Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the most pressing training camp questions in the Northwest, Southwest, Central and Pacific divisions as the 2014-15 NBA season approaches. The series continues with a look at the Southeast, which could have a new king this season.
How will Al Horford come back from injury?
The injury last season to Al Horford left a huge void in the Hawks’ lineup and severely limited their ability to make a deep run in the playoffs. Although Horford was playing the best basketball of his career prior to the injury, the Hawks still managed to sneak into the playoffs and pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week that Horford hasn’t yet reached 100 percent, but remains hopeful he’ll be ready to go by the team’s season opener on October 29. The Hawks remained fairly quiet over the summer and didn’t make any big-time moves, so the team will be banking on Horford to return to the level of basketball that he was playing prior to his injury where he averaged a career-high 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. The Eastern Conference is much more competitive than it was a season ago, so Horford’s return will be critical to the Hawks’ success.
Can the Hawks make a deep playoff run without a superstar?
The Hawks have managed to make the playoffs seven seasons in a row and have done it while having no real superstar on their team. With no superstar-caliber player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs – ever. While Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague form the Hawks’ big three, none of them are capable of single-handedly taking a game over – at least not yet. As many teams in the league have illustrated, a go-to player in crunch time is needed and with Horford still not 100 percent, he may not be the answer. Head coach Mike Budenholzer’s style of offense may be best to replace the need for a superstar as his game plan of ball movement and spacing keeps the offense moving effectively.
Outside of the Hawks’ big three, who will step up?
After Horford, Millsap and Teague, the Hawks will need to rely on other players to step up. Outside of those three players, the Hawks’ will likely have Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll in the starting five again. Korver shot a blistering 47 percent from three-point range last season and earned an invitation to try out for Team USA for his efforts. Carroll’s first season in Atlanta went about as well as it could have as he increased his points per game from six per game with the Jazz to 11.1 with the Hawks. Carroll made the best out of his starting role with the Hawks and should continue to improve this season. While the Hawks didn’t make any huge moves over the offseason, they did add Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore and first-round draft pick Adreian Payne. Sefolosha will fill an immediate need on the defensive side of the ball as the team has long lacked an elite perimeter defender. Bazemore has shown flashes of the type of player that he can become, and he should see plenty of opportunity in Atlanta to prove himself.
How will the Hornets handle the spotlight?
The Hornets will be entering the 2014-15 season with some huge expectations after a trip to the playoffs last season and the addition of Lance Stephenson, but how will they handle the pressure of being in the spotlight? Head coach Steve Clifford has proven that he is the right guy for the Hornets, but the team is expected to not only return to the playoffs, but to compete for a division title. Kemba Walker is one of the most underrated point guards in the league, but he too will now be faced with expectations that he hasn’t yet had. The signing of Stephenson shows that the Hornets are serious about competing. This could be the season the Hornets show the rest of the league exactly just how good they can be.
Which will be bigger for Lance Stephenson: his play on the court or his antics?
The conversation around Lance Stephenson usually involves his play on the court, but the talk quickly turns to his antics and whether he is worth the risk of signing. There’s no doubt that Stephenson is one of better players in the league on both sides of the ball and if engaged, could bring the Hornets to the next level. The Hornets were apparently not bothered by Stephenson’s past and welcomed him to the club. With a young locker room building in Charlotte, many have questioned the move partly because of how Stephenson could quickly disrupt that. He’ll be joining a team led by Michael Jordan and Steve Clifford and all indications are that they won’t tolerate anything extracurricular that Stephenson may be up to.
Will the Hornets receive any national recognition this season?
Given the lack of success the franchise has endured over the past several seasons, they haven’t received much national recognition as a result. Jefferson had an All-Star-caliber season averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and earned just a spot on the All-NBA Third Team. His 21.8 points were good for 11th best in the league and his 10.8 rebounds ranked eighth. As previously stated Walker, remains one of the most underrated point guards in the league and should only continue to get better. Surrounded with even more talent now, Walker should benefit and could even play himself into the All-Star race, especially if the Hornets are winning games. Rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston could also have a chance to place among the league’s top rookies this season.
