Throughout Team USA’s recent training camp in Las Vegas, Paul George noticed that many of the NBA stars in attendance were impressed with his Indiana Pacers teammate Myles Turner, who was on Team USA’s Select Team.
“Myles looked really good,” George told Nate Taylor of the Indy Star. “I think the whole talk around that camp was, ‘Man, you got a good one.’ That’s coming from all the guys on the Olympic team. Everybody was just raving of how good Myles is. … He’s got the respect. He’s earned it from the veterans and he’s going to be good. He’s one of the best up-and-coming talents in the league.”
Turner played very well against some of league’s best players – even swatting one of George’s lay-up attempts out of bounds. In addition to receiving praise from fellow players, a number of the reporters in attendance spoke highly of his performance – with Marc Spears of ESPN going so far as to say that Turner looked like he belonged on the actual USA Basketball roster as opposed to the Select Team.
In addition to receiving excellent guidance from legendary coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich (who’s coaching the Select Team), he’s getting the chance to work out and play against talented big men like DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan as well as stars like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler among others.
This comes after a very impressive rookie season in which the 11th overall pick in last year’s draft averaged 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22.8 minutes. Turner fared well compared to his first-year peers, ranking seventh among all rookies in points per game, fifth in rebounds per game, third in blocks per game and sixth in double-doubles on his way to making the All-Rookie Second Team. Oh, and he just turned 20 years old in late March.
In the postseason, there were stretches where he dominated. In the Pacers’ first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Turner averaged 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 28.1 minutes. He was a monster in the paint, finishing every game with multiple blocks and totaling 23 rejections in the series (plus many more altered shots). If Turner had any nerves about playing on basketball’s biggest stage for the first time, they didn’t show. In his debut playoff game, he had 10 points, five rebounds and five blocks in the Pacers’ upset victory over the Raptors. Two games later, he recorded 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. In Games 5 and 6, he totaled 29 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks while shooting 61.9 percent from the field.
Pacers president Larry Bird has said that Turner’s “talent is off the charts” and it’s hard to disagree based on his recent production with Indiana and Team USA.
Basketball Insiders recently chatted with Turner about his rookie season, playoff debut, Team USA experience, Indiana’s recent moves, expectations for next year and more.
Alex Kennedy: First of all, how nice was it not having to go through the draft process this year? I know most guys hate doing that, and you were put under the microscope last year. Is it nice knowing you never have to do that again?
Turner: “It’s super nice. You can actually settle in to a normal summer process and focus on getting better, and not have to worry about where you’ll end up, what city you’ll be in, what the coaches are thinking and all of that. You’re really just working for yourself now, and it feels great.”
Kennedy: How much do you feel you learned from your time with the Team USA Select Team?
Turner: “I feel like I’ve made huge strides because that pace is so much faster than what people think. I mean, you see them beating up on these foreign teams and now I can definitely see why teams struggle against them. You have to make plays a lot faster and you have to make reads a lot faster, so I feel like that was really good for me.”
Kennedy: A lot of guys have had breakout seasons after participating with the Select Team because they expand their game, get great coaching and their confidence is way up. Can you envision that happening for you and having this translate into the season?
Turner: “Yeah, definitely. I’m looking forward to making a big jump forward next year. I know I did some good things last year and I want to build off of that. I think this experience was really good for me. It’s one of a kind. I was blessed and fortunate to be chosen and to have this experience.”
Kennedy: Gregg Popovich is coaching the Select Team. What was it like being coached by him?
Turner: “Man, it was great. Coach Popovich is a really cool dude. I don’t think the media gets to see his real personality and the side of him that he shows when he’s coaching players. But I definitely see why he’s considered one of the best. He’s an awesome guy, with a great personality, and he’s really all about getting better. Overall, my experience was great.”
Kennedy: When we talked back in April, you told me DeMarcus Cousins was the toughest center you had guarded. What’s it like being able to play with him and learn from him in this Team USA setting?
Turner: “I feel like I really held my own this time. I definitely was a lot better guarding him this time than I was during the season when I played him (laughs). It was cool to see how he uses his body and uses his footwork to get around other people. I always see it on TV and see what he does, but to see it in person, it’s definitely one of a kind. But yeah, I definitely feel like I did a lot better this time.”
Kennedy: How much are you taking from the other stars there too? Obviously there’s some skill stuff, but then also things like work ethic, preparation and seeing how they handle specific things. Are there things like that you can learn from the Select Team experience?
