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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch

The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown is making a late run for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Benny Nadeau

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Until February, the leading choice for Rookie of the Year was cut and dry, the runner-ups just a formality in a race that was seemingly locked up. After waiting two years for Joel Embiid’s debut, the center quickly became one of the league’s must-watch entities this season.

But when Embiid was shelved for the season with a meniscus tear in his left knee, the league’s most wrapped up award was suddenly wide-open again. While none of the names on this list have come close to replicating Embiid’s unicorn average of 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in just 25.4 minutes per game, it’s difficult to give the award to a rookie that only played in 31 games.

So, if not him, then who?

10. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks

Now that Yogi-Mania has calmed down, the Dallas Mavericks’ point guard has finally settled into a comfortable position in the offense alongside Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki. After going undrafted last June, Ferrell was waived twice by the Brooklyn Nets before signing with the Mavericks in late January and promptly lit the league on fire. For a Mavericks team dealing with injuries at the position, Ferrell performed so well that both sides skipped the potential second 10-day contract in lieu of a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.

While he’s certainly cooled down as of late, Ferrell has become an important guard for the Mavericks, particularly so after waiving Deron Williams following the trade deadline. J.J. Barea’s recent return will continue to take playing time away from Ferrell, but there’s plenty of tricks to learn from his fellow undersized teammate.

Ferrell has averaged 11.6 points and 4.6 assists per game since joining the Mavericks, but his highlight of the season came against the Portland Trail Blazers in early February. Up against Damian Lillard, Ferrell exploded for 32 points on nine three-pointers on 11 attempts to officially announce his permanent arrival to the NBA. There’s a good chance his height will keep him from being anything more than a serviceable rotation guard in the NBA, but if the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas has taught the league anything, Ferrell isn’t a player worth betting against.

9. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks

Even though Derrick Rose’s super team statement quickly soured, the New York Knicks have done a great job of collecting cheap, young talent this season — most notably with Willy Hernangomez. Now filling in for the injured Joakim Noah, the Spanish international has shown flashes of a future piece worth putting next to Kristaps Porzingis. On the season, Hernangomez has averaged just 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds over 17 minutes per game, but he often shines brightly when given the opportunity to do so.

Against Indiana Pacers last week, Hernangomez tallied 13 points and 16 rebounds in 31 minutes, but his minutes have been juggled all season by head coach Jeff Hornacek ass he evaluates the best route forward. His per-36 numbers are more than encouraging at 15.2 points and 13.8 rebounds, and if he can average anywhere close to that in his career, the Knicks will be thrilled to have scooped him up with an early second-round pick. As an athletic bruiser, Hernangomez has the potential to be a game-changer for the Knicks as they head into a crucial offseason. Even better, his emergence as a quality big will allow the franchise to potentially draft the point guard of the future in June’s draft — a win-win for all parties involved.

8. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

After missing the first month of the season due to a foot injury, Caris LeVert has quickly become the Brooklyn Nets’ saving grace. In another season full of disappointment and injury, LeVert’s growth has been intriguing alongside rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson. LeVert joined the Nets’ starting lineup following the All-Star Break and has been effective from the perimeter and as a slasher in the lane.

While he’s still acclimating to the deeper three-point line, shooting just 30.6 percent from there thus far, LeVert has already notched 11 games with two or more three-pointers — a necessity on a Nets roster that shoots 32 of them per game. When the Nets traded Thaddeus Young for the Pacers’ No. 20 pick last summer, many were skeptical of LeVert’s potential as a four-year senior coming off of a serious injury, but he has turned many of those skeptics into believers.

As his first season in the NBA winds down, LeVert will have plenty to work on this offseason, but he’s been one of the Nets’ few bright spots in 2017. Outside of his sticky hands, LeVert has proven capable of stuffing the stat sheet, evidence by the 17 points, five rebounds, six assists and three three-pointers he posted against the New Orleans Pelicans in late January.

Turns out, there may just be a reason why his nickname is “Baby Durant.”

7. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

When the Sacramento Kings’ deadline deal sent away franchise center DeMarcus Cousins, it made rookie Buddy Hield an unfortunate punch line across social media platforms, but he’s fast made a name for himself on the West Coast. As a member of the Pelicans, Hield often suffered through offensive slumps, but the sharpshooter has found his groove in Sacramento.

Against the San Antonio Spurs last night, Hield posted 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes, but his improvement hasn’t stopped there either. He’s now scored 15 or more points on 17 different occasions in 2016-17, and his 9.5 points per game average ranks him fifth among rookies. With Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere freed up following Cousins’ departure, the trio makes for an intriguing foundation in Sacramento.

Hield’s been handed the keys to the Kings’ franchise and the 23-year-old has shown promise with his new-found responsibilities. Though it’ll take some time before he becomes the next Stephen Curry, Hield has had himself a fine month for the Kings, shooting 50 percent from the floor over the last 10 games.

6. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Jamal Murray has been one of the league’s best rookies in 2016-17 but hasn’t nearly gotten as much coverage as many of his competitors have. Outside of his 36-point Rising Stars Challenge breakout performance, Murray has been quietly making waves for a Nuggets team trying to make a late playoff push. As Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte wrote over the weekend, Murray is a player that deserves more Rookie of the Year chatter, growing well into his role after leapfrogging Emmanuel Mudiay in the rotation.

