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NBA Players Discuss Offseason Improvement

Players from around the NBA discuss their training regimen and offseason progress.

Alex Kennedy

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Players are often hesitant to make any kind of drastic changes to their game during the actual NBA season, which is understandable since the rigorous schedule doesn’t allow much time for real development (and certainly not enough time for a player to become confident with their dramatic alterations).

Yes, players improve as they gain experience – particularly young prospects. But when an individual is tweaking their shot, bulking up or transitioning to a new position, these things typically take place over the summer. Most NBA players train extremely hard during the offseason, working out at popular training sites across the country such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago and others.

Basketball Insiders asked a number of NBA players about their offseason and what aspects of their game they worked on this summer.

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: “One thing that I tried to add this summer was a three-point shot. I think I did pretty well with it in my national team games and I just want to keep working on it. I think it’s something that I can add to my game that would help myself and the team, especially with the way that the game has evolved. I think with the drivers we have at the guard positions, me being able to stretch out the floor will be able to help them. I always try to add things to my game; I think I’ve done that every season I’ve been here and I want to keep doing it.”

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: “My ball-handling is better now. I just feel comfortable with the ball now, so you’re going to see some new stuff this season. You’re going to see some new stuff, and hopefully more put-back dunks. … Last offseason, we made a little mistake that all I did was work upper body and try to get bigger. This offseason, I really focused on my lower strength, my legs, my core, [to] make sure that it’s strong. That’s going to give me strength to be able to hold my ground defensively and offensively as well. My legs have gotten much stronger. When I’m driving, I’m able to stay lower. Defensively, I can be lower and quick on my feet.”

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks: “I’m working on my body a ton. For me, getting stronger is super important. I’m just as athletic as any player in the league, but strength is important over an 82-game season. I’ve been working on my body a lot. I’m always expanding my knowledge of the game, watching a ton of film and understanding the game of basketball better. It’s one thing to just go out there to play, but it’s another to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a game of chess, and I’m working on setting up players, setting up plays, making sure I’m in the right position on defense and those kind of small details. I’m always fine tuning those things. I think that will make me a much more solid player, and that way I’m not out of position on defense or gambling or things like that. I think I took a step in the right direction last year in terms of being solid, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m continuing to work on my jump shot too. I made a minor change at the beginning of the summer, so I think you should see my percentages go up next season. I’m also working on some more stuff off the dribble. It’s going to be a good year for me. With Dwight [Howard] rolling to rim, I think our pick-and-roll is going to be really special and I’m looking forward to that as well. … I know a lot of guys get a pay check and then relax, but I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve just been so motivated since signing. I’m ready to get back out there and play.”

C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers: “I’m continuing to work on defense [with our assistant coaches]. I’m building more lower-body strength and core strength, continuing to gain more athleticism in order to help me on the defensive side of the ball. I want to get better on defense. I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better at all-around defense. I’ve been working with our assistant coach David Vanterpool, continuing to focus on the other side of the ball.”

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: “My training regimen has been absolutely hectic. I’ve being doing two-a-days and three-a-days to try to get ready for the season. I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I was ready the day that we lost to Charlotte on our last day of the season – I wanted to start another 82 games right then. I knew that it couldn’t happen, but I wanted it (laughs). Now, I’ve taken this offseason to work on my ball-handling, passing, shooting. Also, being able to shoot over defenders’ hands when they’re closing out on threes or being able to take one dribble and rise to pull up over everybody. I’ve been working on making decisions out of the pick-and-roll. I know with with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, I’m going to have a roll guy and a pop guy. And with Vooch [Nik Vucevic], I’ll have a little bit of both – a guy who can roll and pop. It’s going to be on me to either score off of the pick-and-roll or make the right read to get the ball to my guy in the best spot. I’m ready.”

D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers: “This offseason has been great. I’ve had an opportunity to really get in the gym, meet the new coaching staff and my new teammates – getting that chemistry built early has been a huge plus. I’m also working on a lot of things to improve my game – mainly with my consistency on jump shots, floaters and finishing around the rim.”