Turner: “Yeah, that’s huge. Their work ethic, like you said, stands out. The coaches were actually trying to get them to relax and chill because they have all of these scrimmages, but they were the ones who always wanted to work. They were getting up extra shots after practice, they scrimmaged against us one time and you can just tell that they love playing the game. With all of those guys, they don’t ever truly feel like they ‘made it.’ They really continue to work on their game and keep learning and are true students of the game. It’s [motivating] to see that from people who are at the superstar status.”
Kennedy: Which other players from the Select Team impressed you the most?
Turner: I like [Milwaukee Bucks draft pick] Malcolm Brogdon out of Virginia. He really impressed me. We were playing a lot of one-on-one and he’s a very capable player. He can use both of his hands, he can shoot it, has a good handle on the ball and he’s athletic. I watched college basketball this year, but I didn’t really get to see Virginia play a lot, but I can see why people were high on him. I really like his game. I know everyone else from my class. D’Angelo Russell did well. Stanley Johnson did well. I knew they were going to do well. Oh, and I had never really seen Brandon Ingram play in an NBA setting or whatever. I saw him play at Summer League and I saw him play at Duke, but I like his game too. Once he starts adding more strength to his game, he’s going to fill out nicely.”
Kennedy: From your first NBA game to your final postseason game, how much did you improve as a player?
Turner: “Oh wow, drastically. Dramatically. It’s so crazy how the improvement process goes because you don’t really improve body-wise or things like that. The game just starts to slow down for you and once that happens, everything is so much easier. When I came back from my injury midseason, I was able to take a step back and really see everything for what it was. I definitely got a lot better in the post, making defensive rotations, seeing plays before they happen. I dramatically improved over the course of the season.”
Kennedy: How would you describe your first playoff experience? And how can you build off of that momentum because you played really, really well in that series.
Turner: “I appreciate that, man. It’s definitely a lot different. The game is fast in the regular season, but in the postseason the game is a lot faster. The crowd is more into it. Every possession matters and it’s a nail-biter every other play. Really, in our series, things didn’t get interesting until the last couple games because the early games were blowouts – either they blew us out or we blew them out. But overall, it was a lot different and I can’t even describe the atmosphere. In Toronto, the atmosphere was unbelievable because that whole country was behind them. It was an incredible experience, and I see why people crave it and are determined to get back there and get further. I really enjoyed my playoff experience. The first game, I definitely had some jitters, but after that I was fine.”
Kennedy: You had multiple blocks in every postseason game and averaged 3.3 rejections per game in the series. What’s that feeling like – knowing that everyone is aware of your presence and, to some extent, intimidated to come in the paint?
Turner: “It only builds my confidence. And once I get going defensively, I feel like I only do better offensively and the game flows more naturally for me. Being able to establish that kind of presence early and have my team be able to rely on me if they get beat and their guy gets to the rim, that’s good for everybody’s confidence too because they know I can help back there. But yeah, it’s just huge for my individual confidence – being able to, I guess, demand that respect.”
Kennedy: You turned 20 years old in March. Do you ever think about how surreal it is that you’re repping Team USA as one of the youngest guys there, putting up monster numbers in the playoffs, earning All-Rookie Second Team honors? Does it ever feel surreal how quickly this has all happened?
Turner: “Definitely, man. I was just sitting and talking about it with one of my friends the other day when I was back home. It’s just amazing to see how far I’ve come in such a short period of time, but also how much further I have to go. Me and my dad have talked about this too: I see some players who come into the league, get all of this hype and then they start to fizzle out and stop working. I’m never going to be that type of player. My work ethic is a lot of stronger than that and I’m very driven right now. I’m really looking forward to what’s to come over these next couple of years.”
Kennedy: One question kept coming up from Pacers fans: Because you are just 20 years old, what do you think your ceiling is? When you reach your prime, what kind of player do you see yourself being?
Turner: “I can see myself being a very dominant player in this league one day – and one day soon. I mean, I don’t know what my ceiling is. With my work ethic and my drive, I feel like there is no ceiling. I can always improve and get better at all facets of the game. Like I was saying, guys like KD and Draymond and everyone on Team USA, they’re upper-echelon players but they’re constantly striving for more and striving for more. I want to put myself in that same category as far as that mindset.”