How will the HEAT fare without LeBron?
Perhaps the biggest question heading into training camp for the HEAT this season is how they’ll do without LeBron James. Many speculated that if James left, others would follow suit and head elsewhere, leaving the HEAT with practically no one on the team. The majority of the remaining members of the HEAT proved that theory wrong and remained in South Beach. Chris Bosh re-upped on a new max deal, Chris Andersen is back on a two-year deal, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem are on new deals to give the team financial flexibility and the front office brought in new players in Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. The HEAT drafted Shabazz Napier to help run the offense, but an awful showing in the Summer League showed that he has a lot of work to do before he’ll take over point guard duties. While the team will have core players in Bosh, Wade, Andersen, Deng and McRoberts, they may not be enough to legitimately compete in the Eastern Conference. While replacing an MVP in James is never easy, the HEAT assembled a team that will win games and should easily make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
How will Dwyane Wade hold up this season?
The key to the HEAT’s success this season will rest on the knees of Dwyane Wade. Heading into the season, Wade has to be one of the biggest question marks on the roster. Wade averaged a career-low 32.9 minutes in just 54 games last season in an effort to save him for the playoffs. Having James on the roster, the HEAT were able to afford that luxury of resting Wade, but with James gone head coach Erik Spoelstra may not have that luxury anymore. The team has added a plethora of guards that all will be competing to backup Wade. Reggie Williams, Shannon Brown, undrafted rookie Tyler Johnson and Andre Dawkins all figure to compete for the job in camp. Out of those players, only Johnson is on a partially guaranteed deal, so he may have a leg up on the competition and could be the frontrunner for the backup job, or eventual starter if Wade can’t go.
After Chris Bosh, who will be the team’s second scoring option?
Given the uncertainty around Wade, there will be competition to be the team’s second scoring option. The team’s best option with James gone now becomes Bosh, and if Wade was healthy then he’d be the second scoring option, if not the first option. Newcomer Luol Deng could very well step into that second option for Spoelstra. The signing of Deng could become one of the most underrated moves of the offseason as it will replace some of the scoring production lost with James. The HEAT’s offense is about to undergo wholesale changes and Spoelstra has his work cut out for him.
Who will lead the team in scoring?
The Magic traded away last season’s leading scorer in Arron Afflalo on draft day and will now look to replace his 18.2 points per game. In addition to Afflalo, the team also parted ways with the longest-tenured Magic player in Jameer Nelson, who averaged 12.1 points per game. That leaves the likely competition for top scorer to Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and newcomer Channing Frye. After Afflalo last season, Harris was next in line with 14.6 points a game and then Vucevic with 14.2 so the leading scorer for the Magic next season will most likely be one of them.
Can they jump to the next level?
With the team entering its third season in the current rebuild, the time to start winning more than 23 games is now. That’s not to say they need to fire off 40 wins this season, but an improvement is needed and an ideal number of wins should be between 27 and 32. The signing of Channing Frye seems to have increased the expectations a bit after handing him a contract worth $32 million over four years. The Magic added Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Devyn Marble through the draft and they all figure to see extended minutes throughout the season, but they all may not provide an immediate impact. Core players like Harris, Vucevic, Oladipo, Maurice Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn figure to have the most pressure to lead the team. The next jump for a team coming off of a 23-win season should be to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot until at least the All-Star break, which is an obtainable goal in the Eastern Conference.
How will head coach Jacque Vaughn perform?
This season may be a make or break season for head coach Jacque Vaughn. During this rebuild, Vaughn was touted as the man for the job and wasn’t expected to do much during the first couple of seasons. Now that the core players are becoming more developed, the days of winning 23 games are over. The front office seemed to have put some expectations on Vaughn after signing Frye; he could be on the hot seat if the Magic are competing for ping pong balls again rather than a playoff spot.
What does the arrival of Paul Pierce do for the team?
Paul Pierce’s decision to sign with the Wizards was a bit of a shock, but he helps solidify one of their weakest positions. During his session with the media this week, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman praised Pierce’s leadership skills and versatility on the offensive end of the floor. Beyond the experience and leadership that Pierce brings with him, he also has the ability to create his own shot, which will ease John Wall’s playmaking burden and give Wittman options on the offensive end of the floor.
