What aspects of their game are the 2014 NBA Draft prospects working on? Basketball Insiders asked them.
Whose Draft Stock is On the Rise?
The 2014 NBA Draft is one week away, which means teams are starting to zero in on players and prospects are starting to climb based on their performance in the pre-draft process. Here is a look at eight prospects whose stock is on the rise:
Doug McDermott – McDermott is the biggest name on this list and even though he entered the pre-draft process ranked relatively high, his stock is still soaring and it’s very possible that he’ll be picked in the top eight on June 26.
Initially, McDermott was expected to be a mid-to-late first rounder, which wasn’t bad for him considering he’ll be 23 years old in January and there were some questions about the level of competition he dominated against at Creighton.
However, there’s a bit of a love fest going on over McDermott. This started at the NBA combine in Chicago, when McDermott came off incredibly well in interviews. One executive who interviewed McDermott in Chicago said that he and his fellow front office staffers fell in love with the forward during their face-to-face meeting, to the point that the group cheered and high-fived when McDermott correctly answered a tough math question designed to trick players. That’s how likeable this guy is. As a coach’s son, McDermott says all of the right things and carries himself very well, which is an important part of this process.
However, he has also wowed teams on the court and surprised some talent evaluators in workouts. The guy can flat out score the ball and hit shots from anywhere on the court, so it’s no surprise that he has been able to dominate in the workout environment and embarrass some of his peers. One executive recently told me that McDermott is the best shooter to come through the draft in quite awhile. The Creighton star averaged 26.7 points per game as a senior and he never shot below 52.5 percent from the field during his collegiate career. Last season, he hit 44.9 percent of his three-point shots, a number that was actually down from his campaigns as a junior (49 percent) and sophomore (48.6 percent). Not to mention, he’s also a solid rebounder and has an exceptional basketball IQ.
McDermott was able to put up these ridiculous numbers despite being Creighton’s lone NBA prospect. After McDermott, the next highest scorer for the Bluejays was Ethan Wragge, who averaged just 10.4 points. Executives believe that McDermott will be even more of a threat in the NBA since he’ll be surrounded by NBA-caliber players and defenses won’t be throwing the kitchen sink at him.
There’s no question that McDermott’s defense is a concern, but he has vowed to work hard on that end of the floor to improve. As previously mentioned, his age is also a bit scary. How much more room for improvement does he really have? And does it make sense to pick him over one-and-done prospects like Aaron Gordon or Noah Vonleh, both of whom are four years younger than McDermott?
McDermott has been mentioned as a serious option for the Sacramento Kings at No. 8, Charlotte Hornets at No. 9 and Philadelphia 76ers at No. 10. It’s hard to imagine him slipping out of the lottery at this point, and there’s also the possibility that a team will trade up to land McDermott on draft night.
Elfrid Payton – The biggest climber in recent weeks has been Payton, who is now drawing interest from several teams in the teens and even getting serious looks from lottery teams.
Entering his junior season at Louisiana-Lafayette, he was being projected as a second-rounder. After a dominant campaign in which he averaged 19.2 points, six rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals while leading ULL to the NCAA Tournament, he was being projected as a late first-round pick. Now, after dominating pre-draft workouts, it’s unlikely that he drops past the Boston Celtics at No. 17 (as a number of people around the NBA have said that this is his floor).
Payton has had the chance to work out against some of the other top point guard prospects in this draft class, including Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis among others, and he has done a fantastic job. Entering this process, there were some questions about how he would fare against NBA-level competition, since he didn’t face the toughest opposition in college. However, his workouts have erased that concern and now the only question surrounding Payton is just how high will he go on June 26?
After seeing him destroy his peers in workouts, many teams went back to the film to see what they missed on Payton throughout the season. They were reminded that he was one of the best players in the nation last year, ranking 11th in the country in field goals (237), 11th in assists (208), ninth in steals (80) and sixth in points produced (732). His lockdown defense also earned him the Lefty Driesell Award, which is given to college basketball’s top defensive player.
His shot needs some work, but there is just so much to like about Payton. He has the size (6’4), length (6’8 wingspan) and quickness to cause problems in the NBA, and these traits have led to some comparisons to Rajon Rondo (whom Payton says he studies and models his game after). Payton can run the pick-and-roll and facilitate for teammates, and his swarming defense will make his NBA head coach fall in love with him.
Payton is also incredibly tough, which isn’t a surprise when you consider that his father, Elfrid Payton Sr., was a star defensive end in the Canadian Football League, playing from 1991 to 2004 and making seven All-Star appearances throughout his career. He was a two-time Grey Cup champion and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Several destinations for Payton include No. 8 to the Sacramento Kings (or slightly below that to the Kings if they trade down), No. 12 to the Orlando Magic, No. 16 to the Chicago Bulls or No. 17 to the aforementioned Celtics.
Rodney Hood – Entering the pre-draft process, Hood was being projected in the 20-25 range, but he has really helped in his draft stock lately. Now, it seems that Hood could go in the late lottery or mid-teens.
