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NBA Saturday: Burke, Jazz Confident About Future

Trey Burke says Utah is the NBA’s best young team and predicts they’ll make the playoffs next year.

Alex Kennedy

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Burke, Jazz Confident About Future

It’s easy to forget that Trey Burke just turned 22 years old several months ago and is only in his second NBA season with the Utah Jazz. The ninth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft seems older because he has been relevant in the basketball world for quite some time and he carries himself like a mature veteran.

Burke’s name first started surfacing in NBA circles when he was dominating alongside Jared Sullinger at Northland High School in Columbus, OH. He turned heads by winning a state championship, U16 National AAU championship and Ohio’s 2011 Mr. Basketball award.

Then, the point guard burst onto the scene as a star freshman at Michigan, leading the team in total points, assists, steals and blocks. Despite his success, he returned to school for his sophomore season and became a household name after his incredible March Madness run that included a 30-foot, overtime-forcing shot against Kansas and ultimately a runner-up finish to Louisville in the 2013 national championship game. Shortly after, he was drafted by Utah, and now his NBA career is 144 games old.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ersBurke started all but two games he appeared in as a rookie, averaging 12.8 points, 5.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds and .6 steals and finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting behind only Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo.

This year, his role has changed a bit with the addition of fellow lottery point guard Dante Exum and the hiring of head coach Quin Snyder. He has started just 43 of 74 games and is playing slightly fewer minutes per game, although his averages are pretty similar: 12.9 points, 4.4 assists, 2.7 rebounds and .9 steals.

While the major statistical categories are about the same, it’s worth noting that Burke has limited his turnovers and fouls and, at times, seems more in control on the court. He’s the first person to admit that he’s still learning and trying to expand his game, but he’s optimistic about the progress he’s making since, again, he’s still so young.

“I’m much more comfortable,” Burke told Basketball Insiders. “I’m starting to understand the very small things that will help me get to where I want to be in my career. There are some things you don’t understand until you actually experience a year or two in the NBA. One of the main things was the schedule. Going from 30 games to 82 games is a big adjustment for really anyone who’s coming from college to the NBA. That’s something that I’ve definitely learned to cope with.”

Being around the best players in the world for two years has also taught Burke quite a few tips and tricks. While he wouldn’t name specific players, he said that he has studied and duplicated some of the moves used by veterans he respects around the league.

“I definitely look at guys I’m playing against and sometimes I do see certain things that I can learn from,” Burke said. “Guys who are older and have been in the league obviously have more experience, and they do certain things you can take and put into your game.”

When talking to Burke, it quickly becomes clear that adding things to his game is extremely important to him and that he aspires to be great. He doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would be content with simply being an average role player throughout his career. He’s competitive and has an incredible work ethic, to the point that he sounds giddy when talking about the upcoming offseason and the opportunities he’ll have to improve his game while essentially being locked away in a Columbus gym.

“I’m really looking forward to this offseason,” Burke said. “I’m working hard this summer to prepare for next season. This offseason, I would like to go to a stable spot, where I can just focus in and train. That will probably be back at home in Columbus, OH. The things that I’m working on this offseason are just really getting stronger, getting quicker, being more explosive, finishing at the rim and just continuing to work on my jump shot. I think those are the biggest things that I need to work on and I’m going to attack them this summer.

“I know that I have a high ceiling and have more potential to grow. Like I said, this summer and this offseason will be very big for me. I look forward to coming back even stronger and even better next season. Being a young player, I know that these offseasons are really important in how much I’ll grow.”

One of the main reasons why Burke wants to take the next step in his development as soon as possible is because he believes Utah has a chance to be a special team very soon. The team is currently 34-41, which exceeded most preseason projections. Said differently, they’re only seven and a half games out of the eighth seed in the insanely competitive Western Conference and they would be the eighth seed right now if they played in the Eastern Conference.

The Jazz have shown glimpses of how special they can be throughout this season. Since the All-Star break, they have won 15 of 21 games and have had one of the league’s most dominant defenses.

With that in mind, I start to ask Burke if he believes the Jazz could make the playoffs next season. Toward the end of the question, I mention that “the West is brutal” and that’s when he cuts me off.

“Yes, the West is brutal, but we definitely think we can [make the playoffs],” Burke said confidently and without hesitation. “We’ve beaten a lot of the top teams in the NBA. At the same time, we’ve lost a lot of games as well, but we know we can beat pretty much anyone with the team we have and the talent we have. Next year, we’ll have Alec Burks coming back and we’ll be [at full strength]. We think it will be a great year for us.”