Just how hot is Randy Wittman’s seat?
Even though the Wizards are fresh off of a playoff appearance, it seems that there is a lot of talk surrounding head coach Randy Wittman’s job even though the Wizards just rewarded Wittman with a contract extension after leading the Wizards to 44 wins last season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Players like John Wall and Bradley Beal have seen huge improvements in their game and Marcin Gortat has played well enough to warrant a five-year, $60 million contract extension, which have put big expectations on the Wizards to make some noise in the playoffs. With the improved roster and the arrival of Pierce, Wittman could be the first to catch blame if this team underachieves.
Will Marcin Gortat prove his worth?
Many around the NBA were ecstatic for Gortat when he landed his five-year, $60 million deal over the summer, but some were concerned. The biggest concern of this deal was giving a 30-year-old player a five-year deal and how the last few seasons of that deal might turn out. The fact is, Gortat forms an incredible front court with Nene and gives teams an incredible challenge when guarding those two big men. Certainly like the rest of the team, the expectations will fall on Gortat to help the Wizards make a deep playoff run and as long as he stays healthy, he should provide his worth on the contract.
NBA Daily: Beilein Ball Resonating With Confident Cavaliers
Why are the Cleveland Cavaliers off to a better start than many had anticipated? Spencer Davies takes an in-depth look at a few of the reasons.
After rolling the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to the tune of a 108-87 final score, it wasn’t the Cleveland Cavaliers who received praise.
Instead, local and national pundits destroyed the defeated franchise that got blown out on its home floor by a “hapless” rebuilding team. Of course, when you play in such a sizable market, haven’t had real success in nearly a decade and put forth an unacceptable effort for your fans, that should be expected.
But maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers shouldn’t be considered as “directionless” as some may have thought before the season started. Maybe, just maybe, this is a team that has heard the noise and wants to stick it to those who have laughed. And maybe, just maybe, other teams shouldn’t take them so lightly because of that.
At the 10-game mark of the current campaign, Cleveland has a 4-6 record. With a pair of victories at home and on the road, the efforts have stayed consistent and the resilience has remained — regardless of where the games have been played. There’s been a game-to-game progression, with head coach John Beilein taking out small victories from each one.
For an organization reinventing itself with a new coaching staff, this kind of competitive start is welcomed. The question to ask is whether or not it is sustainable to continue at this pace, which if accomplished would result somewhere around a 30-win year.
That is looking ahead, though. Staying in the now, the Cavaliers are oozing with confidence and having fun — and there are many reasons why.
Raise your hand if you thought Tristan Thompson would Cleveland’s top two-way player before the season started. Bueller?
In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been an implausible prediction; few expected *this* kind of production, however. Beilein is running his offense through Thompson and Kevin Love, his veteran big men, and they’ve bought in. They are at the peak of the team list in passes made and top three in assists.
While Thompson and Love dominate the two-man game on their own, it’s the impact they make on the others that stands out. Of the nine teammates they’ve shared the court with, eight of them have a plus-8.7 net rating or higher, per NBA.com. Jordan Clarkson is the only player with a negative net — and even if that’s the case, his true shooting percentage is a blazing 72.1 percent playing with them.
Each member of the Cavaliers’ championship frontcourt duo brings something different.
Love is more of your stretch-four type that spreads the floor and positions himself on the block. He’s been a little off from distance and turning the ball over more than usual, but his 51.7 percent conversion rate in post-up situations is good for the best in the NBA (min. 40 possessions). Defensively, he’s been outstanding guarding the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. That whole gobbling-up-defensive-rebounds thing is important, too.
Thompson is the middle man who has his back to the basket, hands off and creates for others by using his body like a brick wall — in fact, he is averaging 5.6 screens and 12.3 points created off of those per game, both ranking in the league’s top five. For the majority of his career, he has been a cleanup man on the offensive side and a reliable presence as a defender. Maintaining that reputation, he’s taken his game to new heights thus far.
