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NBA Saturday: Miami HEAT Ablaze During Recent Streak

After a slow start to the season, Miami is fighting its way into the playoff race.

Jesse Blancarte

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There are currently three NBA teams that have won nine of their last 10 games: The Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards and Miami HEAT. That’s right, the HEAT, who lost veterans like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh (who technically is still on the roster but is unable to play), Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire from last season’s team, and who lost Justise Winslow to a season-ending shoulder injury after playing in only 18 games, is one of the hottest teams in the league right now.

Miami started the season with a 5-10 record through 15 games and was 11-30 before this recent streak. It was seemingly safe to assume that Miami’s season was effectively over and that the only important issues left to determine were who would be traded and where Miami would land in the upcoming draft lottery. However, that has all changed, starting with Miami’s win against the Houston Rockets on January 17. Since that game, Miami has beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets (twice), Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks.

Miami is now three games back in the standings for the eighth seed but must overcome teams like the Bucks, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets to get back into the playoff picture. The good news for Miami is that these three teams, as well the eight-seed Detroit Pistons, have not played particularly well lately.

Miami is getting nice play out of guys like Dion Waiters, Goran Dragić, James Johnson, Willie Reed and Hassan Whiteside, as well as an unexpected boost from Okaro White. Waiters, in particular, has been playing at a high level, hitting big shots in late game situations, including a game-winning three-pointer against the Warriors.

Several HEAT players spoke to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald recently and explained how they have managed to play so well individually and collectively.

“It’s not a coincidence,” Rodney McGruder said. “That’s what this organization is about – getting better. And we have a collective group of guys who really want to get better. [Coach Spoelstra] was just talking about how this organization is made up of real gym rats, guys who like to be in the gym and get better.”

Waiters, who is averaging 20.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from three-point range during this ten-game stretch, credits the coaching staff with helping him to improve his jumper and ability to drive into the lane.

“I would get by my guy but I would take off too far,” Waiters said. “That would give the defender a chance to load up and block it. Now when I get in the lane, I am taking an extra dribble so he doesn’t know when the shot is coming. Or I take an extra dribble and I’m able to get my shoulder in his chest. I watch Goran [Dragić] do it all the time.”

Willie Reed also credits the coaching staff, which regularly reaches out to players to work on areas in need of improvement.

“[Assistant coach Juwan Howard] is one of the best big men to play this game; anything he says you take to heart and do exactly how he says it,” Reed said. “The way he says it is usually the way it works out in the game. That’s what I say to him when I come back to the bench.”

As a franchise, Miami goes beyond addressing issues on the court. It also emphasizes proper nutrition and fitness.

“What they did transforming James Johnson … was amazing,” Reed said. “The way James is playing, it makes the other guys want to give everything to have the same success.”

As Barry Jackson noted, Johnson shed roughly 31 pounds from the end of last season with the Toronto Raptors and reduced his body fat from 14 to 7.5 percent. And Johnson isn’t the only player who is benefitting from Miami’s emphasis on making sure its players are in great shape.

“Eating healthy has helped my game evolve,” Reed said. “Here, they like to be the best conditioned, toughest, most physical team. And they expect that from all their players.”

While just about every NBA player is already in great shape, it’s clear that Miami’s players are operating at a high level as a direct result of the emphasis on nutrition and fitness.

“I’ve never been overweight or out of shape but to be in top shape, and feel my body is in top condition, it makes a world of difference,” Wayne Ellington said. “I see a change not only in my body and my game but also my mindset.”

Miami should be lauded for its developmental work this season and recent hot streak. However, Miami is in a position where its recent success arguably conflicts with what is in its best interest long-term. Even if the HEAT make the postseason, they face a considerable uphill battle and are extremely unlikely to make it out of the first round. With several role players on either expiring or relatively small contracts playing so well, Miami could potentially trade them before the upcoming trade deadline in exchange for future assets. No single player could be traded for anything of major value, but every bite at the apple helps in a rebuild. Trading these players now and dropping in the standings could help Miami’s chances of landing a top draft pick in the upcoming draft, which obviously has more long-term significance than winning a few extra regular season games this season.

Miami has two high-end players in Dragić and Whiteside and young talent to build around, including players like Tyler Johnson, Winslow, McGruder and Josh Richardson. With Bosh’s health issues and Miami’s ability to waive him and his salary utilizing the long-term injury provision, Wayne Ellington’s nonguaranteed salary for next season and the team’s ability to stretch Josh McRoberts’ contract (assuming he exercises his player option for next season), the HEAT could potentially clear a large amount of cap space for free agency. In doing so, the HEAT could be in play for major free agents like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin. Of course, Miami would have almost no shot of landing a top-tier free agent considering they aren’t particularly close to contention, but there are other free agents who could be intrigued by Miami’s core. Additionally, Miami’s proven system of developing players and maximizing its rosters under Spoelstra should be appealing to free agents.

It’s clear that there are a lot of issues, both in the short-term and long-term, which Miami needs to consider. Miami’s recent success is great for its fans and further reinforces Spoelstra’s position as one of the best coaches in the NBA. But it may be in Miami’s best interest to sell high on its short-term role players, clear cap space, drop in the standings to potentially get a better draft pick and go after significant free agents to add to their core of talent.

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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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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