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NBA Sunday: Danny Ainge Deserves Credit

Since trading Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge has done everything right. Signing Al Horford is just the latest example.

Moke Hamilton

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The Boston Celtics haven’t won a playoff series since 2012—the year they took the Miami HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Piece by piece, the team began splitting up. Ray Allen left for Miami and, the following summer, after the team lost to the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Danny Ainge parted ways with Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

With Rajon Rondo being the final domino to fall—he was traded in December 2014—Ainge was said to have embarked upon the most proactive rebuilding project we had seen in quite some time.

Now, with the signing of Al Horford—less than two years after trading Rondo—the Celtics will reemerge as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

* * * * * *

What July 2016 may be remembered for more than anything else is how a number of impact players in the league changed addresses.

Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan rode off into the sunset while Derrick Rose was traded to New York.

Meanwhile, Al Horford joins a list that features the likes of Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah, each of whom signed with a new team in search of greener pastures and an opportunity to prove himself.

Of them all, one can make the argument that Horford is the acquisition that comes with the least amount of risk, at least from a basketball perspective.

In signing Durant, the Warriors had to rescind Bird rights on a few of their pieces and will begin the 2016-17 season without Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. As much as Stephen Curry’s injury played a major role in the demise of the Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals, the absence of Bogut in Game 6 and Game 7 was underplayed. He was vital to the Warriors offensive scheming and defensive planning and without him—one of the best passing centers in the league—they will have to make major adjustments. It should also be pointed out that both Stephen Curry and Durant will have to make major adjustments in their respective games to coexist, as will Klay Thompson, who will go from the team’s secondary offensive option to third.

Odds are, things will work out in Oakland, but to overlook the fact that a substantial roll of the dice was taken in signing Durant would be to overlook logic.

Fortunately, for the Celtics, none of those concerns exist with Horford.

* * * * * *

As Joakim Noah was leading Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, scouts began whispering about one of Noah’s teammates—Horford.

There were a great many that felt that Horford’s gifts meant that he would translate better at the NBA level, and after nine years, it’s difficult to argue. Horford was eventually selected by the Atlanta Hawks at number three, six picks before Noah was selected by the Chicago Bulls at number nine.

Since then, Horford has made four All-Star teams and has played a crucial role in the Hawks qualifying for the playoffs each year since. During his time in Atlanta, the Hawks have won six playoff series and have found consistent success under three different head coaches.

Noah’s team accomplishments are not on par with Horford’s, but that isn’t the major point. What should be understood about Horford is that he is a rare breed in today’s NBA. In the long run, Horford seems destined to be remembered by history in much the same way that Rasheed Wallace and Lamar Odom will be. In each their own right, Wallace and Odom were players whose career statistics and numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of the kind of impact they had on the culture of their respective teams and the role they played in contributing to the win column.

Since Horford began playing internationally with his native Dominican Republic, he quickly earned the reputation of being a hard working player who was more concerned with playing a better team game than his hunt for personal numbers or statistics.

One of Horford’s father’s former teammates on the Dominican National Basketball Team remembers interacting with Horford when he was a young teenager and remembers being sure that he had exactly what it took to excel in the NBA.

Apparently, he was correct.

* * * * * *

In today’s NBA, where winning requires at least three All-Star caliber performers and three above-average bench contributors, building a team capable of winning it all requires the adherence to two main principles. The first is to not allow an irreplaceable asset to leave you for nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets each saw Dwight Howard exit without netting them any assets in return. The Thunder have now experienced that with Durant, as well, and in each instance, each franchise has been set back. Ainge managed to avoid this by dealing Rondo for value. Among the items returned to him from the Dallas Mavericks were Jae Crowder (who has since emerged as a vital rotation piece for Brad Stevens) and what ended up being the number 17 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. That pick was used on Frenchman Guerschon Yabusele. Yabusele will play in the Chinese Basketball Association for the 2016-17 season, but at just 20 years old, he is exactly the type of asset that a young and toiling team like the Celtics could use.

The second principle is one that the New York Knicks learned through experience—don’t sacrifice your assets for a player that could be had outright with cap space in the near future. When it became common knowledge that Carmelo Anthony had eyes for the New York Knicks, he and the franchise played a real life game of chicken wherein, under pressure from James Dolan, the Knicks opted to pay a king’s ransom for Anthony. In that trade, the Knicks gave away almost every asset they had in the cupboard—Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph, two second round picks, a first round pick and cash.

While the Knicks did receive some good rotation pieces in return, it’s clear that trading for Anthony set them back. It has been more than five years since Anthony became a Knick and in that duration, the Knicks have won one playoff series and missed the playoffs for three consecutive years.