Hood has a lot of fans around the NBA, and it’s hard to imagine him falling past the Chicago Bulls at No. 16 given their need for scoring and three-point shooting.
The former Duke forward is automatic shooting the ball from just about anywhere on the court. He has really impressed teams in workouts with his scoring ability, and teams like that his excellent shooting ability is an obvious translatable skill that will help his transition to the league.
Even though Hood’s shooting is his biggest strength, he’s determined to show teams that he’s much more than just a shooter. He’s an efficient scorer with a high basketball IQ, and he has been working hard to improve his ballhandling and finishing at the rim so he can be a more well-rounded scorer. He has also been spending a lot of time in the weight room to bulk up and add some strength to his lanky frame. Hood also believes he’s better defensively than advertised, and throughout this process he has pointed out that he was often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player on most nights for Duke.
Teams also love Hood’s work ethic and desire to be great. He has been very committed to the pre-draft process, doing two-a-days in the gym at IMG Academy. He has also changed his diet to follow a professional nutrition plan while doing vision training, swimming drills, weightlifting, drills on the IMG football field and more to prepare for the NBA, which proves how serious he is about getting better.
Hood will turn 22 years old in October, which is likely the only reason he isn’t being mentioned as a top-10 pick. Some teams may feel that he doesn’t have the upside of a younger prospect. However, Hood does have a lot of supporters around the NBA and he seems poised to have a long, successful career.
T.J. Warren – If you read a lot of mock drafts, you’ve probably noticed that Warren keeps climbing higher and higher with every new version that comes out.
Initially, he was being projected as a late-first round pick – an attractive prospect for a win-now team like the Houston Rockets, Miami HEAT or Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, you’re starting to see Warren projected to go just outside of the lottery, with teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns being mentioned as possible landing spots for Warren.
One executive whose team is picking in the late-20s recently told me that they would select Warren in a heartbeat if he fell to them, but that there’s “no way” he’ll be available when they’re on the clock.
Warren is one of the best scorers in the draft, as last season he averaged 24.9 points and led the nation in field goals made (342). He was also one of the most efficient players in the country, finishing with a 31.3 PER that was the second-highest among the draft’s top 100 prospects (behind only Doug McDermott).
Warren scores most of his baskets on two-point jumpers, which is somewhat rare these days since most scorers knock down threes, finish at the rim or get to the foul line. But there’s no question that Warren is extremely skilled and has a great feel for the game. He’s expected to go in the middle of the first round, which is much higher than previously anticipated.
Zach LaVine – It’s easy to see why LaVine’s stock is up. The pre-draft environment is perfect for an athletic freak like LaVine, who can wow teams with his vertical leap and quickness. Teams see his athletic testing (including his 46-inch vertical leap) and wonder just how good he could become in an NBA development program.
Sure, he’s extremely raw and needs a lot of work, but he has certain things that you just can’t teach that are attractive to teams. A team can likely help LaVine improve his jump shot and ballhandling, but they can’t help a more skilled prospect become an athletic specimen who jumps out of the gym.
That’s why LaVine is getting so many looks right now; the draft is all about potential and most teams select players based on who they can become a few years down the road versus who they are now.
In college, LaVine played well in the beginning of the season at UCLA, but came down to earth in a big way late in the year. He isn’t a good shooter, which is a concern, and his assist rate leaves a lot to be desired. There are also concerns about his ability to play point guard in the NBA, since he’s more a combo guard who would need to learn the position and really improve his skills as a floor general.
He’s only 19 years old and teams are excited about his upside, since he has all of the physical tools to be a very solid player in the NBA. The question is, as a boom-or-bust prospect, how high will he go on draft night? He’s someone who makes sense in the 15-20 range, since he’s a low-risk, high-reward pick there and a team can afford to be patient with him as he develops rather than expecting results from day one.
Jarnell Stokes – If you watched this year’s NCAA Tournament, there’s a good chance you know about Stokes. He was the monster for Tennessee who looked like a man among boys and consistently racked up double-doubles. Now, he’s performing similarly well in pre-draft workouts and seems to be solidifying himself as a first-round pick.
For much of the college season, Stokes was being projected as a second-rounder because teams worried that he was a bit undersized as a power forward and they weren’t sure if his skills would translate to the NBA. However, as teams have gotten a chance to see Stokes up close in workouts, they are confident that he can continue to be an interior force at the next level.
Stokes is 6’8.5 with a 7’1.25 wingspan, but it’s his mass and strength that separates him from a lot of big men. He weighs 263 lbs. and is incredibly strong, as evidenced by his 22 bench-press reps at the combine, where the all-time record is 27 reps.
His lower-body strength is ridiculous and his legs literally look like tree trunks, allowing him to move and overpower players who are bigger than him. What’s even more impressive is that Stokes says he had never really done squats until beginning his pre-draft training, which means he should be able to get even stronger once he enters an NBA development program.
