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NBA PM: Post-Carmelo, Knicks Must Look For Progress

After three straight losses for the Knicks, it’s clear that improving with this roster is a work in progress.

Ben Nadeau

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The 2017-18 season is barely a week old and the New York Knicks have already grappled with a disappointing reality: Kristaps Porzingis can’t do it all by himself.

With Al Horford and the Boston Celtics’ stingy interior defense in full control last night, Porzingis went just 3-for-14 in one of his worst-ever shooting performances as an NBA professional. On top of that, the Celtics’ sensational young duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 45 points on 18-for-31 from the floor, while the Knicks made only one of their 12 three-point attempts.

Neutralized early, the Knicks failed to adjust, lost the game 110-89 and fell to a disappointing 0-3 record so far this year. Following the defeat, head coach Jeff Hornacek addressed the Knicks’ struggles and poor shooting display head-on.

“I thought we hung our heads a little bit and then kind of felt sorry for ourselves that we weren’t making the shots,” Hornacek said during his postgame press conference. “I think the effort was still there, it’s just not quick enough.”

The Knicks held onto Carmelo Anthony for as long as they could this summer, perhaps for this exact reason. Three games are a small sample size but life after Anthony has gotten off to a less-than-stellar start. The Knicks appear unable to tread water as they attempt to figure out how to outright replace a future Hall of Famer. As messy as the breakup between Anthony and the Knicks became, the hard truth of moving on without him has been even tougher. Still, it’s a task that Hornacek must look to improve upon each game.

“That’s we told the guys, there’s going to be nights when you can’t shoot the ball very well, that’s when you really lock in [on] defense and try to win it that way,” Hornacek said. “It’s one of those nights where you flush it down the toilet and get ready for the next one.”

It’s been understandably difficult to supplant Anthony. His late-game presence and poised shot-making abilities have been sorely missed already — and the issue of redistributing his high-volume usage has left the coaching staff scratching their heads. In 2016-17, Anthony hoisted up 18.8 shots per game, the 10th-most in the NBA. Of course, the ideal candidate to carry more of the offensive load is Porzingis and his attempts had ballooned from 14.9 to 22.5 per game before last night’s effort.

Horford, who contributed 13 points, 13 rebounds and five assists of his own, talked postgame about the Celtics’ desire to limit Porzingis and make things tough for the Knicks’ blossoming star.

“He’s a guy that you really have to make sure you stay locked in with, he’s just very dangerous, can get going easily and I think we did a job of really chasing him on everything, contesting all his shots,” Horford said to CLNS Media. “I feel like we really did a good job with the gameplan that coach wanted us to do with him.”

With Porzingis effectively bottled up, the game’s eventual result was virtually decided by halftime. Sans Anthony, the Knicks run significantly fewer isolation plays and the ball has moved more freely around the court than in years past. However, it’s a largely empty practice without somebody finishing off the possession with a bucket, an issue New York has yet to solve through three games.

“Some guys had some rough nights shooting. Then, I think, we got tentative, guys who weren’t making shots passed up on some shots that they probably should’ve taken,” Hornacek said. “Just a rough night for us.”

If the Knicks can’t win when Porzingis drops 30 points and get definitively blown out when he’s smothered, who in the world can Hornacek turn to from there?

One candidate for improvement includes Tim Hardaway Jr., the 6-foot-6 guard New York gave $71 million to this offseason. Through their trio of defeats, Hardaway Jr. has managed just 28 points on 9-for-37 shooting — a mark enhanced by his miserable 2-for-11 night against Boston. Hardaway Jr. isn’t destined to shoot 24.4 percent for the entire season, but he’s struggled to be Porzingis’ right-hand man and scoring sidekick so far.

Still, Hornacek has backed Hardaway Jr. to break out of his early-season slump before long.

“Anyone is frustrated when they’re not making shots,” Hornacek said. “I don’t think it’s getting [Hardaway Jr.] down, he’s a competitor, he wants to make shots and help us win a game. I think he’s a tough-minded kid and he’s going to battle through it.”

Few franchises can throw able defender after defender at their opposition like Boston can. But as the Celtics quickly found out, the Knicks lacked the creativity to dig themselves out of the hole with Porzingis clamped down. In fact, according to Courtney Lee, the Knicks have labored to even run their offense correctly, noting his frustration later on in the locker room.

“If we miss shots, we miss shots — that’s part of the game,” Lee said. “But not being in the right position takes away a shot for your teammates — we’ve got to learn the plays.”

Earlier this morning, Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News tweeted that Hornacek recently pinned the play-running issues on the shortened preseason, but it’s still an alarming problem almost two weeks into the year. Between Hardaway Jr.’s slow start, rookie Frank Ntilikina’s lingering ankle injury and their offensive forgetfulness, the Knicks could be in danger of dropping into the Eastern Conference basement for good.

A potential option for the Knicks could be trading for Phoenix Suns’ guard Eric Bledsoe, something the franchise has at least talked about according to Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto. While the Knicks are reportedly not interested in parting with Willy Hernangomez and Ntilikina, who they took at No. 8 overall in this year’s draft, it’s possible the front office could ease off of that stance if the Knicks’ struggles continue throughout the early stages of the season.