Now, imagine for a moment that the Knicks would have signed Anthony outright after the 2011 lockout had subsided. Other than Wilson Chandler, each of the aforementioned trade chips would have been with the Knicks and those pieces could have been used to build around Anthony, instead of being sacrificed to acquire him. Had things played out a little differently, Chris Paul would have likely ended up a Knick and it would not have taken Anthony five whole years to have a fairly young, exciting core built around him.

It would appear that Ainge saw the mistakes of other franchises and opted to not repeat them. He maximized the value that he was able to get in return for Garnett, Pierce and Rondo and have used them to rebuild his team. He got incredibly fortunate with Horford and will now add him to a young core that is reminiscent of the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. Those Pistons were renowned for being a sum that was greater than its individual pieces, and it was something that each member of the team realized.

The culture that Ainge has built in Boston and the pieces that he has accumulated there are oddly reminiscent of something we have seen before. So, to say that things are looking up for the Celtics would be a bit of an understatement.

* * * * * *

As it stands, the Celtics only have four players under contract for the 2017-18 season: Al Horofrd, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. They have a team option on Marcus Smart that is likely to be exercised, but next summer, when a ton of superstars will be free agents, the Celtics could have in excess of $50 million available to them under the salary cap.

On a personal level, it has been difficult to see Paul Pierce wearing other jerseys. He never looked quite right in Brooklyn’s black or in the red, white and blue of the Washington Wizards. As his career appears to be coming to a close as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, objectively speaking, based on what has transpired in Boston over the past few years, it is difficult to argue against the fact that Ainge has set the franchise up for success in both the immediate and distant future.

In all likelihood, Horford is just the first big catch of the post-Paul Pierce era in Boston. Just think: if Russell Westbrook decided he wanted to move East, there are few teams that would make as much sense for him as the Celtics.

It has been four years since the Celtics have won a playoff series, but in all likelihood, that is a streak that will end this year. And thanks to some prudent management and the signing of a low-risk piece who puts winning above all else, over the next four years, the Celtics are likely to experience some major success.

Despite being across the country in Los Angeles, even Paul Pierce can see that.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: One Year Later, Yogi Ferrell Continues To Rise

One year after a turbulent start to his NBA career, Yogi Ferrell is still thriving with the Dallas Mavericks.

Ben Nadeau

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It was never going to be easy for Yogi Ferrell.

At just 6-foot-0, there were major concerns about Ferrell and his ability to effectively contribute at the professional level, so the 24-year-old was a near-lock to go undrafted despite his impressive haul of collegiate honors. In 2016, he did not hear his name called on draft night — but for a gamer like Ferrell, pushing on was always the only option.

However, on this particularly cold mid-season evening, Ferrell sits at his locker and studies film on a tablet. He looks comfortable and focused as if he knows that this moment cannot be ripped away from him once again. Today, Ferrell is the Dallas Mavericks’ backup point guard and is settled into a consistent, steady role amongst a currently crowded backcourt. For Ferrell, he now finally has the life of an everyday NBA player.

But just over one year ago, Ferrell had to take the road less traveled to reach professional basketball for good.

“It was actually about this time [last year] when [the Nets] decided to waive me and I went back to Long Island,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know I’d be here. I’m just thankful for the opportunity the Mavericks gave me and I’m just still trying to be here in Dallas.”

To be exact, the Brooklyn Nets waived Ferrell on December 8th, 2016. 365 days (and counting) later, Ferrell has earned his guaranteed contract but he’s still playing like he has something to prove.

* * * * * *

In order to fully understand Ferrell’s winding journey, it’s necessary to go back to where his story really kicked off: Summer League. Following a solid audition in Las Vegas — 8.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game — Ferrell was shifted to Brooklyn’s G-League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. With the offseason signings of Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, plus the addition of rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead, there was no room for Ferrell and he was the last man cut in training camp.

Before the Nets could even blink, Vasquez re-injured his problematic ankle just three games into the campaign, an ailment that would eventually require season-ending surgery. Lin, of course, lasted just two more games before a hamstring injury derailed the key free agent acquisition until December.

Out of nowhere, it was time for Ferrell.

After waiving Vasquez, the Nets signed Ferrell on November 9th — the same day as his NBA debut, where he logged five points and three assists in a 14-point loss to the New York Knicks. But as the Nets continued to free fall without their veteran point guards, Ferrell grew more confidently into his role and was a solid fit in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s three-point heavy rotation. Over 10 contests with Brooklyn, Ferrell tallied just 5.4 points and 1.7 assists in 15 minutes per game. Nonetheless, for a suddenly talent-deficient roster, it appeared as if the point guard was poised to stick around through the winter.

In a surprise twist of fate, the Nets waived Ferrell to sign Spencer Dinwiddie to a partially guaranteed three-year deal, opting to tie their future to a different G-League point guard instead. Just like that, it was back to Long Island for Ferrell — but surprisingly, it wasn’t something that he hung his head over for too long.

