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NBA Saturday: Midseason Surprises/Disappointments

Jesse Blancarte takes a look at some of the surprises and disappointments of the first half of the season.

Jesse Blancarte

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It’s All-Star Weekend, which means it’s a good time to take stock of the NBA season up to this point. We enter each season with predictions of what will happen, who the breakout players will be, which teams will turn the corner and make the postseason and which teams will be the real contenders, among other things.

Many times we are right and many times we are wrong. However, that’s what makes the NBA, and sports in general, so much fun. Each season there are players and teams that beat the odds and exceed our collective expectations, while others fall well short of expectations. If everything always played out the way we predict, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch the games each night.

Here, we take a look at some of the teams and players that have been pleasant surprises and disappointments roughly 50 games into the regular season.

Surprises:

Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis’ Quick Start 

Everyone expected the Minnesota Timberwolves to select Karl Anthony-Towns with the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was viewed as a versatile, multi-talented big man with athleticism and huge upside. What few expected was that Towns would quickly establish himself as not just one of the best prospects in the league, but one of the best overall centers. Anthony-Towns has shown an incredibly well-developed game so far this season. He can score around the rim, off the dribble and shoot the three-ball and has shown better defensive instinct and impact than we tend to see from players his age. We knew Anthony-Towns would be good, we just didn’t know he would be this good, this quickly.

Right behind Towns is Kristaps Porzingis. The New York Knicks took Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 Draft, which (unsurprisingly) drew boos from a majority of Knicks fans in attendance. It was soon after reported that Carmelo Anthony was upset that the Knicks picked a player that many predicted would need several seasons of NBA experience to become a regular contributor (a report that Anthony later denied). However, it didn’t take long for Porzingis to shatter those predictions and turn those boos into thunderous praise. Porzingis has shown an incredibly well-rounded game for a player his age and size and is now the cornerstone player for the Knicks, which no one anticipated to happen so soon, Carmelo included.

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors –

The Toronto Raptors were, and have been one of the few teams that is hard to gauge. The Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs last season to the Washington Wizards in a sweep and seemed capped as a pretender rather than a contender moving forward. But the Raptors are playing at a high level and proving their doubters wrong.

They added defensive-oriented players in the offseason like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, who have each helped solidify the Raptors’ defense (though Carroll has been out for some time with a knee injury).

These acquisitions have helped, but the biggest reason the Raptors are 35-17, second in the Eastern Conference and just three games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers is the improvement of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

Lowry lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and as a result has hit another level of play this season. Through 52 games, Lowry is averaging a career-high 21 points, 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and a career-high 39.2 percent from three-point range.

DeRozan didn’t drop a dramatic amount of weight like Lowry, but it seems as though he spent a lot of time working on the finer aspects of his game. While he has always been an effective volume-scorer, DeRozan has been somewhat limited as an offensive player throughout his career because of his inability to shoot the three-ball consistently. However, this season he has been very efficient as a pick-and-roll ball handler, constantly picking defenses apart with drives to the rim, pull-up midrange jumpers and passes to teammates for open shots.

Both Lowry and DeRozan were named co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month for the month of January and were named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The Raptors are exceeding our collective expectations so far this season, and there is no bigger reason than the stellar play of their starting backcourt.

C.J. McCollum’s Rise 

When LaMarcus Aldridge decided to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, Portland general manager Neil Olshey made the decision to break up his roster and bring in young talent to put around star point guard Damian Lillard.

With Aldridge gone, Lillard was set to be the face of the franchise and its one and only established star player. However, C.J. McCollum, who never averaged more than 15.7 minutes per game through his first two season in the NBA, took on a bigger role early this season and has made the most of it so far. Through 52 games this season, McCollum is averaging 20.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from beyond the arc.

McCollum impressed with a strong performance in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Memphis Grizzlies. But even with that performance and a bigger role, not many expected McCollum to be quite this good. Similar to the Raptors, the Trail Blazers are beating expectations this season and most of that has to do with the terrific play of McCollum.

Will Barton’s Improvement 

The Portland Trail Blazers were looking to make a splash in the playoffs last season and traded for veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo to help with that. The Trail Blazers sent Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, a lottery-protected first-round pick and Will Barton to the Denver Nuggets for Afflalo and Alonzo Gee.

Unfortunately, Afflalo never found his stride in Portland, struggled with injuries and signed with the New York Knicks as an unrestricted free agent after the season. Barton, through 30 games with Portland last season, was averaging 3.0 points, 1.9 assists and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from distance. He was set to hit restricted free agency after the season, and so Portland decided to move on from the young shooting guard, which is surely a decision Olshey wishes he could take back.

This season, Barton is averaging 15.5 points, 2.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.

Barton is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and will compete in the Dunk Contest tonight. Additionally, the Nuggets were able to lock up Barton last offseason to a three-year deal worth $10.6 million, which is an absolute steal.

Philadelphia 76ers Abandon “The Process”

Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has tanked the last few seasons in an effort to rebuild his team through the draft. He has purposely stayed out of free agency, cycled through young fringe players in search of hidden gems and did little to hide the fact that he simply was not interested in winning regular season games. Through it all, the mantra was “Trust The Process.”