Either way, Hornacek and the Knicks have found themselves looking for answers very early on this season. Granted, the Oklahoma City Thunder — Anthony’s new franchise — and the Celtics project to be two of the NBA’s better teams in 2017-18, so the 0-3 record itself isn’t the end of the world, but the troubling path they took to get there might be.

For now, the Knicks will need to tap into their own processes to get things back on track Friday against the Brooklyn Nets. It was never going to be easy without Anthony around to bail this young team out of trouble offensively, but it’s now clear that progressing and evolving as a new unit will be key in the coming months. As Porzingis and Hardaway Jr. ease into their heightened roles — and Ntilikina eventually makes it on the floor — the Knicks will naturally improve too.

Still, more losses like last night’s to the Celtics could be on the horizon if they’re not more careful, the head coach warned.

“They’re young, they’re going to have to learn how to get through nights like that,” Hornacek said.

For the Knicks’ sake, let’s hope they learn how to do that sooner rather than later.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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NBA Daily: Will Philadelphia Struggle From Downtown?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have enough outside shooting talent to spread the floor on the offensive end? Jordan Hicks takes a look.

Jordan Hicks

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It’s only been one game, and this could likely be an overreaction, but will the Philadelphia 76ers struggle this season from beyond-the-arc? With the departure of two highly capable shooters in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, it might not be insane to say this could turn into a large problem throughout the season.

Last season for the 76ers, Belinelli finished 38.5 percent from three and Ilyasova finished at 36.1 percent. While neither of those percentages is staggering, both sit above the league average, and those players shoot and make threes at a consistent pace. Neither player was necessarily streaky from downtown, so you knew what to expect from them on a nightly basis.

What the two players brought more than anything was gravity. Each game, teams had to strategically plan how to stop them from making three-point shots. Players had to maintain certain spots on the floor defensively, which in turn left offensive players in advantageous positions. Losing both Belinelli and Ilyasova allows defenses to suck in closer to the paint so they can better defend Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at what they do best – attack the rim.

This is precisely what the Boston Celtics did to the 76ers on Tuesday night, and the final score definitely told the tale. The Celtics ended up winning, 105-87. Boston is a talented squad, and playing at the TD Garden is never an easy task, but the 76ers are too good to lose by high double-digits.

Apart from Boston’s stellar defense, Philadelphia’s mark from the perimeter paints a clear picture of what they might struggle with throughout the season. They finished 5-for-26, good for 19.7 percent.

It’s not like they don’t have any help from three. Robert Covington led the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage last season and J.J. Redick shot a scorching career 41.5 percent from deep. Their third option from three is likely Dario Saric, who finished last season at 39.3 percent. But after those three the drop-off is significant. Embiid might come in next, and he shot a poor 30.8 percent last season.

By the end of the season, the top three scorers for Philadelphia could likely be Simmons, Embiid and last year’s first-round pick, Markelle Fultz. Not one of those players can shoot the three consistently, certainly not at an efficient mark. Simmons and Fultz have never even made a three-point field goal in their young careers.

All three of those players have the ability to score efficiently around the rim, and they’ll likely get their buckets. But with fewer players on the roster to worry about as a deep threat, teams will mirror Boston’s success and crowd the paint.

If Brett Brown continues to play Saric, Covington and Redick in limited minutes – they played just eight minutes together on Tuesday – most of their lineups will only ever feature two above average three-point shooters. This can begin to get highly problematic for the 76ers as the season progresses. As previously mentioned, teams will just stuff the area around the hoop with great rim protectors and only worry about crashing the boards when mid-range jumpers clank off the basket.

Teams that had the most success last season, à la the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, had at minimum three high-level deep threats on the floor at all times. This allowed them to spread the offense, keep defenses guessing and find an open shooter after throwing the ball around from player to player or cutting to the basket. With the fact that multiple shooters on the court can spread out the defense and essentially keep them on their toes, all it takes is an intelligent cut or a crafty pass to find someone open at the rim. If teams don’t have enough efficient shooters on the floor, defenses can just suck in and stop players going to the hoop.

But when there are three or more plus shooters on the court, defenders have a really difficult decision to make. Do you try and play help defense by attempting to stop the shot at the rim? This can leave your opponent open for an easy three. Will help defense get there in time to defend the three? Maybe, but then another quick pass can find another open shooter. So do you stay on your man? Sure, but then you give up an easy basket at the rim.

That last paragraph was elementary. Most teams and fans understand this concept. The importance of efficient shooters in today’s league is at an all-time high. The 76ers have a very talented, young team. Simmons and Embiid are a phenomenal duo to build around. But their lack of players that hold any sort of gravity from three-point land could really give them struggles.

Alas, we are only one game into the season. A handful of teams have yet to play, so there is still plenty of basketball to be had. The 76ers are still monstrous on defense and can obviously generate baskets on the offensive end. Thanks in part to Simmons, they are one of the most electric teams in transition, and can often score with ease around the hoop.

Are the 76ers a playoff team? That’s essentially a lock. Can they go deep in the playoffs? It certainly appears so. But in order for them to make a legitimate run to the Finals, they’ll need to find more efficiency from the three-point line. Not simply because they could use those points, but because they need that spacing for their offense to function at an elite level.

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