He’s shooting just 34.1 percent from deep this season, but there’s reason to believe Murray could turn into one of the draft’s purest shooters. His strongest performance to date may have come in November — 24 points, six rebounds, two assists and three three-pointers — but Murray has proven himself as a capable ball handler as well, averaging just 1.3 turnovers per game. Additionally, Murray is one of the few players on this list currently entrenched in a playoff battle, so head coach Mike Malone’s confidence in the 20-year-old should not go unnoticed much longer.

5. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns

With Dragan Bender and Tyson Chandler both done for the year, it’s been a coming out party for Marquese Chriss in Phoenix as of late. Under head coach Earl Watson, the high-flying rookie’s minutes have fluctuated throughout the season as the Suns pushed for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff berths early on.

But as those expectations dwindled, Chriss has been set loose on unsuspecting defenses and he’s lived up to his high draft selection thus far. At just 19 years old, Chriss has provided a handful of jaw-dropping moments and his five-block effort against the Kings last month signified the type of rim protection he can offer moving forward. Although he’s been a streaky shooter from deep so far at just 32.6 percent, the athletic forward certainly fits the mold of the NBA’s new prototypical big man with range.

Paired with Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and the aforementioned Bender, the Suns arguably remain just one piece away from impacting the conference’s playoff race moving forward. After one full offseason, expect Chriss to come back stronger, bigger and with a refined three-point stroke — then the league will truly see what this freakishly athletic pogo stick is capable of.

4. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

For many, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon, a second-round selection out of the University of Virginia, has been a pleasant surprise, coming on strong right out of the gate in November. Under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, Brogdon has been a game-changer on both sides of the ball for a franchise still trying to secure one of the Eastern Conference’s final seeds, proving that he can step into most situations and contribute.

In college, Brogdon was one of the country’s best defenders, but it’s been his playmaking and shooting that has most helped the Bucks. Brogdon is averaging 10 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals over 26.2 minutes per game, providing some much-needed energy for the Bucks all season. He won’t beat out either of the Sixers’ rookies, but Brogdon is certainly a name worth remembering.

3. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

While the two rookies for the 76ers remain ahead of Jaylen Brown right now, it may not be for much longer. The Boston Celtics’ Brown has not only earned playing time in head coach Brad Stevens’ loaded rotation, but he’s run with the opportunity and provided tremendous production for the conference’s newly-minted contender. The No. 3 overall pick was key in the Celtics’ wins over the Los Angeles Lakers (16 points, eight rebounds), Cleveland Cavaliers (eight points, six rebounds) and Chicago Bulls (11 points) this month and is primed for some important minutes in his first upcoming postseason.

Filling in for an injured Avery Bradley, Brown joined the starting lineup and responded with a scorching hot streak from three-point range, his biggest knock as a prospect coming into the NBA.

From going at LeBron James without fear to defending some of the opposing teams’ best players, Brown has proven that he belongs in this conversation as well. All of a sudden, the former Cal standout is making significant contributions to a roster that’s making a late push for home court advantage until the NBA Finals — that alone should elevate Brown past most of his competition.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Alas, what could have been.

Once the NBA experienced Joel Embiid’s considerable talent, it was tough to let go again. Conquering this year’s notoriously weak draft class, Embiid was the shining star that could often stuff a layup attempt on one end and then dribble into a three-pointer on the other. With the hype well-met and Embiid playing out of his mind, the former Jayhawk even made a serious run at one of the Eastern Conference’s final All-Star spots as a rookie, almost becoming the first to do so since Blake Griffin in 2011 and Yao Ming in 2003.

In a word, Embiid was simply remarkable, delivering on a huge portion of his considerable potential and then some through the first three months of the season. Statistically, Embiid blew the class away, but, again, it’s tough to give the honors to somebody that played in only 31 games.

However, if Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll be earning bigger and better awards before long — so hopefully this is the last major setback in a long and fruitful career.

1. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

According to Embiid himself, the answer for Rookie of the Year is obvious:

Over the course of the season, Dario Saric has averaged just 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 41 percent shooting, but it’s been an entirely different story since Embiid went down it a knee injury. Since the injury, Saric has significantly bumped his per-game numbers to 18 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists, successfully taking the reins from his teammate as the odds-on leader for the award. Since his move to power forward, Saric has helped the Sixers to three wins in their last five games, including a staggering 42-point victory against the Dallas Mavericks last week.

Saric has improved drastically as the team’s new go-to scorer (he’s averaged 15.1 FGA per game since February, up from his season average of 11.1), and often has the ball in his hands in the biggest moments. The new fan-favorite turns just 23 years old in early April, but his years dominating in Europe have obviously carried over as he’s a crafty, creative forward that was well worth the wait.

Even better, Saric has the attention of the best European player of all-time, Dirk Nowitzki. Before the Mavericks lost to the 76ers last week, Nowitzki told Mike Sielski of The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was impressed with the Croatian’s strong rookie season.

“It feels like they run a lot of stuff to him now,” Nowitzki said. His specialty is that he can go both ways. He’s a good driver. He can create contact. He can finish. He can get to the foul line. He’s able to step out and knock down that three-point shot, and that really opens up the drives for him. In big situations, they give him the ball to create.”

