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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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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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