Stokes is an excellent scorer and a beast on the offensive glass. He’s also young for a junior at 20 years old. Stokes has been on the NBA radar for quite awhile, since he was one of the top high school players in the 2011 class. This season at Tennessee, he averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. Several years ago, he wanted to become more of perimeter player and modeled his game after Carmelo Anthony. However, he now understands that he’s at his best down low and he started studying film of Karl Malone and David West during his junior season.
Stokes is drawing interest from a number of teams in the 25-30 range, with the Miami HEAT said to really like him at No. 26. They’ve already worked him out once and are bringing him back for a second workout, which is why you’re starting to see Stokes to Miami in many mock drafts.
In a recent ESPN article by numbers guru Kevin Pelton, Stokes was rated the 12th-best prospect in terms of wins above replacement player projection.
Also, here’s a story to give you of an idea of Stokes’ toughness and competitiveness. He was recently being driven to a workout for the Miami HEAT, when a car came out of nowhere and crashed into his vehicle. Stokes sustained a concussion, lacerations and his face was covered in blood, but he had to be talked into getting into an ambulance to go the hospital because he still wanted to make it to his draft workout. Doctors told him that he would likely need to take three-to-four weeks off, but Stokes was back working out for teams one week later after reshuffling his schedule. That’s the kind of guy that I want on my team.
Shabazz Napier – Napier’s meteoric rise obviously started during the NCAA Tournament, when he shocked the world by leading Connecticut to a championship – his second title in four years.
While his strong play during March Madness certainly helped him a lot, there were still some questions about how he would translate to the NBA given his size and age.
At 6’1 and 175 lbs. with a 6’3.25 wingspan, many talent evaluators felt that he was too small to dominate against NBA opposition like he did in college. He’s also about to turn 23 years old next month, which has teams wondering if he still has much upside, and that doesn’t look great next to teenage point guard prospects like Tyler Ennis and Zach LaVine.
However, there’s no question that Napier can play and he should be able to help an NBA team off of the bench from day one. That’s why he’s currently climbing draft boards, because the playoff teams in the 20-30 range believe he can make an immediate impact as a reserve.
Some teams like to go for the dare-to-be-great pick, selecting a project who could turn out to be a steal after a few years of development. But there are also teams that pick more conservatively and those are the teams that are showing a ton of interest in Napier.
Napier could sneak into the teens, to a team like the Chicago Bulls or Boston Celtics. If he doesn’t go that high, he’ll almost certainly get snatched up in the late first-round by a team like the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets (for a reunion with Kemba Walker), Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs. Napier’s college resume is basically perfect, and some team is going to grab him in the first round.
Mitch McGary – McGary’s sophomore season at Michigan didn’t go quite as planned. After emerging as a key contributor during the Wolverines’ national championship run as a freshman, he decided to return to school and was expected to be the team’s focal point after Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left for the NBA.
However, McGary ended up playing in just eight games as a sophomore due to a back injury and he averaged a mediocre 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. Then, during the NCAA Tournament, McGary tested positive for marijuana, which would have led to him being suspended for all of next season, so he entered the 2014 NBA Draft despite the fact that his stock had dropped significantly.
McGary was hoping for a breakout season that propelled him into the lottery, but that obviously didn’t happen and now he’ll likely go lower than he would have had he entered the 2013 NBA Draft.
With that said, McGary’s stock has been climbing in recent weeks and a number of executives believe that the big man has a promise from a team in the 20-30 range.
McGary’s decision to skip the NBA draft combine in Chicago several weeks ago was strange, and now he is refusing to work out for a number of teams. Whenever this happens, it usually means that a player has a promise from a team in the first round, since the team will encourage the player to shut down workouts and avoid other teams to ensure that they land their guy.
A number of teams have tried very hard to get McGary in for a workout, but his camp isn’t budging, which has talent evaluators around the NBA wondering which team has made him a promise. Fringe first-round picks don’t turn down workouts unless their camp has something up their sleeve.
Executives have speculated that he could have a promise from the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 28, Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 29 or San Antonio Spurs at No. 30. These are attractive organizations (hence why McGary’s camp would agree to shut down workouts) and each of these teams could use a skilled big man who’s capable of contributing right away. These teams likely view McGary as a great value pick late in the first round, considering he was being discussed as a potential lottery pick one year ago before the injury and suspension significantly hurt his stock.
Check Out Basketball Insiders’ Latest Mock Draft
Every week until the 2014 NBA Draft, Basketball Insiders’ draft experts are putting out their “Consensus Mock Draft” as well as a draft notebook discussing their selections.
NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
* * * * * *
*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.
Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?
Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.
While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.
March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.
So who could still become available?
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
This seems almost too obvious.
The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.
After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.
Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.
Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.
Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings
Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.
But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.
Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.
Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings
Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.
Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.
As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.
Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks
Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.
So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.
If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.
He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.
Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.
But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?
With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.
Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos
There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.
NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor
James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor
The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.
But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.
All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.
The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.
While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.
Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.
“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.
When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”
Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.
“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”
Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.
In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.
The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.
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