With just 12 games remaining, Saric has a great opportunity to fill up the box score for a Philadelphia squad that will do plenty of experimenting under head coach Brett Brown to finish the season. Even with the slow start, Saric has proven worthy for the game’s biggest moments and should be a fantastic piece to pair with Simmons, Embiid and another high draft pick this summer.

Ultimately, the voting will come down to a battle of statistical impact versus the value of winning: Saric’s numbers pass the eye test, but don’t count out the voters’ acknowledgment of Brown’s contributions to a potential 50-win Celtics team.

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

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Washington Wizards 2017-18 Season Preview

The Washington Wizards have invested big into their young core. Could they be serious contenders this year? We take a look in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards needed to win a game on the road to overcome the Boston Celtics’ home court advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Less than two quarters into the series, Wizards starting power forward Markieff Morris suffered a sprained ankle. He was limited to 11 minutes in Game 1 but played through the injury in Game 2, only to see Isaiah Thomas drop 53 points and the Celtics prevail in overtime in what was the Wizards’ best chance to steal a game on the road. Boston would ultimately prevail 4-3 with the home team winning every game of the series. With John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all signed long-term, the Wizards are now committed to one of the NBA’s best starting lineups with little financial flexibility to address a lack of quality depth. Now Washington must look to internal improvement, better luck with injuries and personnel moves on the margins to improve on a season in which the Wizards were one road victory away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This is the year that John Wall asserts himself as a perennial league MVP candidate — or at least the year the rest of the league stops pretending that he isn’t.

As the driving force behind the Washington Wizards’ attack, Wall is another year further into his prime and looks poised to fully utilize the weapons he has around him in D.C. After last season’s breakout year (finally) for Wall’s backcourt partner, Bradley Beal, the one-two punch in Washington is plenty capable of hanging around with the likes of Boston and Cleveland.

With a weaker back half of the Eastern Conference set to provide a few more easy wins for the Wizards, Wall and Co. look to have the makings of a 50-win team this season.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

I am a big believer in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr. and a few other players on the Washington Wizards, but I’m not convinced this team has the collective talent to scare the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics this upcoming season. Wall and Beal make up one of the best backcourt duos in the league, but if either player is off their respective games or struggling with injuries, Washington simply cannot keep up with the Celtics or Cavaliers. If players like Porter or Kelly Oubre Jr can take a significant step forward in their development, that could change the dynamic in the Eastern Conference a bit. Outside of that scenario or a lopsided deal that bolsters Washington’s roster, I just don’t see Washington having much of a shot at taking Cleveland or Boston down in the postseason.

1st Place — Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Last season, the Wizards showed tremendous growth. They were still haunted by inconsistency and growing pains, but John Wall and Otto Porter, Jr. each grew quite a bit. The best part of all was that Bradley Beal managed to play in 77 games, a career-high.

I thought that the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets was quite shrewd and underrated. In 26 games, he gave the Wizards about 13 points off the bench and shot 39 percent from distance. After matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet to Otto Porter, though, the Wizards rescinded his qualifying offer, which cleared the way for him to sign with the Pacers on a two-year, $21 million deal. In the long run, his departure could hurt the club. If the Wizards stay healthy this season, though, their continuity should allow them to easily win the division again. Last season, the Hawks finished second, but six games worse than the 49-win Wizards. Both the HEAT and Hornets are improved, but I don’t think they’ll make up enough ground on Scotty Brook’s team to pose a real challenge.

Out East, this season, it’s supposed to be the Cavs, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards vying for supremacy as the top four seeds. So long as the Wizards stay healthy and continue to be the team we saw last season, they should be right there.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

John Wall is the best. He’s been talking about taking the “next step” in his postseason career every summer for the last half a decade, and one gets the sense that the Wizards are closer to that than they ever have been. With Cleveland potentially vulnerable in the wake of losing Kyrie Irving and Boston integrating a lot of new pieces, the Wizards have a great opportunity to jump out to the East’s best overall record, especially early in the season. Beal should have been an All-Star last year and probably will be this year, while new-max player Otto Porter is expected to make a jump, too. I’m a believer in this Washington team, which is to say I’m a believer in John Wall.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

All the talk in the East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, and something tells me the boys in Washington are going to have something to say about that. Fresh off a playoff collapse against Boston that they likely feel should never have happened, the Wizards will be itching to show the league that this isn’t a two-team conference. John Wall and Bradley Beal are an All-Star backcourt, and swingman Otto Porter is entering a brand new massive contract extension. The bench still remains an area of concern, though improvements from guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. could stem that tide somewhat. Don’t be surprised if Washington makes some real noise to challenge for a conference final appearance if they can keep the primaries healthy.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

John Wall led the Wizards in scoring for the postseason at 27.2 points per game while shooting 21-for-61 (34.4 percent) from three. Beal struggled from three in the playoffs, shooting 29-for-101 (28.7 percent) and trailed Wall at 24.8 points per game. Beal was slightly better than Wall in overall shooting percentage, but most interestingly he was far more efficient as the ball handler in pick and rolls during the playoffs. In 70 possessions, the Wizards scored a spectacular 1.14 points per possession with Beal as the ball handler, which ranked in the 95th percentile. In 149 playoff pick and rolls initiated by Wall, the Wizards scored only .8 per possession, which ranked in the 44th percentile. With Beal struggling to hit from outside and Wall hitting at a respectable clip, the Wizards might have been better served to allow Beal to initiate more plays with Wall playing off-ball.