As Burke mentioned, Utah has certainly had a lot of quality wins on the season, beating playoff teams like the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzles (twice), San Antonio Spurs (twice), Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls among others.

And it certainly seems that the Jazz’s best basketball is ahead of them, as 11 of their players are age 25 or younger. The team’s oldest players are Trevor Booker, Jeremy Evans, Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap, all of whom are 27 years old (which is almost considered ancient in the Jazz locker room).

The Jazz have young talent at every position and a core of Burke, Dante Exum, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks and Rodney Hood can cause a lot of problems for opposing teams, as they’ve shown since the All-Star break. If this group is playing this well right now, how scary will they be when the players all reach their prime right around the same time? Burke can’t wait to find out, and he certainly doesn’t lack confidence when discussing the team’s future.

“We think [we’re the NBA’s best up-and-coming team],” Burke said. “If we’re not the best, then we’re one of the best. We’ve won a lot of really good games, games that we were underdogs in, and that’s been big for our confidence. We do think we’re one of the best teams with a young roster in the NBA right now.”

That confidence is relatively new for Utah. Last season, they would enter most games viewing themselves as the underdog with a slim chance of winning. When your team has a .305 winning percentage and the West’s worst record, that mentality is understandable. It wasn’t until recently, when they started dominating defensively and beating talented teams, that they started entering games expecting to win or, at the very least, compete at a high level.

“I think the biggest thing is we’re starting to understand how good we can be,” Burke said. “We’re playing at a high level, we’re playing together and, more importantly, we’re playing high-level defense, which is allowing us to get great offense. We know we’re a young team with a lot of talent, and we’re looking forward to next year. I think this momentum that we are gaining at the end of this season will definitely lead into next year’s success.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder had a similar realization when their win total jumped from 23 to 50 from the 2008-09 season to the 2009-10 campaign. They were a young team that had been to the lottery in four consecutive years, so they weren’t the scariest team to face. That is, until those lottery selections started to blossom and dominate, turning Oklahoma City into a juggernaut that featured a confident Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and (at the time) James Harden.

Burke gives a lot of credit to Coach Snyder for Utah’s turnaround and culture change. The fact that that Burke and Snyder have such a strong bond even though Burke was moved out of the starting lineup by Snyder, says a lot about Burke’s maturity and professionalism and about the respect and trust that Snyder has from his players.

“Our relationship is really good; since he came in, we’ve had a relationship on and off the court,” Burke said of his bond with Coach Snyder. “I think everyone likes him. He’s a guy who holds everyone accountable, even himself, to get things that we’re trying to accomplish done. We need someone who’s going to hold everyone accountable, so it’s great to have a guy like him.”

Burke also praises Gobert’s development, which has been huge for Utah. The 22-year-old played so well that Enes Kanter became expendable and was traded to the Thunder. Putting Gobert in the starting lineup has turned Utah into one of the league’s top defensive teams. Gobert will likely receive consideration for awards like Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year, as he should.

“His progression has been great for us,” Burke said of Gobert. “With his ability to block shots around the rim, and his presence on the court, he has definitely helped us. We are going to need that from him all this year and next year.”

One question that has generated some discussion lately is, what should the Jazz do with the lottery pick that they’ll have in the 2015 NBA Draft? As previously stated, they already have so much young talent, so should they try to trade it for a veteran contributor? Or should they use the pick and add another piece to their young core?

“If I had to make the call, I would probably go best available,” Burke said regarding Utah’s draft pick. “You always want good talent to be a part of your team. [I’d try to take] a guy who loves to compete and at the same time is very talented. That’s probably what I would do.”

Whatever the Jazz decide to do, it’s clear that this team has the weapons to be very good and make serious noise in the near future. Lately, Utah’s players have been having a blast because everything is better for a team when it is winning. Suddenly, everyone around the organization is happy, fans are ecstatic and there’s hope throughout the city. But the players are also thrilled because they are seeing the early signs of their greatness and realizing that they have something special coming together.

“We’re having a lot more fun – guys are smiling and laughing and we’re enjoying this last part of the season,” Burke said with a grin. “We know what the future holds and how good we can be.”

 

Trey Burke is working with Unilever, promoting their products and helping athletes and others “Get Game Ready” by following a proper grooming program.

“Working with Unilever, our goal is to get guys game ready with their grooming routine, using our products such as the Degree Men Dry Spray and the Dove Men+Care Body Wash,” he said. “They have Degree, Dove and Axe body products and I use them before my games and it helps me get game ready. You always want to feel clean, whether it is off the court or on the court. I think it is something big in the NBA; it’s something big in all professional sports.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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