“I knew my next opportunity was going to come — I didn’t know when, but I just wanted to make sure I was ready for it,” Ferrell said. “I had a great coach — coach [Ronald] Nored — and he told me to still go about my business as if I was still in the NBA. I didn’t get all the luxuries, but if you treat yourself like a pro, like you’re there now, once you get there, it’ll make it easier and you can make a splash.”

Upon returning to the G-League, Ferrell continued his hot streak and ended up averaging 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds over a total of 18 games — both before and after his NBA call-up with the Nets. Ultimately, it wasn’t long before another franchise took notice of the enigmatic guard and the Mavericks capitalized, signing Ferrell to a 10-day contract while both Deron Williams and Devin Harris were hampered by injury. His debut with Dallas saw Ferrell tally nine points and seven assists in a win over the San Antonio Spurs and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker — but somehow, that was only the beginning

Affectionately nicknamed Yogi-Mania — a play on Linsanity, Lin’s historic stretch with the Knicks back in 2012 — Ferrell re-joined the NBA red-hot, even leading Dallas to back-to-back wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers. Quickly thereafter, Ferrell signed a multi-year deal with Dallas and then promptly torched the Portland Trail Blazers for nine three-pointers and a total of 32 points. Over his initial two-week stretch with the Mavericks, Ferrell scored 10 or more points in seven of his first nine games and made a serious claim for a permanent spot in the rotation.

Of course, the multi-year contract offered Ferrell something else he hadn’t yet experienced in the NBA: Job security. After Ferrell’s team option was picked up last June, he was happy to have a role with the Mavericks once again, no matter how big or small. Without the worry of being on borrowed time, Ferrell was able to train, learn the system and embrace of the city of Dallas during the offseason.

“The offseason was pretty good, I played summer league with some of the young guys,” Ferrell said. “It was great to work every day and get to know the coaches better, the area of Dallas better. Headed into training camp, I just wanted to work on my game and I had lot more confidence.”

One of those coaches he’s gotten to know better is Rick Carlisle, an old-school guard that has found success as both a player and coach. Under Carlisle, Ferrell has averaged 28.3 minutes per game so far as a sophomore, good for the third-highest total on the entire roster. Ferrell, who was in the G-League at this time last year, has merited more playing time than any other point guard on the team — a list that includes rookie sensation Dennis Smith Jr. (28.1), J.J. Barea (22.5), and the aforementioned Harris (18.9). For Ferrell, much of his second-year successes have come from simply putting Carlisle’s words of wisdom into action.

“He’s just always telling me to be a threat,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders of Carlisle. “First of all, be a threat to score because that’s what opens up everything else. If you’re pushing the pace and getting in the paint, attacking, especially for somebody like myself in my position. You want to just cause 2-on-1s and kicks and find whatever the defense gives us.”

While Yogi-Mania was built off of an electric career-altering hot streak, Ferrell has been a contributor this season in a more consistent, experienced way. Building off the All-NBA Rookie Second Team berth Ferrell earned in just 36 games with Dallas last season, the point guard is now often one of the first guards off the bench, a role that Barea has long excelled in. The comparisons between Ferrell and Barea are all too obvious, the latter being another 6-foot-nothing guard that has carved out a 12-year career after going undrafted in 2006.

During the Mavericks’ championship-winning playoff run in 2011, Barea averaged 8.9 points and 3.4 assists, including massive back-to-back 15-plus point outings in Dallas’ series-defining Game 5 and 6 victories. These days, Ferrell is just thankful to have teammates like Barea and Harris to learn from on and off the court.

“I always say that I like watching them, especially how they play,” Ferrell said. “I try to mimic the older guys, Devin and J.J., they’re so synced together when they play, it’s something special to watch. I just try to go out there and mimic what they do, they’ve been successful at it and been in this league for a long time, so I’m just trying to learn from guys like them.”

* * * * * *

Precisely, it’s been 370 days since Ferrell was first waived by Brooklyn and has found success at the NBA level that little believed was possible. Not one to let an obstacle get in his way, Ferrell went undrafted and still managed to earn a multi-year contract before he even hit 20 career appearances. For his dominating stretch in the G-League last season, Ferrell was named an All-Star — although he was too busy with Dallas to attend the festivities — and he still went on to earn a spot with the All-NBA Rookie Second Team as well.

Overcoming roadblocks and adversity at every turn, it’d be easy to now exhale and relax — after all, his contract is currently guaranteed and he’s got a solidified role in an NBA rotation — but Ferrell, forever hungry, isn’t ready to stop there. Staying motivated isn’t difficult for Ferrell because he knows that much of his journey is still left in front of him and he’s ready to keep climbing upward.

“I’m a winner, I came from a winning program,” Ferrell said. “My mentality is still to prove that I belong here. I just want to win, that’s it.”

For Ferrell, this isn’t the end of an underdog story — this is just the beginning of something even greater.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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