It was one of the more frigid January nights in the nation’s capital, but inside of Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center ensued a battle that nary a paying customer believed they would witness.
It was 2013 and the 4-28 Washington Wizards were seen as nothing more than an undisciplined bunch being led by John Wall—another entitled pro athlete who was given too much, too soon.
Kevin Durant—the man whose homecoming this night was—was the opposite.
Durant was the quintessential stud. Hard working, dedicated to his craft and doing whatever was necessary to win. As a resident of the Western Conference, he was making his annual trip to the District of Columbia.
Unfortunately for him, a rookie shooting guard that few had ever heard of ruined it; some kid named Bradley Beal.
Out of necessity, Beal had become the alpha and omega of the Wizards’ offensive repertoire. He had the requisite skills: a quick first step, good ball handling ability, a dead-eye jumper and passing accuracy, but not the experience.
The problem? Wall, who would normally have ball-handling and play calling duties, was diagnosed with a stress injury to his left knee four months earlier. And to this point, for head coach Randy Wittman, the results weren’t reassuring. The Wizards sputtered out to a 4-28 record, were staring at the prospect of another lost season, and were now welcoming the defending Western Conference Champion Thunder into their building.
But on this night, Beal stole the show—especially when it mattered most.
After Durant tied the game on a 24-foot three-pointer, with 12.2 seconds remaining, it was Beal who coach Wittman entrusted with the game.
He was initially denied the ball when he cut diagonally from the three-point arc to the sideline, but would eventually receive at mid-court, isolated against Sefolosha. Kendrick Perkins—who was guarding Kevin Seraphin—attempted to trap Beal after Seraphin set a screen for him and rolled to the rim.
For a split second, Beal looked apprehensive. Dribbling to his right, then to his left. He stepped inside of the three-point line, picked up his dribble and pump-faked Perkins into next week.
Pivoting with his right foot, Beal stepped in and past Perkins’ outstretched arm and released an off-balanced, leaning 16-footer. Perkins nearly recovered in time, slightly bumping Beal as he released, but Beal’s introduction to the NBA would not be thwarted.
To this point, Beal had made some clutch shots for his Wizards, but none against this level of competition and under such difficult game conditions.
I remember on that night—as a rookie playing just his 33rd professional game—believing that Beal was special. Off the top of my head, the only other rookie shooting guards that I could recall exuding the same type of confidence and ability to control a game with such poise were Vince Carter and Dwyane Wade.
If Beal is lucky, he may one day be mentioned in a conversation along either of those two greats. One shot doesn’t make a career, but I have always been of the opinion that it could reveal something about a player.
One game doesn’t make you a Hall-of-Famer, but one game and one performance can show that you have the potential to get there one day.
This was Beal’s night.
The most difficult thing an NBA general manager has to do is make player personnel decisions. He determines which players he pays and which players he drafts. He rolls the dice, often having his correct decisions forgotten about and rarely credited and his mediocre or poor ones questioned. Fortunately, over the course of the previous two Collective Bargaining Agreements, the league has added mechanisms to protect against paying for a mistake for an inordinate amount of time.
No longer will a general manager have to pay the likes of Eddy Curry or Erick Dampier for six or seven years.
There is a similar protective mechanism against drafting the wrong player. Only the first two years of a player’s rookie contract is guaranteed, meaning that a general manager can cut bait after two seasons if he is willing to admit that he made a mistake. It rarely happens, but the Milwaukee Bucks did exactly that with Joe Alexander—the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft.
However, although a general manager doesn’t necessarily pay for a mistake for as long as he did once upon a time, the price and regret of lost opportunity? It cuts deep.
Back in 2005, the Atlanta Hawks selected Marvin Williams with the second overall pick in the draft. Billy Knight, the general manager at the time, opted for Williams over both Chris Paul and Deron Williams, despite the fact that the club desperately needed a spry point guard prospect.
Similarly, the very next year, in 2006, the Chicago Bulls drafted LaMarcus Aldridge with the second overall pick. That was a good idea.
The Bulls then traded Aldridge to the Portland Trail Blazers for a package built around Tyrus Thomas, who was selected fourth overall.
(Not such a good idea)
The Bulls only paid Thomas for three full years, opting to trade him during his fourth season.
Although the drafting of Williams by the Hawks and the acquiring of Thomas by the Bulls were not horrible basketball decisions based on the talent either player, they become atrocities when viewed in hindsight.
Would the Hawks have been better off with Chris Paul? Would the Bulls have fared better with LaMarcus Aldridge? Of course.
Years later, we now know, in each situation, what would have been the “better” decision.
As it relates to Beal, the theory is quite simple.
As a general manager, you are very likely to know whether you made a wise decision on a player during their first season as a professional. Obviously, the player needs to be given an opportunity to showcase his talents. Some coaches are simply not fond of giving youngsters copious amounts of playing time, often believing that it takes two to three years of riding pine to figure out the NBA game.