Top Defensive Player: Ian Mahinmi

In the summer of 2015, Washington used its opportunity to make a major commitment to a free agent to sign Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million contract. He promptly suffered a partially torn meniscus in the preseason and missed most of his first season as a Wizard. He then suffered a calf injury which limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. Earlier this summer, Mahinmi underwent what was described as a minor procedure on his left knee. With the Wizards set to pay the luxury tax, the team needs its major free agent signing to pay dividends in his second season.

To contend for an NBA championship, teams typically need to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense. The Wizards finished the regular season ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. A healthy season from the rim-protecting Mahinmi could be the factor that helps Washington turn the corner defensively and take advantage of the roster flux in Boston and Cleveland to make a run to the conference finals — and perhaps beyond.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Despite any struggles as a ball handler in the pick and roll, Wall is unquestionably the turbocharged engine that makes the Wizards go. Wall exerts major pressure on opposing defenses by pushing the ball in transition, leading to efficient opportunities at the basket and three-point line. The Wizards are the best transition team in the Eastern Conference, but the mediocre defense has limited the team’s transition opportunities. If the team can improve defensively in 2017-18, it will give Wall more chances to push opposing defenses to the breaking point. During the playoffs, Beal also acknowledged Wall as the team’s vocal leader and organizing force on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Marcin Gortat

It’s a tiny sample, but last season Marcin Gortat shot 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) on field goal attempts in clutch situations. Porter was second among Wizards with double-digit attempts at 53 percent on 32 attempts while Markieff Morris shot 49 percent on 49 clutch attempts. The lion’s share of shot attempts in clutch situations went to Beal — who shot 43.3 percent on 104 attempts — and Wall — who shot 41.2 percent on 119 possessions. Gortat told CSN at the conclusion of last season that he planned to speak with GM Ernie Grunfeld about his fit with the team after grousing about his limited role in the playoffs. Perhaps Gortat has a point. Given the far greater efficiency of the other starters in clutch situations, perhaps it’s time for Wall and Beal to share those responsibilities more evenly.

The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.

In 2011, the Wizards passed on future All-Stars Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard to draft Jan Vesely. Washington obviously wasn’t in the market to draft a point guard the summer after drafting Wall, but the point remains. One of the greatest factors standing between the Wizards and true contender status is the team’s past failures at talent evaluation. Currently, the team’s biggest hope for internal improvement from a former first-round pick is Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards need defense, and Oubre combines with Porter to give the team a pair of wings who can guard multiple positions.

Unfortunately, Oubre’s offensive development hasn’t gone as well as hoped. Part of the reason could be that, in February, the Wizards opted to sacrifice a first-round pick to obtain Bojan Bogdanovic, who was averaging a career-high 14.2 points for the Nets. Bogdanovic was another score-first, defensively-challenged player who was never going to factor in Washington achieving a top-10 defense. Additionally, he got in the way of Oubre’s development. Bogdanovic wasn’t a difference maker in the playoffs.

Had the Wizards committed those regular-season minutes to Oubre’s development, his offense might have come around by the playoffs and given the team another impact defender. Oubre shot just 28.7 percent from three during the regular season but upped his percentage to 36.7 in the playoffs in limited opportunities. Multiple Wizards observers have speculated about a small ball lineup for Washington featuring Morris at center, Porter as a stretch four and Oubre at small forward. Provided Oubre continues to hit threes at a league-average clip, that lineup could be a nightmare for opponents. Had the Wizards not traded for Bogdanovic, Oubre might be farther along and Washington would have had a first-round pick in this summer’s deep draft to address depth issues.

Best New Addition: Jodie Meeks

With few options to add talent due to cap restrictions, the Wizards made a low-risk, high-upside move by signing former Magic shooting guard Jodie Meeks to a two-year, $7 million free agent contract in July. Meeks is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter for his career and shot nearly 41 percent in 36 appearances last season for Orlando. The Hawks tried to go small to get past the Wizards in the first round, but Washington crushed Atlanta’s small-ball lineup. Meeks could give the Wizards another floor-stretching option to open driving lanes. However, like Wizards additions of the past, Meeks has a long injury history. He has appeared in only 99 games over the last three seasons.

– Buddy Grizzard

WHO WE LIKE

1. Otto Porter

Porter will be the Wizards’ highest-paid player the next two seasons after Washington matched a four-year, $106.5 million restricted free agent offer sheet from the Nets. It’s an overpay on the surface until you consider that Washington had no way to replace him if the team didn’t pay up. Through March 20 — when he was overtaken by Kyle Korver — Porter led all NBA players with at least 200 three-point attempts at 44.9 percent. He’s not the most explosive player, but he’s so efficient as a scorer that the Wizards must find ways to get him more involved in the offense.