Justin Anderson, Dallas Mavericks: “One of the biggest things is being able to get to the paint. I’m also working on finishing with both hands. Not just doing simple layups, but also being able to utilize my length to get around guys, and really take advantage of that. One of the things coach [Rick Carlisle] harps on is really getting into the painted area, so I’ve been trying to utilize my size and strength to do that. With guys who are playmakers such as J.J. [Barea], Seth [Curry] and Wes [Matthews], I’ve also been trying to work on my floor spacing and being able to open up for others to get shots. Obviously with guys like that, you want to make the game easier on them. So being able to hit three-point shots as an outlet for them is important. Defensively, just continuing to guard any position; point guard through the four position. I’m trying to get better in my one-on-one defense and also guarding guys that are taller than me.”

Jeff Teague, Indiana Pacers: “I entered the offseason wanting to get stronger, so that I can go through the season feeling like myself for the entire year. I improved as a shooter last year and I want to continue to work at that. I also want to be a leader for this team. That’s a big thing for me, being a leader. … I want to take my game to the next level. I think it’s a great opportunity, and I can’t wait to facilitate and make plays for an All-Star like Paul George and proven veterans like Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis. Those guys can score the ball, which always makes the point guard’s job a lot easier. It’s going to make me a lot more of a threat on the offensive and defensive end.”

Kyle O’Quinn, New York Knicks: “A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”

E’Twaun Moore, New Orleans Pelicans: “I’m working on my point guard skills – things like my decision-making and playing out of the pick-and-roll. Now-a-days, 80 percent of the game is out of the pick-and-roll, so I’m just [focused on] making better decisions and making plays. … I definitely think this will be a breakout season for me.”

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: “Individually, I feel like I can put up big numbers for this team and help in any way necessary. I’d like to see myself put up 15 to 20 points per game. That may seem like a long shot, but I feel like I’m very capable. … I can see myself being a very dominant player in this league one day – and one day soon. I mean, I don’t know what my ceiling is. With my work ethic and my drive, I feel like there is no ceiling. I can always improve and get better at all facets of the game. I see some players who come into the league, get all of this hype and then they start to fizzle out and stop working. I’m never going to be that type of player. My work ethic is a lot of stronger than that and I’m very driven right now. I’m really looking forward to what’s to come over these next couple of years.”

Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder: “I’ve been working on a little bit of everything – a lot of catch-and-shoot stuff, a lot of on-the-ball stuff and different things like that. I’m always trying to add little things to my game and improve my repertoire. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. … I feel like you’re going to see a lot more from me [in Oklahoma City]. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of how good I really can be. I’m getting better every day and I’m looking forward to [showing] it. I can still grow way, way more. I’ve only been in the NBA for three years and I’m just getting more and more comfortable every year. The game has been slowing down for me every year and I’m just so much more comfortable out there. I’m just looking forward to getting in the lab with the guys and putting in the work.”

Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons: “I’m practicing going left, practicing coming off of ball-screens and shooting threes, practicing catching-and-shooting and practicing team defense. Those are some of the things that I’m focused on. … I’m a lot more confident. The work that I’ve done this summer has me feeling like I’ll be able to score from all three levels very efficiently and defend. I’m going to build off of that. [I’ve grown a lot]. Last year, I felt like I was in elementary school and this year, I feel like I’m a senior in high school.”

Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers: “Individually, my shot is the biggest thing that I wanted to tweak and work on a little bit this offseason. It’s come along really, really nicely. Shooting wasn’t something that I was really asked to do much at Wyoming; I was kind of an around-the-basket specialist. Now, I’m starting to stretch my [range] out and it’s really coming along. I’m going to be shooting some more threes this year. I mean, how many times did we see Harrison Barnes spotting up in the corner and knocking down that corner three this year? That was kind of the inspiration for me, seeing that it can help so much and spread out our offense [under new head coach Luke Walton]. I think people can look forward to seeing that a lot more. Besides that, I’ve been working on my ball-handling and decision-making and things like that.”

Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors:  “I have just been focusing on getting better in every way I can. I’ve been putting a lot of focus on getting stronger too; that was the main goal for me this offseason. I want to make sure I can be more physical when my team needs me to be. I want to continue to get stronger and be able to absorb contact better when I’m driving. I’ve been shooting a lot of mid-range shots too. I’m just learning how to read defenses and make the best play possible when I’m out there. Strength helps a lot of things, but thinking about the game and putting myself in scenarios in practice is just as important.  I want to become a complete player, so that means I have to work on every area of the game. I’m fully taking advantage of the offseason to improve my game and that’s what I’ve done since I came in the league.”

Garrett Temple, Sacramento Kings: “I think the opportunity [for a career-year] is there. Coach [Dave] Joerger believes in my abilities and that I can produce, so I’ll be on the court a good amount this year. I’m working on the aspects of my game that need to improve this summer. I’ll be playing some point guard this year, and obviously playing the two and the three as well. But I’m working on my decision-making coming off of ball screens. People don’t realize that I’m a pretty good decision-maker and that I played point guard a lot growing up. I played point guard my whole high school career and a lot in college. The last couple of years I’ve been playing on the wing more, but I’m going to show people that I’m a versatile guy that can play the one, two and three.”

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: “I’m trying to build on my core, trying to get stronger. Also, I’ve been trying to work on about two or three moves out of the post. I’m just trying to be that complete basketball player who can help my team. I’ve been [working out] five days a week. I get the weekends off and sometimes I’ll go home, but most of my time I’m in the gym.”

Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic: “I’m continuing to work on my jump shot, mid-range game, finishing at the rim and overall understanding of the game. … We have to learn how to close out games. In a lot of games, we were right there at the end, but we have to figure out how to close out games.”

Moe Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers: “I feel like I still have so, so, so much room to improve – and I’m talking about every part of my game. And you’ve seen me work out in the offseason; I work on literally everything. I feel like I can just keep improving on every part of my game, and I’m still just the same hard-working kid that I’ve always been. I’m looking forward to getting better. Now that I’ve been to the playoffs and experienced what it feels like, I want to get back more. It’s made me even hungrier. … Sometimes I forget the fact that I’m only 23 years old. Like, this year, I was younger than two of the rookies on our team (laughs). There are some guys in this draft class who are a little bit older than me. When people bring that stuff to my attention, it’s just crazy to think about. I know I still have so much room to grow and get better still.”

Langston Galloway, New Orleans Pelicans: “I think the past few seasons, my playmaking ability [has improved a lot] – being able to read the floor better and being able to find my teammates whenever I am being aggressive. I think I am always in attack mode, trying to be aggressive and score. But at the same time, when I am aggressive, I’m able to find my teammates in those situations too. My game has definitely blossomed with that. My playmaking ability is probably the biggest thing [I continued to work on this summer]. And just being more consistent, where I’m knocking down the shots when I am open and just taking advantage of the opportunities when I’m going one-on-one against a guy. I’ve definitely been grinding it out this summer, just knowing those unseen hours that I have been putting in are going to pay off this season.”

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers: “I’m getting used to defending NBA big men. I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well. … I think I learned a ton [last year] – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works. I think I continue to learn every day.”

Willie Reed, Miami Heat: “I think that I’ve grown tremendously. I think that’s due to my family and my maturity. My family allows me to go put in that extra work. They know that I’m in the gym three times a day, but they sacrifice that and come here and be with me just so that I’m comfortable while I’m training and see a familiar face and be happy. They understand the reason I’m doing this for. I’m working on the offensive part of my game: post moves, reading the defense, catching the ball off of the pick-and-roll and being able to avoid traffic. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m excited about the transformation and I just can’t wait for what this next season brings.”

John Jenkins, Phoenix Suns: “When I first got into the league, I think I was known just as a shooter. While I still have the shooting ability, now I can take it off the dribble, finish at the rim, create for others – since I played some point guard in Dallas and a tiny, tiny bit in Phoenix – thrive in pick-and-rolls and things like that. There are just so many little things that I’ve added to my game. I’m looking forward to showing those things off more [during the 2016-17 season].”

Lavoy Allen, Indiana Pacers: “Putting the ball on the floor when I am the top of the key. I am not doing a bunch of crossovers, between the legs, stuff like that – just trying to score from the high-post. … If I get the opportunity, depending on how many minutes I get, [my goal is to] try to average a double-double.”

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

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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