Over the last two summers, Thompson has put an emphasis on fine-tuning his handle. We’re seeing that work pay off in games. Whether it’s been in isolation situations or even running the break, he’s taken good care of the basketball and made things happen.
As a scorer, the touch on his jump hook is as impressive as anybody’s. And of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that he’s knocked down three triples and recorded the first multi-three game of his career in Philadelphia.
With these two playing at the level they have, the trade chatter will only get louder as the days pass. Why wouldn’t it? Thompson is in a contract year making strides we’ve never seen before, and Love is an All-Star big man who can provide size and spacing — a commodity that’s currently scarce in the market — to a team trying to add that missing piece. It’s completely feasible that Cleveland’s front office hears an offer it can’t refuse and goes that route, too.
Be that as it may, keeping them around might be the smartest play. Nobody likes to be in basketball purgatory, but what some seem to forget about a rebuild is there has to be a voice in the locker room that knows the ins and outs of the league. Going full speed ahead with guys who have little experience and nobody to lean on won’t help them learn. It’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to accomplish — giving valuable minutes to guys who haven’t had much time at this level and showing them hands-on what it takes to win.
The importance of that winning feeling for development cannot be understated. Thompson and Love have stepped up as those vocal leaders who have essentially played the player-coach role in all of this. Beilein knew he would have to count on that as even he makes his transition to the NBA, and they’ve delivered on that promise.
A postgame quote by rookie guard Kevin Porter Jr. after a win in Washington says it all.
“Without them, we wouldn’t win a single game,” Porter said. “They’re our head of the snake and they just keep us all level-headed… They just pave the way for all of us.”
Running With The Young Bull
Ask Collin Sexton how much a year of NBA experience can do for you. At this point last November, there were many — including teammates — piling onto the former Alabama guard for a plethora of reasons. He was taking ill-advised shots, driving into trees without finishing and getting minced by nearly everyone he was tasked with defending. There was pressure to be ready with a mixed roster of leftover glory and young guys on their second or third chances — and he wasn’t quite there.
Fast-forward to now, carrying over momentum from the second half of his rookie season, and Sexton’s play has indicated that a sophomore surge may be in store in lieu of the dreaded common slump. Combine the fact that his work ethic is second to none and Beilein’s staff has put him in a position to succeed, and that’s a recipe for success.
Let’s start with the defensive end, an area Sexton struggled mightily with during his first year. Beilein believes he’s grasping his assignments’ tendencies better, along with the opponents’ different styles of play. Having once gone below screens in pick-and-roll situations frequently before, the Cavaliers are having him rather fight through and go over them now, at times denying handoffs and causing disruption to the ball-handler.
Sexton put on muscle this summer to adhere to said strategy, and he’s gotten results from it. Using NBA.com’s matchup data, he has held his opponents he’s guarded for at least three minutes to 38.7 percent from the field. Among those assignments were All-Star guards Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 2-for-9 from the field. In addition, Knicks rookie RJ Barrett turned it over three times and was held scoreless by the feisty 20-year-old.
Though he’s done well closing out on shooters, he still needs work defending handoffs. Still, the drive and determination of Sexton won’t allow him to back down from any challenge — and that’s the kind of attitude it takes to become a reliable defender in the NBA.
Switching gears to offense, Sexton hasn’t lost an ounce of aggressiveness, he’s just smarter about it. Slowly, but surely, he’s cutting down those overdrives where he puts himself in no man’s land, turns it over and gift wraps points going the other way, occurrences that Beilein refers to as 50/50 plays.
By letting the game come to him, Sexton is understanding the opportunities that are presented by moving without the ball and thriving off his dual-threat game. His 1.58 points per possession average on spot-ups is good for No. 1 in The Association (min. two possessions), so opponents are going to close out hard when he’s taking threes. Using his quickness, he’s a slight pump fake away from zooming into the paint and either finishing or finding a teammate.
Remember those long twos last season? Those are essentially gone. Sexton is much more cognizant of his shot selection and, now that he’s positioned on the elbow, can operate more smoothly within a free-flowing system. It’s definitely worth mentioning his growth on fastbreaks, too, scenarios in which he used to often outrun himself and get into trouble. He’s still the same blur of speed — just more aware of his surroundings.