2. Coach Scott Brooks

The Wizards are the closest the franchise has been to contending for a championship since Washington defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games during the 1978 NBA Finals. Scott Brooks is a big part of that. In interviews, Brooks oozes confidence and competence. He’s modernized the team on both sides of the ball and helped get the most out of the Wizards during the John Wall era. He’s proven to be much more for Washington than Kevin Durant bait.

3. Owner Ted Leonsis

Speaking of Oubre’s importance to the Wizards, how can you not like an owner who shows up wearing this after his young player is suspended for a playoff game:

4. Markieff Morris

If he could defend without fouling (an unlikely proposition), Markieff Morris could be an All-Star. The Hawks lost in the first round because Mike Budenholzer went small. Based on individual stats, Paul Millsap outplayed Morris. Per on/off differentials, Washington was far better with Morris on court than Atlanta was with Millsap on court. For the playoffs, the Wizards were +10.1 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court, easily a team-high. Unfortunately, due to foul trouble and injuries, Morris played only 372 postseason minutes compared to over 500 for Beal and Wall.

– Buddy Grizzard

SALARY CAP 101

The Wizards are heavily invested in their roster with $123.5 million in guaranteed salaries, easily above the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Washington will pay at least $6.4 million in tax, more if they keep two of their four non/partially-guaranteed players (Sheldon Mac, Daniel Ochefu, Carrick Felix and/or Donald Sloan).

After re-signing Otto Porter to $106.5 million and giving John Wall $169.3 million in an extension (both over four years), the Wizards are heavily invested in their core with Bradley Beal. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Kelly Oubre and Chris McCullough. Regardless, the team is not projected to be under the cap next season – instead facing another luxury tax penalty.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As mentioned, the Wizards are the best transition team in the East and boast one of the league’s best starting lineups. The three-pointer will continue to be a weapon for Washington. If Porter spends time as a stretch four, he will get pushed around by most power forwards but the Wizards will be trading three for two. Few NBA power forwards can chase Porter over screens and prevent him from launching from deep — Korver was his closest analogy for most of last season. Because the Wizards can stretch the floor and have one of the league’s best point guards at attacking the basket, Washington is a nightmare for opposing defenses. If not for injuries and Beal’s curious struggles from distance, Cleveland might have had its hands full in the conference finals against the Wizards.

– Buddy Grizzard

WEAKNESSES

Again, as mentioned, sub-optimal use of draft picks and injury woes have robbed the Wizards of the depth that is vital to a deep postseason run. And until the Wizards show enough pride on the defensive end to be something better than average, the team is unlikely to ascend to contender status. If this is the season when Morris limits his fouls, Mahinmi stays healthy and the Wizards become a top 10 defense — yes, that’s a lot of ifs — you’ll finally see peak John Wall unleashed in transition against terrified defenses.

– Buddy Grizzard

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Wizards use continuity to challenge the in-flux Celtics and Cavaliers in the East?

As much as the Wizards are handcuffed by the salary cap and dearth of developmental options, having the team’s core signed long term gives Washington continuity that’s not shared by its Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics will miss Jae Crowder’s ability to guard an opposing team’s best player and Kyrie Irving has never accomplished anything without LeBron James. With Thomas set to miss extended time with a nagging hip injury, Cleveland has huge questions at point guard. And then there’s the matter of LeBron’s pending free agency next summer. If he heads West, as so many have speculated, Washington’s list of true rivals in the East becomes shorter. For all the question marks, the fact that Brooks has figured out how to make Wall and Beal complement each other and Washington has most of its key pieces signed long-term means the Wizards will be a force to be reckoned with — this season and in seasons to come.

– Buddy Grizzard

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NBA AM: Kyrie Irving Wants To Be His Own Star

Kyrie Irving says his decision to leave Cleveland is less about LeBron James and more about Kyrie Irving.

Steve Kyler

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Can You Blame Him?

Former Cavalier guard and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving has started to make his rounds on the PR circuit to not only set the record straight, but to try and clear the air before the 2017-18 season opens. During his appearance on ESPN’s First Take, he was asked directly about his motivations for wanting a trade from Cleveland.

“The request came at a time I deemed right for me,” Irving said. “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”

As much as people have tried to make Irving’s exit from Cleveland about LeBron James, the story coming from Kyrie continues to be the same—he wanted to be the focal point, not just in the offense, but in how the team was coached and constructed.

Let’s be real for a minute: Irving is just 25 years old. He is not wise beyond his years, he is a young guy trying to make his mark in the NBA, and he’s doesn’t want to do so as the second option or the afterthought next to the Hall-of-Famer. Instead, Irving wants the chance at creating the opportunity for himself to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussion in his own right.

As much as people have blasted Irving for exiting a winning situation, the thing most don’t seem to want to accept is that Irving was also going to be the second concern in Cleveland. That’s a tough thing to expect from a young player. It’s easy to expect players to want to accept secondary roles or, worse yet, play from the bench, but when you consider how much blood, sweat and tears players put into their careers, can you blame Irving for wanting to see how far he can go on his own terms?

That’s what the exit from Cleveland was really about. Irving wanted to put himself in the environment to be the very best player he could be and give himself the best opportunity at long-term greatness.