Well, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apparently lost patience for Hinkie’s process and coordinated with Philadelphia ownership to bring in someone that could help the franchise speed up the process. The team brought in Jerry Colangelo, who hasn’t made sweeping changes yet, but who seems poised to start making moves to get Philadelphia back to a level of competitiveness that they’ve purposely avoided for years.

Disappointments:

New Orleans Pelicans Injuries and Ineffective Play

The New Orleans Pelicans went 45-37 last season and squeezed the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the final playoff seed with a win over the San Antonio Spurs on the last day of the regular season. The Pelicans lost in the first-round to the Golden State Warriors, but looked to be on the upswing, especially with Anthony Davis looking like he would be a perennial MVP candidate each season moving forward.

The Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry to be the new head coach last offseason. This hiring had a lot of people excited since Gentry was credited with running the Warriors’ up-tempo offense, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers’ offense a few seasons back, which has been one of the best in the league stemming back to Gentry’s tenure. Many predicted that adding Gentry’s up-tempo offense would boost the Pelicans’ play this season, especially that of Davis.

However, injuries and inconsistency have submarined the Pelicans this season. Davis has been in and out of the lineup throughout the season, Tyreke Evans is out for the season with a knee injury and Eric Gordon is again sidelined with an injury. Additionally, Quincy Pondexter never fully recovered from his knee injury from last offseason and will sit out this entire season as well.

The Pelicans have managed to beat some of the better teams in the league this season, but too often they lose to teams they should have the edge on. The Pelicans are currently 20-33 and are 6.5 games back from the eighth seeded Utah Jazz. As things currently stand, it looks like this year’s Pelicans will miss the playoffs and fall short of every expectation we had for them entering this season.

Milwaukee Bucks’ Regression 

The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the biggest surprise teams from last season. After going 15-67 in the 2013-14 season, the Bucks went 41-41 last season behind the strength of their defense (rated second best in the NBA) and pushed the Chicago Bulls in an exciting first-round matchup. 

With Jabari Parker returning from injury, the addition of Greg Monroe and the continuing development of other core players like Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson, many expected the Bucks to take another step forward this season. However, the Bucks have regressed significantly this season and are now ranked 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The trade that sent out Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams continues to look like a huge mistake and the team is collectively struggling with a lack of three-point shooting and spacing on offense.

The Bucks are now rumored to be looking to shake up the roster and even Greg Monroe is reportedly available. The Bucks still have a strong core of young talent and Khris Middleton in particular has been a bright spot for the team this season. But at 22-32 and ranked 13th in the East, there’s no doubt that this team has been one of the most disappointing so far this season.

Phoenix Suns’ Turmoil

There weren’t over-the-top expectations for the Phoenix Suns entering this season. However, since trading Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons and signing Tyson Chandler in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, things have fallen apart rather quickly in Phoenix.

Markieff Morris has been disgruntled since his brother was traded, has been inconsistent all season and only started showing any signs of life after former head coach Jeff Hornacek was fired. He also recently got into an argument with teammate Archie Goodwin during a recent game in which both players shoved each other. Chandler looks pretty washed up and his contract runs for several seasons after this one. Rising point guard Eric Bledsoe is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery for yet another torn meniscus. T.J. Warren is out for the season after breaking his foot. The only real bright spot for Phoenix run now is the impressive all-around play of rookie Devin Booker.

There is still talent in Phoenix, but after so many botched transactions, internal strife and injuries, this has been a disastrous season so far for the Suns.

Blake Griffin Fight and Injury 

Blake Griffin started off this season playing as well as just about anyone not named Stephen Curry. He was hitting his midrange jumper, showing improvements in almost all facets of his game and was even improving defensively.

However, Griffin was sidelined in late December with a quad tendon injury that was to keep him on the bench for several weeks. Then, when Griffin was on the cusp of returning, he got into a fight with Clippers’ assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, who is a good friend of Griffin.

Griffin ended up breaking his hand, which required two surgeries and will keep him sidelined for several more weeks. It’s disappointing when a player is injured during a game or in practice, but it’s even more so when a player brings about the injury through poor decision making off the court, as is the case with Griffin here. The Clippers already had an uphill battle to climb with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors dominating the Western Conference and with Griffin’s status unclear for the playoffs, he has jeopardized the Clippers’ chances of making a deep run in the postseason.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s Injuries –

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist underwent surgery last October to repair a torn labrum he suffered during a preseason game. It was believed that Kidd-Gilchrist would miss the season because of the injury, or would be out until the last few weeks of the season at best. But Kidd-Gilchrist pleasantly surprised everyone by managing to return to action roughly two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, roughly two weeks after making his return, Kidd-Gilchrist reinjured the same shoulder that sidelined him earlier in the season. Subsequent testing revealed that he tore his labrum in his right shoulder and is now out indefinitely.

Kidd-Gilchrist played well through seven games, averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 54.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance. Kidd-Gilchrist brought his defensive prowess and overall versatility to a Hornets team that is currently 27-26 and fighting hard to hold on to the eighth seed in the East. He will be reevaluated after the All-Star break and will decide whether to rehab the injury, or undergo surgery.

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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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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