Kennedy: How is Indiana? What has it been like adjusting to the city and living there throughout your first year in the league?
Turner: “I love it down here, man. It’s good because it’s a city that’s not really flashy, it’s really blue-collar. I like that because I can just stay on my grind and work on my game and not worry about any distractions. It’s good for me because I can have my family come out here, support me and watch some of my games. It’s just a great city all around, man. Everybody loves basketball. I’m from Texas, where football is king, so it’s nice to be in a city that really appreciates basketball at every level. People love the Pacers, people love the Hoosiers, people love high school basketball. It’s really cool to be part of that environment. I’m really excited and blessed to be part of such a great organization as well.”
Kennedy: This has been a busy offseason for you guys. What do you think of the additions of Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson, and how they fit with the current squad?
Turner: “I love those moves. I think Jeff is a very aggressive point guard and one that we need to make plays for us. With Big Al, his footwork is impeccable and I’ve watched him play over the years and he’s an incredible player. Thad brings a lot of energy. He’s that ‘do-the-dirty-work’ kind of player that we need, but he’s also more than that because he’s skilled at what he does. I’m curious to see how we’re going to fit together. I also like Jeremy Evans and Aaron Brooks too. Jeremy has always been a good athletic, energy guy. And Aaron, he was one of the toughest point guards I had to guard last year. He didn’t play a lot when we played them, but when he did, some of the plays he made were crazy. He’d finish around the rim and it’s just like, ‘Wait, how did he do that?’ I really love all of the moves.”
Kennedy: You and Big Al have different skill sets, but he’s obviously had a lot of success in this league. Have you guys talked at all yet and are you looking forward to picking his brain?
Turner: “I haven’t talked to him yet, but I love how poised he is. I can learn patience from him and I want to be able to read the game the way he does. And obviously I can learn a lot from him in the post and some of the things that he does with his touches. He’s a veteran who has been in the league for awhile too, so I’m sure he can teach me some off-the-court stuff as well. I think getting him is a great look for the organization and I’m excited to partner with him.”
Kennedy: Nate McMillan will take over for Frank Vogel as head coach, obviously. What changes do you envision and what’s your relationship with Coach McMillan like?
Turner: “Me and Coach Mac are tight. We talked a lot last year during my rookie season. I’m glad that, if we did have to make an adjustment, it was with a familiar face. I’m definitely going to miss Coach Vogel; I’m indebted to him because he gave me a chance in my rookie year to go out there and play and make the most of my opportunities. With Coach McMillan, I feel like we’re going to make some changes on offense. We’re still going to be a hard-nosed, defensive team, but we’re going to run. With the group that we have, I feel like we’re going to be able to get up and down the court rather quickly. He wants to see a change of pace.”
Kennedy: What are your expectations for next season – as a team and then also individually?
Turner: “As a team, we want to finish top three in the East and I feel like we’re very capable of doing so. On paper, we’re very talented, but it’s about how we put stuff together. I do feel like the East will be a lot stronger next year with some of the moves that have been made in our conference, but I feel like we can go out there and get the job done and finish in the top three. That’s the goal, and then we want to go make a deep playoff run. And obviously, we’re all chasing rings and that’s a big goal of mine. I don’t see why we can’t do it next year. I know that ‘sounds good’ and anybody can just say that, but I’m a very confident player and with that confidence comes ambition. Individually, I feel like I can put up big numbers for this team and help in any way necessary. I’d like to see myself put up 15 to 20 points per game. That may seem like a long shot, but I feel like I’m very capable.”
Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression
Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.
This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.
The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.
Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.
Whenever Edwards makes a big shot, he immediately tries to make another one. He’ll figure out the composure part as we go along.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 25, 2021
Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.
The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.
Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.
Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.
One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.
There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.
Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.
Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.
It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.
There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!
NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads
Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.
There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.
A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.
- They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
- They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
- They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.
Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.
The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.
He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.
There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?
To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.
It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.
Bradley Beal body language during the 1st half pic.twitter.com/qOMXk55CHc
— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) February 1, 2021
Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.
And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…
Nets defensive rating rank since the Harden trade
First 14 games: 30th
Last 8 games: 12th
They have won 8 games in a row. pic.twitter.com/zQSIY3mgAB
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 26, 2021
And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.
For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.
Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.
An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.
So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.
At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.
Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.
So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.
Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.
At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.
That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.
But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.
Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.
And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.