Were there problems in Cleveland? Absolutely. You can’t look into that situation and think everything is perfect, because the evidence on the floor showed you that it wasn’t. That’s a tough thing to expect a player to accept.

“I was raised being in a professional environment,” Irving said about how long this was brewing. “Being in a workplace and making sure it’s conducive for everybody. So having those relationships and developing those every single day, and on top of that, still wanting to be as successful on the court and still trying to figure out myself off the court. I had to balance those two. When I was coming into that environment, there were times where my energy was a little off. I just had to figure that out. There were times when after games I would go out and shoot, and as any professional athlete or any person knows, when in your workplace and you have those tough days, there are questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing for me right now?’ I answered that question for myself.”

As Irving has started to explain his motivations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his desire to move was more about the environment he was in more than any interpersonal relationship. That’s not a surprising thing either. If you didn’t know, the Cavaliers are built around LeBron James. The offense is built around James, the defense is built around James, the pace of play is built around James. That’s great for James and it’s great for support players that benefit from James, but is that great for a 25-year old player trying to become his own superstar?

It’s not, and it’s a little naïve to think a player should accept that at this point in his career.

Irving may grow to regret leaving a sure-thing like the Cavs. He may find out the grass is not always greener on the other side. He may think he’s landed in a better environment than Cleveland, but that too can change. Just ask the Celtic players that were traded away before free agency decisions. Still, the one thing Irving can absolutely embrace is that he has bet on himself. He has taken the chance to be great on his own terms, and that’s what most players truly covet—especially the ones in Irving position.

As much as people have lambasted Irving for exiting a Finals team in its prime, Irving has put himself in a position to be his own guy. While that may seem short-sighted in the grand scheme of careers, ask yourself how you really view Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson or Tony Parker. Being the guy next to the guy is pretty good way to become a footnote to a Hall-of-Fame career. You might win a lot of games and even make a lot of money, but when the book is finally written on your career, did you become what you set out to become when you started the journey? That’s the question Irving wants to answer on his own terms and if that means he fails, he will fail trying to be great, not just accepting the accolades of being the guy next to greatness.

It is easy to be dismissive or Irving’s desire for individual greatness, but can you really blame him for wanting to try? Isn’t that how the greatest of the greats got to their place in NBA history?

By blazing their own way?

Kyrie Irving wants to be his own star, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA PM: Memphis Grizzlies 2017-18 Season Preview

The Memphis Grizzlies seem to be at a cross-road. Are two-star players enough in the West? We take a look at the situation in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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For long-time fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, the 2017 off-season has been a bittersweet affair. Fan favorites have unceremoniously departed the team. Gone are the likes of Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. With them, a few more core pieces of the prime “Grit and Grind” days have departed. In their place, the Grizzlies will look to others, including a few reclamation projects, to step up and help fill the void.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This season looks to be one of the more interesting seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are gone. Their division, and conference for that matter, is deeper and while the league is shifting to small ball play, the Grizzlies are anchored by big man Marc Gasol.

While Randolph and Allen certainly are past their glory days, they take with them a specific gritty personality that Memphis had adopted over the years. Without that, the Grizzlies may head into this season without the edge that had made them the lovable underdog tough guys in recent postseason matchups.

As the league continues to change their point of attack from half-court ball to full-court ball, this may be the season it catches up to Memphis and leaves them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.

4th place – Southwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

Every year, a few more folks pick this to finally be the season the Grizzlies fall of the playoff wagon – and every year, they get egg on their faces. Will this finally be the year a reduced version of Grit n Grind misses the second season? On the one hand, the roster is almost scarily thin once you get past stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. On the other, that always seems to be the case, and it never seems to stop the Grizzlies from eking out enough wins to get it done. I’ve got them slightly outside the playoff picture, but with no absolute certainty here given their history.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

They play the game for a reason, but it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies continuing to be the same team we remember them as without Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. After three years with the club, Vince Carter also followed Randolph to Sacramento, but the Grizzlies will resemble the team they have been so long as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol remain intact.

There certainly is a collection of young players on the squad that could amount to something—Andrew Harrison, Wade Baldwin and Deyonta Davis are a few—but it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies improving from last season. They are clearly two steps behind the Spurs and Rockets and will be pushed by a number of teams that they beat out to secure the seventh seed in last year’s playoffs. With the Northwest Division looking quite formidable, the Grizzlies are probably going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time, but that’ll largely depend on whether Chandler Parsons can give them meaningful contributions and whether or not David Fizdale can coach one or two of the youngsters up into becoming impactful players.

Anything is possible, sure, but expecting much from the Grizzlies this season may be a bit of a reach.

3rd place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Grizzlies are at a turning point this season. After years of being right there in the West, the Grizzlies opted to shed some of their older veterans and have taken some chances on players that have star-level ability but have not put together star-level careers. Combining some promising younger players with franchise anchors Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could be enough to swing the Grizzlies forward, but it could equally be the beginning of the end given the age of Gasol and Conley. The Grizz are a tough team to predict. They are well coached, have two underrated stars and a lot of promise on their bench, but none of that may mean anything in the West. The Grizzlies have done the hard part – they have two game changers. If any of the new faces or young guys they have invested time in turn into real players, the Grizz could be as good as they were a season ago. The problem is that’s not as likely as falling back given the volume of change and unknown.