Sometimes, as the coach has said before, doing less is more.
Cleveland is finding out the type of guard he is — a point guard who scores or a scorer who can be a point guard. What we’re witnessing suggests the latter and, unlike what his critics say, that’s just fine. Beilein has been in Sexton’s ear about being an efficient player, so regardless of his assist count at face value — he’s created the fourth-most points on the team, by the way — the Young Bull has answered the bell.
A Wolf Comes In For Backup
Jordan Clarkson is one of the most dependable scorers in the NBA. Beilein was an instant fan of Clarkson from the onset of training camp. He’s a player who hunts and will be aggressive in everything he does on the floor, which is a “wolf mentality” according to the Cavaliers’ coach.
You wouldn’t think it by the reaction he gets on social media, which seems a little unfair when you dig deeper into what he brings to the table. Clarkson has been a streaky guy for the majority of his career, but the work he’s put in to get better and contribute in multiple facets should be commended.
Did you know Clarkson’s 51 potential assists are the second-most on the team behind Darius Garland? According to Cleaning The Glass, he has a 17.9 assist percentage.
How about his average of 0.396 points per touch leading Cleveland far-and-away, just like his 6.4 points per drive? Everyone needs that guy who can go out and get a bucket — and that’s exactly what Clarkson does.
Yes, he can be a bit overzealous at times and a gambler on the defensive end — and it can hurt — but that’s in the nature of a wolf. He’s made more good decisions than bad, rarely turns the ball over and paces a second unit that desperately needs a boost in the offense department.
With the bench, Matthew Dellavedova needs to be better. Larry Nance Jr. has improved as a shooter, yet needs to take the defensive challenge more consistently. Porter is figuring out his niche. All of this probably goes smoother if John Henson or Ante Zizic reenter the mix to stop everybody from playing up a position.
While Garland has shown flashes of brilliance, he is still finding his footing as Sexton had to last year, and Cedi Osman has to be more reliable on both ends.
There’s no question that there’s work to be done. Being in the close games that they’ve been in, executing in crucial situations has to be a focus.
But Cleveland is jelling as well as it ever has as one cohesive, structured group. The old sports cliche is you win as a team and lose as a team, but that saying couldn’t be truer in this case.
Touches are about equal all-around. The ball is moving. There hasn’t been a game yet where the outcome has been decided before the fourth quarter, a normal staple of rebuilding organizations that take bumps and bruises.
Are 10 games enough of a sample size to determine what’ll happen in the next 72? Probably not.
Is it fair to say it gives a glimpse of what the team’s identity could look like down the road? Most definitely.
Beilein Ball is only in its beginning stages.
Cleveland is eager to find out what the next step looks like.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southwest Division
In continuing the disappointment series for Basketball Insiders, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the Southwest Division and their current woes.
The NBA season is still very much in its infancy and yet storylines have already begun to develop around the league. Certain teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, are playing up to their pre-conceived expectations. Others, much like the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans, appear as if they could be in for somewhat of a long season. Either way, there is still plenty of time for things to change — but will they?
Continuing our early-season disappointments series, it’s time to look at various aspects of the Southwest Division and highlight the ways the specific situation could turn around down the line. Whether it’s the Pelicans slow start or the Houston Rockets’ lack of defense, the Southwest has clearly left quite a bit to be desired. Let’s take a look at the previously mentioned, as well as a few other divisional setbacks and see what we can uncover.
Pelicans’ Slow Start
To what can we accurately attribute New Orlean’s horribly slow start? Considering the fact that many considered them a West playoff bubble team, it’s been disappointing beyond belief. It would be easy to point a finger at the absence of Zion Williamson. He was electric in the preseason and was a major reason the Pelicans were expected to compete. But laying all the blame there would be too easy.
The fact of the matter is that New Orleans has just been playing poor basketball. Their best player, Jrue Holiday, has been off to an alarmingly rough start. He’s shooting just 23.3 percent from three on over five attempts per night and his efficient field goal percentage is 40.5 percent. Those are both career lows by a country mile.