So occasionally, yes, you will run into examples like Jermaine O’Neal or Jeremy Lin—guys who legitimately had little opportunity to showcase their talents before proving themselves years after their careers began.
But for the most part—a promising younger player, especially one selected with a lottery pick—will get opportunities to go out there and show the world why he is in the league.
And if that player has the potential to be elite—if he has the potential to be an impact player who can one day lead a team and put it on his shoulders—that is something that will be seen quickly after the player has his opportunity.
What separates the players from the stars and the superstars is consistency. Superstars show up every single night and find ways to impact games, no matter what. That is a skill that takes time to develop. But from the very beginning, even in spurts or sporadic occasion, the flash should avail.
So on January 7, 2013, as the basketball world watched, I was not yet convinced that Beal had that trait, but by the end of the night, when his Wizards prevailed 101-99, I did.
Common, the acclaimed hip hop recording artist and actor who hails from Chicago, said it best in The Light, one of contemporary hip hop’s better love ballads.
Granted, we known each other for some time
it don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine
In other words, I can look out my window and see whether the sun is shining, just like I can see how you conduct yourself, lead your team and handle the final possession and shot of a competitive game and know whether or not you belong in this league.
Today, if you ask Durant about his feelings on Beal, the first thing Durant will probably recall is that cold winter night in 2013. In the grand scheme, it was just one game, but when asked specifically about Beal, most who attended would remember it as the night when his discernible light began to glisten brightly enough for all to notice.
Over the next 15 months, Wall would return and Beal would continue to progress, improving on both his catch-and-shoot proficiency as well as his one-step dribble pull-up. Before our very eyes, the tandem has transformed into one of the top young backcourts in the entire league, right along the likes of the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
In April 2014, with the ever-improving Beal and Wall’s marked improvements, the Wizards qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They would defeat the Chicago Bulls in the first round and win a playoff series for the first time since 2005.
In the playoffs, Beal led the team with 19.2 points per game on a blistering 41.5 percent three-point connection rate. He added five rebounds and 4.5 assists per game—nothing short of outstanding for a sophomore shooting guard making his first playoff appearance.
As Beal is set to begin his third season, recall that impact NBA players traditionally make leaps in their junior years. The eyes and expectations are firmly on the Wizards and especially Beal. Although he is expected to be sidelined for the first six-to-eight weeks of the season with a non-displaced fracture in his left wrist, he will eventually emerge as the team’s alpha-scorer, once again.
With Klay Thompson and James Harden, Beal is one of the three talented young shooting guards that are toiling and, maybe, ending the drought that the league has had there for what seems like a long, long time.
In 1996, Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen entered the NBA. Vince Carter (1998), Richard Hamilton and Manu Ginobili (both 1999) came shortly thereafter. Joe Johnson entered in 2001 and Dwyane Wade in 2003.
In 2004, Andre Iguodala emerged and the following year, in 2005, was Brandon Roy.
It wasn’t until 2009—when James Harden and DeMar DeRozan entered the league—that we began seeing newfound strength at the position. In 2011, Klay Thompson entered the league and in 2012 came Beal.
Looked at differently, since 1996, only three classes have featured more than one shooting guard who would become an All-Star. Bryant and Allen of 1996, Hamilton and Ginobili of 1998 and Harden and DeRozan of 2009.
In total, Bryant (16), Allen (10), Wade (10), Carter (8) and Johnson (7) combine for 51 NBA All-Star Game appearances. Wade is the only shooting guard on that list that was drafted within the past 12 years. The longevity and sustained greatness of this past generation of shooting guards is a major reason why, but the truth of the matter is that they haven’t exactly been pushed by the past decade’s incoming crop of shooting guards.
Today, the tide is turning.
The league may currently be in its golden age of the point guard, but the Beal is making his mark as a true shooting guard who has All-NBA potential. With him, the future of the Washington Wizards is far from bleak.
Like that cold January night back in 2013, eyes are on Beal, but for a different reason. With his flashes and his impressive all-around ability to control a game, the Wizards will build a better tomorrow upon the success of yesterday.
They will do so on the capable shoulders of one of the best third-year shooting guards this league has seen in quite some time.
They do so with Bradley Beal—a rare impact shooting guard whose star shines as brightly as any we have seen over, perhaps, the past decade.
NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?
Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.
No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions
The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.
The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.
Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.
One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.
In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.
For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.
The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.
The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.
The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.
The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.
Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.
The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.
Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.
The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.
The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.
Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.
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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors
Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.
As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.
Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.
The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.
Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.
Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.
Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.
When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.
“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”
Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.
Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.
In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.
“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”
It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”
“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”
Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.
Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors
Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions
Opening week is finally upon us.
Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.
The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.
In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.
Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.
But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.
The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.
What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.
That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.
Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.
Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.
Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.
It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.
As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.
Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.
Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.
Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.
The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.
Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.
The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.
If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.
See you at tip-off.