3rd place — Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

Some of the players that best represented the heart and spirit of the Memphis Grizzlies departed this offseason. Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have all moved on, which leaves Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as the two major remaining players from the Grizzlies squad we have known for the last few seasons. Chandler Parsons is the team’s third most important player at this point, but he has struggled mightily with injuries over the last few seasons. The Grizzlies agreed to a four-year, max-contract worth roughly $94 million. That’s a huge amount of money for a player that just had his worst NBA season and seems unlikely to ever recapture his peak form. On the upside, the Grizzlies have taken a couple of fliers on players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans, hoping they can have a bounce back season. The Grizzlies usually find a way to outperform our preseason projections, but this year may be different. These isn’t much overall talent, JaMychal Green has yet to re-sign and the team is depending on several players with significant injuries or injury histories. With this in mind, it’s very possible Memphis misses the playoffs this upcoming season.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol continues to be an excellent player to build around. Count Gasol and point guard Mike Conley as the foundation for this team. Assuming Gasol continues his excellent play from last year, he will continue to be the focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense. Last year, Gasol averaged a career-high in points (19.5) and added three-point range to his game. This was the first year Gasol added the long distance shot to his arsenal on offense and the change came just in time to help a team that failed to get significant contributions on the perimeter from forward Chandler Parsons. Add in a career-high in assists (4.6) and Gasol stands out as the center piece of the offense as he can score from the inside, from three and as a facilitator for his teammates.

Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol

Tony Allen’s contributions on the defensive end will be missed. He never lit the league on fire with his shooting or scoring but he thrived on defense. In a recent interview, he revealed the origin of the “hustle and heart” and “grit and grid” ethos the franchise has thrived on the past few years (it’s an interesting story that involves former Grizzly Rudy Gay). With Allen gone, we can surely count Gasol as the key defensive player for the Grizzlies going forward (especially considering Gasol led the team in defensive win shares last season). Gasol is a surprisingly effective rim protector and will be counted on as a last line of defense whenever Memphis’ wing defenders lose track of their opponents. Gasol will need to stay in great shape (he just finished playing in the Eurobasket tournament) to stay mobile and keep up when opposing defenses drag him out to the perimeter on close outs and pick and roll action. Gasol may be getting up there in age, but he’s still one of the best defensive anchors in the league.

Top Playmaker: Mike Conley

Like Gasol, Mike Conley used last season to increase his offensive output and help push the team into the playoff picture. Conley upped his scoring average to a new career-high (20.5) — a huge five-point jump from the prior year. Not only did the team make the playoffs but Conley helped to vindicate the franchise after it re-signed the lead guard to a maximum extension, amounting to the largest contract in NBA history. With the team’s backup point guard situation up in the air, Conley’s play will be key if the Grizzlies are to be successful. Conley will have to be aggressive in creating shots for himself and his teammates since there are no other playmaking ball handlers that can be counted on for a variety of reasons – mostly health. With a strong handle and the ability to get to the rim, Conley is and will be largely responsible for creating easy scoring opportunities for his teammates this season.

Top Clutch Player: Mike Conley (Honorable Mention – Marc Gasol)

Count this category as a toss-up. Unsurprisingly, Conley and Gasol are the two easiest choices here. Both have virtually identical net ratings (+11.5 and +11.6, respectively) in clutch time, defined by nba.com as play in the last five minutes of a game within five points. Gasol has a strong ability to get his own basket in the post and can hit an open jumper anywhere on the floor. Although close, the nod goes to Conley as his usage percentage is much higher (35.3 to 24.5 percent) since he controls the ball more than anyone else on the team. Whether taking the shot himself or creating an open look for a teammate, Conley has the skill and experience to execute in high-pressure situations.

The Unheralded Player: JaMychal Green

Putting aside injury concerns (discussed below), the most pressing issue the team is currently facing is the contract status of restricted free-agent forward JaMychal Green. The team has been unable to sign the young big man to a multi-year deal up to this point. With the clock ticking to training camp, the chances of Green being signed to the one-year qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, increases. The promotion of the versatile big man to the starting line-up helped to modernize the team’s offense last season. Green stepped in to compliment Gasol with sufficient outside shooting and athletic versatility. For a team that is trying to cement its lineup for the short and long term, this situation is concerning. Fans should hope that ownership finds a compromise that recognizes the young big man’s abilities and contributions before possibly losing him down the road.

Best New Addition: Ben McLemore

The Grizzlies have to deal with a lot of turnover. Many old stalwarts are gone and a new era of Grizzlies basketball begins. The signing of Ben McLemore is the most important new addition to help jumpstart this transition. Unfortunately, McLemore broke a toe in the offseason that projects to keep him sidelined for the first few weeks of the season. The team should keep high hopes that the change in scenery and a new, more stable enviornment, can help the young guard come closer to reaching his potential. McLemore has seen his minutes and productivity dip the last two years. If McLemore produces somewhere close to his full potential, he can quickly become the third most important player on a team looking for contributors up and down the roster.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Grizzlies Medical Staff

The franchise is in flux and pressure will be on the Grizzlies to keep the trove of injured and injury prone players healthy for the team to have a chance to make it back to the playoffs. Grizzlies’ fans have to hope and root for the team’s medical staff to effectively monitor and treat multiple players closely. The most important player in this regard is Chandler Parsons, who has been limited by severe knee injuries for several seasons. Add point guard Mario Chalmers (recovering from an Achilles tear) and wing Tyreke Evans, who has struggled with kneed injuries, to the list of players the Grizzlies’ medical staff will have to keep a close eye on. If even a few of these players can make a full recovery and stay relatively healthy throughout the upcoming season, the Grizzlies suddenly become a much more dangerous team in the Western Conference.

