who up their level come playoff time, and examines how they’re able to do so.

Ben Dowsett

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The level of competition gets higher during the postseason for any major team sport, and perhaps nowhere is the effect more visible than within the game of basketball. The game changes in the playoffs; pace slows and field goal percentages drop as defenses hone in on top options. Turnovers become tougher to force as every possession carries that much more weight, and foul rates tick up as physicality becomes a point of emphasis.

Naturally, then, it’s no surprise that the majority of players get “worse” in the playoffs by our traditional measures of quality – even (and sometimes especially) star-level guys. It’s hard to maintain that season-long stat line when games against the league’s bottom dwellers are nowhere to be found, and even more so when you’re at the top of a scouting report teams can put their full focus into.

Even some of the game’s consensus greatest players see notable, marked drop-offs during the playoffs. A guy like DeMar DeRozan is a contemporary example you hear raised a lot, but even brighter stars aren’t immune. Did you realize that the great Larry Bird shot just 32 percent from three in his playoff career, compared to nearly 38 percent in the regular season? They aren’t always big gaps, but even some of the biggest stars on earth can’t sustain their typical production in the crucible of a playoff series.

What about guys who trend in the opposite direction, then? We’re not just talking about big moments or big shots; some guys are able to become more productive and valuable across large swaths of playoff minutes, despite the difficulties in doing so we’ve just outlined.

Who are some of these guys, and what are they doing differently? The 2016-17 playoffs have offered a few perfect examples.

Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards

The Wizards were destroyed during the 200 minutes Porter sat on the bench this postseason, and it wasn’t even the first time that’s happened. A yearlong playoff gap clouds memories, but Porter – not John Wall or Bradley Beal – was the only guy on the roster without whom the Wizards were outscored on a per-possession basis in their last playoff appearance in 2014-15.

This isn’t just noise from overlapping substitution patterns with Wall and Beal, either. In fact, it was something of the opposite: Washington got crushed this postseason during the minutes both their star guards played without Porter, per NBAwowy.com.

Parts of Porter’s individual numbers from the 2016-17 playoffs in particular make this tough to reconcile. He shot just 28 percent from deep, and actually used a lower percentage of team possessions than he had during the regular season. Others paint a clearer picture, like his astonishing 67 percent on two-pointers and the stark contrast in Washington’s transition success – on both ends of the court – depending on whether he was on or off the court.

In the end, simply being a long and athletic wing with few huge weaknesses is likely the largest propeller of Porter’s success, not some secret playoff sauce. The value of guys who can be plugged into a wide range of situations without giving the opponent an edge only rises in the playoffs when teams pick on those weaknesses mercilessly, and Porter is exactly that. It’s why the Wizards will almost certainly pony up for a huge extension to keep him in town this offseason despite two starrier names on the roster.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

James would normally go last on a list like this, but in this case, he’s actually a bit less intriguing than a couple other guys who are also still playing this postseason. Few guys in history have been so obvious about compartmentalizing the regular season and playoffs as separate entities, especially over James’ last few years. LeBron is visibly exerting himself less during the season; gaps in his distance run, tracked by SportVU cameras, are larger than a simple reduction in minutes should lead to.

His statistical output only partially reflects the degree to which he turns it on when the games matter. There are no good metrics to track the visibly apparent gap in his defensive effort. Six quarters of weird play recently aside, his current postseason is maybe the most eye-popping example we’ve seen yet.

Does LeBron’s clearly marked on/off switch diminish these accomplishments at all? Of course not! So few guys throughout history have been capable of flipping it on like he does, and as we well know, virtually none have been able to reach his level when that happens. This will end someday (probably?), but until then, just appreciate it.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

NBA fans wrapped their collective heads around Green’s unconventionally dominant style a couple years ago, but understanding how he ups the ante come playoff time is a whole different thing. Guys like Draymond are supposed to struggle in the postseason; those hustle battles they always win in the regular season ostensibly become closer to 50-50 propositions with everyone’s energy level at peak levels, and there are way fewer bad game plans or low-IQ opponents to feast on.

That’s a reductive way to look at Green’s game, of course, and the things that separate him from the prototypical hustle glue guy are probably some of the same factors in him becoming even more dominant in the playoffs. There’s a bit of the same theme we saw present with Porter at work here, just on steroids – Green’s utter lack of weakness in virtually any area of the game becomes more valuable in this atmosphere.

Some of his strengths become magnified, too, and the way he maintains them without a bit of drop-off despite better average competition is pleasantly bewildering at times. Draymond is allowing a virtually identical percentage when defending shots at the rim in the playoffs as he did during the regular season, this despite facing way more shots every night and doing it against significantly better opponents. His turnovers have remained stagnant, setting the tone for the Warriors to buck their occasionally careless ways. Golden State has looked among the most dominant squads in history to this point; there are multiple games this postseason they’d have lost going away without Green’s presence.

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Does Irving’s game truly improve in the playoffs, or do the demands of playoff basketball simply make it more valuable? If the end result is team success, does it really matter?

To be fair, there’s definitely evidence that Kyrie ups his game in the postseason. He shoots 41 percent from three compared to 38 percent in the regular season for his career, and all his shooting numbers show similar upticks. He cuts his per-possession turnovers by nearly a quarter despite taking on a higher usage burden. Virtually his entire statistical profile is just a bit crisper across the board.

As the tattered remnants of thousands of NBA Twitter debates will tell you, though, raw production doesn’t entirely cover the phenomenon that is Kyrie Irving during the playoffs. There are real reasons why he comes up short of several of his peers at the point guard spot during a vacuum analysis; why do they seem to diminish at the most important times?

Some of this is happenstance and context. Playing with LeBron has a way of magnifying your success, it turns out. Some is definitely the way Irving’s game lends itself to this environment, especially in a modern age where the best defenses often force even the most beautiful offenses into a simple question: Can your best get an old-fashioned one-on-one bucket against ours, or not?

But there’s still something more, perhaps summed up by that now-legendary shot that brought Cleveland a ring last June. Even James himself stood deadlocked with the mighty Warriors before Irving took them over the top. Tuesday night’s explosion was another iteration of the same theme; with James mired in a weird funk mixed with foul trouble, Irving ripped off a virtually perfect two-quarter stretch to drag the Cavs back from what would have been a pretty startling loss. Irving’s game is objectively better in the playoffs, but it’s those intangible elements that really set him apart.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

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

James Blancarte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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