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NBA PM: Six Preseason Lessons Learned

The Cavs are going to be as exciting offensively as they will be disappointing defensively (and five other revelations).

Joel Brigham

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The NBA preseason wraps up Friday night, which means teams get one last weekend to prepare and/or rest ahead of the first regular season games, which take place this coming Tuesday.

With nearly a month’s worth of training camp in the books, it’s time for us to look back and break down some of the lessons we learned about certain players and teams. While it’s true that the preseason doesn’t always translate to the regular season, there have been quite a few pleasant (and unpleasant) surprises this fall. Here are a few of the most essential:

Cleveland Really Is Going to Have Some Problems Defensively

Let’s start by saying that for every concerned person that exists because of Cleveland’s undersized and underwhelming defensive frontcourt rotation, there’s two more that are equally as excited about how good the transition offense is going to be. Kyrie Irving and LeBron James should absolutely have their way with opposing transition defenses (especially with Kevin Love throwing his famous outlet passes), and there’s no question that they’re going to be ridiculously exciting to watch on that end of the floor.

Defensively, though, as we feared, the Cavaliers are going to have some issues. There is no Chris Bosh or Chris Andersen equivalent on this roster to protect the rim, which has allowed opposing guards to attack the bucket at will this preseason when facing Cleveland. Part of that is a lack of defensive talent and a lack of height in the frontcourt, but part of that also boils down to chemistry and learning the defensive rotations. They’ll get better as the year goes on, but don’t be surprised if quite a few of Cleveland’s early victories come because they outscored an opponent, rather than beating them on both ends of the floor.

This Is Going to Be a Huge Year for Jimmy Butler

While it’s possible that Butler will miss the beginning of the season with a wrist injury, there’s no doubt that he was one of the most impressive players on the Chicago roster this preseason. With so much attention on the health of Derrick Rose and the addition of Pau Gasol, it was easy to miss Butler averaging nearly 16 PPG on only 8.5 field goal attempts per game, all while shooting 59 percent from the floor and posting a PER of 33.42.

Coming off a year in which he struggled offensively, this was a great preseason for him. A good offensive year added to his status as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders could mean he’s on his way to earning a max deal or close to it. This is a contract year for him, giving him even more motivation to improve upon last year’s dismal shooting campaign.

The Boston Celtics Are Going to Be Interesting

They’re not necessarily going to be good, but the Celtics are certainly going to be fun to watch. They took a ton of three-pointers in the preseason (and actually hit them at a pretty fairly accurate clip) and also defended the ball relatively well.

Rookie point guard Marcus Smart, for example, is already locking down NBA scorers pretty effectively, as he’s one a few rookies with a big-league body. That, combined with his smarts on the court, have him looking like an early contender for Rookie of the Year, especially if Rajon Rondo ends up getting traded.

It’s going to be another long season in terms of wins and losses, but there are a lot of good things happening in Boston right now, and Brad Stevens is at the helm of it all.

Oklahoma City Still Hasn’t Figured Out How To Replace Durant

To be clear, it’s impossible to replace an MVP player, but Jeremy Lamb, who has been given quite the opportunity to see some big minutes this preseason, has failed miserably. A heel issue forced him to sit out the last two games of the preseason, but up until that point he posted a miserable 30.4/14.3/77.1 line of shooting percentages while taking more shots per game than anybody in the preseason other than Blake Griffin and Kobe Bryant.

Andre Roberson and Perry Jones III were also players expected to be given an opportunity to step into the minutes left behind by Durant’s injury, but it’s starting to look like we’re going to see a lot more Reggie Jackson than we expected. Scott Brooks is pretty stubborn about his substitution patterns, which means Lamb will still earn plenty of minutes, but if he plays like this all season, they won’t be pretty minutes. Roberson, as uninteresting as he is, may be the safer guy to start, and Jackson is certainly more reliable.

Steve Kerr Is Making Golden State’s Offense Even Better

Anybody who’s watched the Warriors the last few years knows that they’ve been a pretty exciting team, particularly offensively, as they instituted a run-and-gun flow under Mark Jackson that turned Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry into two of the most respected volume three-point shooters in the league.

The three-pointers aren’t going to stop raining down this year; they’re just going to come in a different way. Kerr preaches ball movement a lot more, and based on what we’ve seen in the preseason there are going to be a lot of open looks for those deep bombers, Thompson in particular.

Remember that Golden State wouldn’t trade Thompson as the centerpiece in a Kevin Love trade. The fact that he’s due for a big year likely bodes well for his proving he was worth keeping.

Carmelo Is Going to Be Frustrated This Year

For a couple of reasons, Carmelo Anthony may find himself wishing very quickly that he’d signed with the Chicago Bulls this offseason instead of the Knicks. For starters, it sounds as if he’ll be playing more at the three than the four this season to create minutes for Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Smith, which isn’t the end of the world, but Anthony has had much more documented success the last couple of seasons facing up against power forwards than he has small forwards.

To get the most out of Anthony (and frankly, to get the most out of the team), he needs to play at the four; what other way will there be to get Iman Shumpert on the floor with Tim Hardaway, Jr., or Hardaway, Jr. with J.R. Smith, or Smith with Shumpert?

Beyond that, the triangle isn’t necessarily an offense that works to Anthony’s strengths. He himself has said that he doesn’t expect to be in contention for the scoring title this year because that’s just not the way the triangle offense works for someone playing his position. He may or may not be right, but the reality is that there will be an adjustment for him in this new offense, which could translate to some struggles, especially early on.

How much of the good and the bad of the preseason will spill over to the regular season? That’s what we’ll find out starting on Tuesday. Meanwhile, games wrap up Friday night, giving fans one last opportunity to see where there team is headed for the 2014-2015 campaign.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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