2. Coach David Fizdale

As mentioned, the team has to deal with a lot of ongoing injury concerns. Without reasonable assurances that the above players can be relied upon on a day to day basis, the pressure will be on Coach Fizdale to steer the team with a steady hand as players shuffle in and out of the line-up and the team likely struggles to find consistent contributors outside of Conley and Gasol. Fizdale endeared himself to the larger NBA community during last year’s playoffs when he complained about the team’s treatment by the referees. In frustration, Fizdale listed his grievances and punctuated the rant with the line, “Take that for data.” The Grizzlies eventually went down to the Spurs in six games but the coach gained additional recognition and further cemented the support of his players and Grizzlies fans.

3. Chandler Parsons

Chandler was ineffective last season after being signed by the team to be the third cog behind Gasol and Conley. The hope is that with sufficient time and rehabilitation, Parsons can be effective once again. After a poor outing last season, expectations are reasonably lower for the veteran forward. With so much cap space tied up in his contract, his comeback would be a nice boost for a team that is looking for all the help it can get on the wing. When healthy, Parsons is a versatile forward who can stretch the floor, facilitate the offense and guard both wings and some bigs in certain situations.

4. Tyreke Evans

Tyreke Evans has experienced varying degrees of success over the years. However, Evans struggled mightily last season with lingering knee issues. Evans was ultimately traded back to Sacramento, where he had spent his first five seasons in the NBA. Now going into his ninth season, Evans is looking to regain his peak form. While playing fewer minutes last year, Evan’s numbers, per 36 minutes, remained on par with his overall career arc. This gives some indication that if Evans can stay relatively healthy, he can still be an above average contributor on a team that sorely needs depth.

5. Mario Chalmers

Chalmers has never averaged more than 10 points a season and has never made the short list of the league’s best point guards. However, he should be lauded as a key contributor in the HEAT’s multiple title runs and two championships. Chalmers stuck around after the departure of LeBron James and continued to carve out his own success. Chalmers eventually joined the Grizzlies in the 2015-2016 season. Although he played as the back up to Conley, Chalmers effectively ran backup point and put up some of the best per-minute numbers of his career. Unfortunately, his season came to an end with an Achilles tear in December of 2015. Coach Fizdale and the front office both have made clear that they monitored his recovery and, when asked, Chalmers indicated this is why he went back to his previous team. Fizdale and Chalmers have history going back to their shared Miami HEAT days. With the mediocre play of Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison last year at the backup point, Grizzlies fans should be rooting for a full recovery for Chalmers.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Grizzlies have stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, triggering a hard cap when they used most of their Mid-Level Exception (MLE) on Ben McLemore, Rade Zagorac and Dillon Brooks (along with their Bi-Annual Exception on Tyreke Evans). Memphis still has $1.4 million left in their MLE. The roster has 15 guaranteed players, not including restricted-free agent JaMychal Green – who is still negotiating with the team.

At almost $105 million in salary, the Grizzlies aren’t close to the $125.3 million hard cap, even if Green does return. Before November, Memphis needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Wade Baldwin and Jarell Martin. Next season, the franchise does not project to have any cap room, given their sizable investments in Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Conley and Gasol are arguably in the peak of their respective primes. The two stalwarts share great chemistry and will rely on each other heavily this season. When healthy, these two are the foundation of the team, both on and off the court. The team has developed a reputation for hustle, defense and punishing teams with their post play. With Fizdale, the team will continue to shift to small ball play predicated on ball movement to keep up with the modern offensive trends in the NBA. While it’s not clear how far this team can go, with Gasol and Conley leading the charge, Memphis should have a shot of winning on most nights.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Youth and injuries. Outside of the team’s big two, there is a shocking drop off when identifying the team’s third best player. Parsons has the talent to be this player but what version of Parsons comes back is unclear. McLemore can step into this role, as mentioned, but has to overcome his offseason injury and reach his potential – something that isn’t necessarily a given. With the injury bug hitting the above players, as well as Chalmers and Evans, the team’s success is heavily reliant on players that are currently injured or injury prone. Reliability and consistent production will likely be hard to come by for the Grizzlies this season.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Does the franchise continue to build around Gasol and Conley (both already in their 30s), or take preemptive action and look to rebuild the roster through a trade of one or both of their stars?

This is a tough question, especially for the fans who just witnessed the Grit and Grind era quietly come to a close with many familiar faces departing. As constructed, it’s hard to envision this team ever competing with the league’s top teams, such as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Trading Conley and Gasol now could help accelerate a rebuilding effort, similar to what the Boston Celtics did with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The likelihood is the Grizzlies won’t trade their two best players, but it’s something that should at least be considered.

– James Blancarte

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