Brandon Ingram has been playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 25.9 points on very efficient shooting, and yet he’s second-worst (to Holiday) in plus-minus at negative-7.3.
It’s hard to point out exactly what it is that is causing them to lose games, but they have the second-worst defensive rating in the league — and that’s as good a place to start as any. They no longer have Anthony Davis’ length under the rim and the only true defensive force they have in the paint, Derrick Favors, is barely cracking 15 minutes a night.
Williamson’s return from injury in a few weeks should improve their play on both ends of the floor — but head coach Alvin Gentry will need to fix this defense if they want to start seeing more wins.
James Harden + Russell Westbrook’s Efficiency Woes
The Rockets are sitting at 7-3, but they haven’t looked too impressive.
James Harden leads the league in scoring but is doing so by shooting a career-low percentage from three and his worst mark from the field since his rookie year. Russell Westbrook is shooting an abysmal 21.4 percent from three, a career-low, yet he’s shooting a career-high from the field as a whole, which is certainly strange.
The efficiency issues don’t solely stop at Harden and Westbrook. Eric Gordon is shooting 30.9 percent from the field, an entire 10 percent below any other season average he’s had.
Unfortunately, and expectedly, their issues don’t stop on the offensive end. Houston has given up 118.4 points per game to opponents, ahead of only four other teams in the league. The Rockets rank 20th in defensive rating as the fast-paced offense and overall age of the roster has certainly influenced that stagnation.
The one silver lining is that they still lead the NBA in scoring despite their efficiency issues. If their shooting averages start to increase — as you should expect them to — their offense could become a problem for the rest very quickly.
Kristaps Porzingis Struggling
Surprisingly, Kristaps Porzingis was actually pulled out of the Dallas Mavericks lineup during crunch-time against the Boston Celtics. He even lost to the New York Knicks in his first return to Madison Square Garden and looked bad doing so. Overall, his fit with Luka Doncic has been awkward at best.
And yet, the Mavericks are 6-4.
Porzingis started hot by scoring over 20 in each of his first three contests, but he’s put up just one such contest over their last seven games and has lacked plenty of physicality on the defensive end.
In that game against the Celtics, he mustered just 20 minutes, netting just four points on 1-for-11 from the field.
There have been 14 players to average at least three post-up possessions per game this season and Porzingis is dead-last in there at 0.55.
Let’s look at the bright side: He’s playing alongside arguably the best, young player in the league in Luka Doncic. Moreover, Porzingis is playing in his first season since tragically tearing a ligament in his knee just weeks before his first All-Star Game. It was expected that he’d struggle early. So the fact that he’s still averaging over 18 points per game isn’t exactly a negative.
If he can find his game — or, more importantly, a tad more competitiveness — the Mavericks could be a real threat to make the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ Minutes Distribution
This one is pretty bizarre. For all the young talent on their roster, guess who is leading the team in minutes? Jae Crowder. Guess who is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes per game? Jae Crowder. Guess, then, which players are averaging well under 25 minutes per game? Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones and Kyle Anderson.
Jaren Jackson Jr. barely cracks 26 minutes and Ja Morant creeps out over 27.
What is up with this? Obviously, the Grizzlies aren’t trying to make the playoffs this season, but wouldn’t it be in their best interest to play their young studs? Perhaps there is a deeper plan to all this, but if so, it clearly doesn’t make any sense.
There are still plenty of games to be had, so perhaps Memphis’ front office wants to save their key player’s legs for down the stretch. Still, there’s honestly no rhyme or reason for doing this when their team is so young and uninjured.
It really can’t be mentioned enough that these disappointments could all be completely dispelled, some within a few weeks. At only about 10-to-11 games into the campaign, the amount of reliable data out there isn’t necessarily accurate.
Will the Rockets start making their shots? Will Ja Morant get more minutes? Can Williamson change the narrative around the Pelicans? Only time will tell for these pertinent questions and many more. But if we’ve learned anything over the history of the league, it’s that puzzling stories and frustrations can change in an instant.
