The NBA preseason is underway, which means we can start analyzing actual games.
Many teams seemingly have their rotation all set, but there are still a number of fluid situations just two weeks before the start of the regular season. Below, we take a look at few of the more interesting logjams across the league.
Philadelphia 76ers Frontcourt
The Sixers have three young centers on their roster: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. All three were drafted in the top half of the lottery. Now that all three are (almost) finally healthy, coach Brett Brown has to figure out how he will distribute minutes in an attempt to keep them all happy. Noel let his feeling be known on the eve of training camp, when he told reporters: “I don’t see a way of it working. It’s just a logjam. You’ve got three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night and three centers can’t play 30 minutes a night. That’s that. Things need to be situated. Obviously, somebody’s got to be moved around. It’s a tough situation, but I can only say so much because I have no say and no power.”
Fortunately for the Sixers, Embiid has looked terrific in the limited minutes he has played. In addition, Okafor is ramping up his workouts and is in the final stages of rehab after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Is a trade inevitable? Ben Simmons being sidelined will open up minutes at power forward if Philly wants to attempt to play two bigs together, but that seems unlikely. As for the PF spot, Dario Saric has been impressive in the preseason and appears to be the favorite to start at the four spot on opening night.
Chicago Bulls Power Forward
The Bulls brought in big names Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo this offseason, but the issue in Chicago is long-range shooting. In today’s NBA, it’s more important than ever to have shooters who can space the floor and knock down threes. Last season, the Warriors and Cavaliers led the league in three-point attempts in the regular season. However, Rondo and Jimmy Butler attempted just 378 three-pointers combined last season. (In contrast, Steph Curry made 402 threes). Thus, the Bulls would ideally prefer to have Nikola Mirotic start alongside Rondo, Wade, Butler and Robin Lopez, with Taj Gibson coming off the bench. Mirotic was the only Bull to make more than 110 threes in 2015-16. However, Nikola has struggled this preseason and been outplayed by Gibson. Mirotic is shooting below 35 percent from the floor and 26.7 percent from behind-the-arc.
Bobby Portis has worlds of potential, but it is probably too soon to ask the 21-year-old to assume starter’s responsibilities. We’ll see whether coach Fred Hoiberg ultimately decides to start Gibson or Mirotic.
New Orleans Pelicans Backcourt
As Jrue Holiday takes time to deal with a heartbreaking personal matter, the starting point guard spot is up for grabs. Tim Frazier was the favorite at the start of the preseason, and has only increased the odds in his favor due to his stellar play. He’s averaging over eight points, eight assists and five rebounds per game, while shooting 66.7 percent from the floor. Langston Galloway will likely backup Frazier.
A nice competition is playing out at shooting guard as well. Both E’Twaun Moore and Buddy Hield have shot the lights out this preseason. Moore is averaging a team-high 17.7 points per contest, while shooting 61 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point territory. Hield is second on the team in scoring, pouring in 17 points per game with a 52 percent/40 percent/100 percent slash line. The Pels may opt to start the veteran Moore, if only to ease Buddy’s rookie transition into the NBA.
Cleveland Cavaliers Backup Point Guard
When Mo Williams announced his retirement last month, the battle for the backup minutes behind Kyrie Irving began. After an impressive showing in the Las Vegas Summer League (15.3 PPG and 3.9 APG), 2016 second-round pick Kay Felder has picked up right where he left off. Felder is averaging nearly 26 minutes per game and 11 points per contest this preseason. He started on Monday night, scoring 15 points and dishing out six assists. The Cavs signed Markel Brown last month, but it appears Felder has secured the spot. However, if the Cavs fail to re-sign J.R. Smith, Brown and Jordan McRae could see minutes at off-guard behind Iman Shumpert.
Milwaukee Bucks Shooting Guard
Khris Middleton is slated to miss six months after tearing his hamstring, which leaves a gaping hole in the Bucks backcourt. Unproven youngsters Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon are competing to be the starter. However, neither has shined in the preseason and they will likely end up splitting minutes, with both Michael Carter-Williams and Jason Terry also seeing some time out of position at the two-guard.
Miami HEAT Power Forward and Shooting Guard
Josh Richardson played well as a rookie and was expected to keep his starting gig this season; however, he partially tore his MCL on September 9 and may not be available at the start of the season. It was assumed the newly signed Dion Waiters would fill in should Richardson miss any time, but it was actually Tyler Johnson who started at shooting guard in Miami’s first two preseason games.
With Chris Bosh’s career potentially over, power forward is also an unknown at this point. It will likely either come down to Derrick Williams or Josh McRoberts. James Johnson and Luke Babbit could also earn some time at the four.
Memphis Grizzlies Power Forward
Head coach David Fizdale announced last month that JaMychal Green will be the team’s starting power forward this season, sending veteran Zach Randolph to the bench. Green hasn’t been overly impressive in the preseason, so we’ll see how long this lasts if Green struggles out of the gate or if Z-Bo is unhappy being the Sixth Man.
Boston Celtics Backcourt Backups
Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are set as the starters, but with Evan Turner in Portland, Terry Rozier is looking forward to an uptick in minutes. Rozier hasn’t done much since being drafted 16th overall in the 2015 draft, but he’s hoping to make his mark in 2016-17. Marcus Smart has already established himself as an elite defender; he is now looking to prove he can contribute offensively as well, by shooting/scoring efficiently and distributing the ball as a playmaker. Rookie Jaylen Brown will also attempt to earn some playing time on the wing behind Jae Crowder. These three young bench players could play an important role in determining whether or not the C’s can unseat the Raptors as champs of the Atlantic Division.
Denver Nuggets Power Forward
Kenneth Faried has long been a fan favorite in the Mile High City. However, Denver’s front office and coaching staff doesn’t seem to hold the same affection for the burly big man, due primarily to Faried’s defensive limitations. The Nuggets have a glut of forwards (Jusuf Nurkic, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler), and the best resolution for all parties would likely be to trade Faried out of town, if they are able to get back something they like. It will be interesting to see if Denver is willing to start the promising Nurkic over Faried.
New York Knicks Final Roster Spot
The Knicks have 15 players with fully guaranteed contracts, but point guard Chasson Randle is not among those 15. This is significant because the Knicks currently only have two point guards on their roster. Furthermore, those two point guards (Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings) have had injury issues. Do the Knicks feel comfortable going into the season with such limited depth at such an important position? If Rose were to miss time due to either injury or his current trial, Sasha Vujacic would be New York’s back-up PG. For that reason, the Knicks may choose to waive a big, such as Lou Amundson or Marshall Plumlee, in order to clear space for Randle.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.