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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 Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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