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The Future of the NBA is in Good Hands

Several iconic players retired last offseason but the league has plenty of talent to take the torch moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte

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Since the end of last season, the NBA has said goodbye to some of its most iconic stars. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand all retired this offseason, leaving Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili, Paul Pierce, Metta World Peace and Jason Terry as the only remaining active NBA players who were drafted in the 1990s.

While it is tough to say goodbye to players who have been around for roughly two decades, fans can take solace in the fact that the first few days of the 2016-17 season have served as a strong reminder that the NBA is flooded with top-level talent and a wave of younger players who are on the path to stardom.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and the other top-tier veterans have been around for some time and are still some of the league’s top performers. These star veterans now fill the role that guys like Duncan, Kobe and Garnett used to, while the younger generation of budding stars continues to collectively develop and prove itself.

Some of these younger stars have put up some huge performances in the first few games of the 2016-17 season, including San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. Through two games this season, Leonard is averaging 32.5 points, four rebounds, four assists, five steals and 11 free throw attempts per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field. Leonard’s scoring and steal averages will very likely decrease as the season moves along but this strong start has certainly been impressive.

“That dude’s good, man,” DeMarcus Cousins said about Leonard. “(Expletive), he’s good. He’s really good. He was hitting shots over two guys. I mean, I heard he was working with Kobe, and there was some flashes of Kobe in there. He’s really good.”

Leonard has won the Defensive Player of the Year award two years in a row and now with Duncan gone, he is the focal point of the Spurs’ offense. Once considered to be a “system player” that only thrived because of the strong offensive structure in San Antonio, Leonard is establishing himself as arguably one of the best two-to-three players in the NBA, which is incredible when you consider he’s only 25 years old.

Cousins wasn’t so bad himself in his last game either. He registered 37 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and one steal, though his team fell to the Spurs. Cousins is also quite young (26) and has established himself as the most dominant all-around center in the NBA.

Another early season standout has been James Harden of the Houston Rockets. Harden has established himself as one of the best players in the NBA – though his defensive limitations are problematic – and may be set for a career-year as Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has named Harden as the team’s point guard. In his debut as the team’s lead guard, Harden proved himself to be an elite playmaker and a dominant force, though his team did ultimately fall to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“James Harden obviously finished with 34 [points] and 17 [assists],” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “But that’s what stars at this level do. All you can do is try to make it tough on him. That’s it.”

Walton seems to be correct in that you can’t truly stop Harden from putting up big numbers on any given night. The best any opposing defense can hope to do is force him into an inefficient night, force a lot of turnovers and exploit his poor defense on the other end of the court. Over the course of two games this season. Harden is averaging 30 points, 12.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds and one steal, while shooting 48.6 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from the three-point line. Harden may not be able to keep posting these huge statistics but he looks very comfortable as the Rockets’ lead guard and will give opposing team’s headaches on a nightly basis.

Another player who is putting up huge box score numbers is Harden’s former teammate Russell Westbrook. Ever since Kevin Durant announced that he would be leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, people in and around the NBA have been predicting that Westbrook would become the league’s most statistically dominant player. Through two games, Westbrook has been in the running with the NBA’s elite in terms of box score statistics. Over two games, Westbrook is averaging an eye-popping 41.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 9.5 assists and one steal, while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range. In a 113-110 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns, Westbrook logged 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. He took 44 shots (career-high) and went to the free throw line twenty times. He became the first players to register a 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabar did so in 1975. Westbrook played 45 minutes against the Suns but somehow never seemed to slow down or tire.

“You’ve got to want to win,” Westbrook said after the game. “Very simple. When you want to win, you don’t think about being tired. To me, being tired is a mind thing. It’s in your mind. You’ve got to go out there and compete at a high level and leave it on the floor.”

Westbrook, age 27, is a man on a mission and doesn’t figure to slow down anytime soon.

While Leonard, Harden and Westbrook are all off to incredible starts this season, there is arguably no one playing at a higher level so far than New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. Through two games, Davis is averaging 47.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, four assists, 4.5 steals and three blocks, while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 25 percent from distance.

“It’s hard to defend him,” Kevin Durant said. “You can’t. His first step is probably the quickest I’ve seen in a while at his position. He’s long, he can shoot it, he can dribble it, he can shoot the 3 — so he’s doing just about everything out there on the court.

“[He is] probably going to lead the league in scoring this year easily … 50 for him is a good game, and now [he’s like] move it to the next one. It’s kind of a customary night for him, so we’ve got to be prepared tonight.”

Davis is the first player since Michael Jordan to score 90 points or more combined in his team’s first two games of an NBA season. In his last game, Davis logged 45 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the seventh player in NBA history to have 45 points and 15 rebounds in consecutive games. The others are Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone and Bob McAdoo. And remember that he put up these numbers against Draymond Green, who is arguably the most versatile and effective defender in the NBA. However, the problem for Davis is that despite his efforts, his team is now 0-2. He’ll need some more support from his teammates moving forward considering there isn’t much more he can do on his end to help his team win.

These are just some of the players that are putting up huge numbers early this season. Other players like Damian Lillard, Durant, Myles Turner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan and even T.J. Warren have put up stellar performances through the first few games of the 2016-17 season. And with young budding stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins (just to name a few), the NBA is sure to have a lot of star power and a wealth of talent for years to come. Though the NBA lost some iconic, future hall-of-fame players this last offseason, these extraordinary early-season performances are serving as a strong reminder that the league is still in good hands moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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