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NBA Sunday: Still Waiting For Jabari Parker

Despite an impressive season, to get to the next level, the Bucks need Jabari Parker to prove his worth, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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As the NBA draft lottery draws near and debates are had over whether Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball deserves to be the top overall pick, one can’t help but think back to 2014 when the same exact debate was had regarding Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo rapidly ascending to superstar status, onlookers can only marvel at his unique blend of skills. With the Milwaukee Bucks looking every bit like the team of the future, it’s fair to say that whether or not this current incarnation of the squad fulfills what appears to be its mighty potential rests squarely on the shoulders of Jabari Parker.

It’s time for him to prove that he can carry that burden.

* * * * * *

Of most sub-25-year-old players in the league, Parker is the one whose progress has been most closely monitored. During a one-on-one interview with Parker during the NBA’s 2016 All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Parker and I spoke about his development, his return from injury and whether or not he felt that these Bucks had everything they need to become a team able to contend for the Eastern Conference.

As they have mostly looked the part, it’s a tad bit disconcerting that they have had to do so mostly in the absence of Parker. Three seasons after being drafted, Parker has played the lion’s share of games in just one, his second. Now, after three years, his season has ended prematurely twice. The worst part? Parker has now torn the ACL in his left knee twice. The first time was during his rookie year in December 2014, while the second occurred in February 2017. When Parker tore his left ACL for the second time in February, it was estimated that his rehabilitation period would take about 12 months, meaning that he is likely to miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 NBA season.

If things go according to plan, after playing just 25 games in his rookie year and 51 games in his third season, Parker will have played just 59 percent of the total games possible during the first four years of his career. That the injury that will cause the consistent absences is one that has recurred is certainly cause for concern. If there’s one thing that Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and even Derrick Rose have taught us, it’s that all the talent in the world means absolutely nothing if your body can’t stand up to the rigors of playing on consecutive nights and over the course of a seven-month regular season.

* * * * * *

The only thing more surprising than Jason Kidd being named the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets was when the news was broken that he was leaving the franchise to assume the helm for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Still thought to be years away from competing, Kidd inherited a roster featuring quite a few young players with promise — Parker, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton among them. Since then, John Henson, Greg Monroe, Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon have been added. And although they fell to the Toronto Raptors in six games during their playoff appearance, the Bucks have let the world know that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Collectively, we can only wonder where that leaves Parker.

If given a truth serum, most NBA head coaches would admit that they would rather not have a star player who frequently finds himself on the shelf. Wondering whether or not a player will be around for the long haul and adjusting a game plan in his absence is a disruption that most teams would rather do without. Obviously, that’s not to say that a team wouldn’t want to have a player at their disposal who could make a difference, but the “in today, out tomorrow” that marks injury-prone players is difficult to plan around and ultimately results in deflation that can sometimes be hard to overcome.

It’s the equivalent of being told you’ve won the lottery, only to be notified two days later that your winnings are docked to cover a recently deceased parent’s debt. At a certain point, you’ll simply run out of patience.

With Henson, Maker, Middleton, Monroe, Mirza Teletovic and the versatility of Antetokounmpo, the Bucks appear to have a greater need for another combo guard than a front court player.

Even more worthy of our attention would be a few key metrics, as reported by 82games.com:

  • The Bucks have six different five-man lineups that surrender fewer than one point per possession, and none of them feature Parker.
  • Of the two worse defensive lineups that the Bucks feature, both feature Parker. While it’s also true that they featured Monroe (who is renowned as a poor defender), Parker isn’t exactly Draymond Green.

Is it fair to say that the Bucks would be better off without Parker? Probably not.

But at this point, it certainly seems fair to wonder whether or not they need him to become a power or whether they should consider trading him, though his stock would be admittedly low at the moment.

One way or another, though, for the Bucks, all eyes will be on their trajectory and whether or not they are able to take the next step. Most will tell you that it’s more difficult to go from being a 45-win team to a 50-win team than it is going from being a cellar-dweller to a .500 team.

Either way, with or without Parker, things are looking up for the Bucks.

* * * * * *

When LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony entered the league back in 2003, it was thought that their draft class was among the stronger we have seen. Now, 14 years later, we know that to have been true. Similarly, scouts have been raving about the 2017 draft class, and the Bucks are fortunate to have the 17th overall pick, as well as the 48th overall pick.

Additionally, Monroe and Spencer Hawes each have player options for the 2017-18 season, totaling a combined $24 million. The Bucks also have an important decision to make on Tony Snell—the club can make him a restricted free agent by extending to him a qualifying offer prior to July 1.

Depending on how things shake out, the Bucks could very well find themselves $20 million under the cap, though clearing that kind of space would require both Monroe and Hawes opting out and the club walking away from each, rather than re-signing them. In the long run, doing so may behoove Jason Kidd and his team.

Still, in the end, it all comes back to Parker. With the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors still the top two consensus teams in the league, we know for sure that it takes three to tango in today’s NBA. We now know for sure that the Bucks, in Antetokounmpo, have one. At this point, the franchise can hold steadfast to the hope that either Maker, Middleton or Brogdon can emerge as a solid number two.

As for Parker? Unfortunately, we are still facing questions not only about his durability, but whether and how he fits in with the Bucks long term.

Interestingly enough, it was Grant Hill who Parker was compared to most during the pre-draft process, with Kidd (who was Hill’s draft mate) even making the comparison.

Sadly, though, after three years in the league, it’s not Hill’s productivity or smooth play that Parker has most emulated—it’s been his inability to stay healthy.

Hopefully, the next three years will be better than the first. Because one way or another, the Bucks and their mighty future may very well depend on Parker and whether he stays and plays or moves on to greener (and hopefully healthier) pastures.

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NBA

NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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