NBA Daily: The Rich Getting Richer In LA
How will Paul George’s return from off-season shoulder surgeries affect the current state of things in Clipper Land? Chad Smith examines.
Paul George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers, not once but twice. The Palmdale, California kid grew up as a fan of the other team in town, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tomorrow night, he will make his debut for the franchise as one of their best players.
To say the Clippers were the laughing stock of the league for most of their existence would be a massive understatement. The tables have turned, and now the five-time All-NBA forward is part of a team favored by many to win the NBA championship.
Paul has been limited to non-contact drills for the last couple of months, and he has had enough of it.
“I’m tired of rehabbing,” George told reporters after practice. “It sucks.”
Following offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, the star forward has been chomping at the bit to make his return. Fortunately for the Clippers and their fan base, they won’t have to wait long.
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, George will make his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans. With Kawhi Leonard’s load management and the recent injury to Landry Shamet, the addition of George couldn’t come at a better time for Los Angeles.
On top of that, the Clippers are finishing up a brutal seven-game stretch on the schedule. Those were games against Utah, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Portland and Toronto. They visit Houston tonight and travel to New Orleans for the second night of a back-to-back.
The Clippers currently rank 24th in three-point shooting, which is another area where Paul can dramatically help them improve. He has always been an underrated player in that department, but showed last season just how good of a spot-up shooter he can be. Even when he is not the one shooting the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities that open up for his teammates when he drives to the basket.
Paul has always been one of the premier defensive players in the league. His prowess on that end of the floor has put him in the conversation as one of the best two-way players in the game. Pairing the four-time All-Defensive player with Kawhi and Patrick Beverley is going to give opposing teams nightmares.
Working his way into 5-on-5 scrimmages, he would find himself playing against Kawhi’s team. Not only was he up for the challenge of guarding the two-time NBA Finals MVP, but he relished the opportunity.
Despite his eagerness to return to action, Paul is cognizant of the big picture. He has been through this before, at a much more frightening level. After fracturing his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, Paul missed essentially the whole season in 2014-2015. He played the last eight games of the season with the Indiana Pacers, but it gave him great perspective. Paul stressed the importance of what pressure to put on himself, and what to avoid.
One thing Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to be concerned with is Paul adjusting his game. He has went from a young role player to an All-Star in Indiana. He averaged a career-high 28 points per game in Oklahoma City playing alongside a ball-dominant guard in Russell Westbrook. He has shared the spotlight before, and things will be no different playing with “fun guy” Kawhi.
The most mesmerizing part about the pairing of Kawhi and Paul is that they were nearly teammates in Indiana. The Pacers drafted the six-time All-Star 10th overall in 2010. A year later, they had the opportunity to select and keep Kawhi, but opted to trade him to San Antonio for local product George Hill. One major reason why Indiana made that move was that the franchise felt they were already solidified at the position with Paul.
The bond is already tight with George and his other Clippers teammates. This past Sunday, Fresno State retired Paul’s No. 24 jersey after he spent two seasons as a Bulldog. Several Clippers players showed up to surprise him, including team owner Steve Balmer. It was already a moving moment for Paul, but having his guys on hand to share the ceremony with him made it even more special.
The 29-year old forward averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season in Oklahoma City, where he finished third in the MVP voting. With LA’s elite role players already established, George should be able to find his groove within the team before their game on Monday, where he will face his former Thunder teammates.
The big question will be how much will Kawhi and Paul play together? With the ability to always have one superstar on the floor at all times, Doc Rivers will have plenty of options. Should Kawhi continue to rest throughout the season, Paul should be able to handle the load as long as he is healthy. His seven games of scoring at least 40 points — including a 47-point triple-double against Portland last year — should be sufficient evidence of that.
Versatility is a strong suit for LA when it comes to rotations. The lineup to start the game could be drastically different from that which closes the game. When fully healthy, they can go big or small, shifting Paul between the shooting guard or power forward positions. With Shamet likely missing some time, Paul may spend a lot of time at the guard spot. That could arguably be the best five-man defensive lineup in the league with Beverley, George, Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac.
With George returning to the floor, LA will now have both of its dynamic duos intact. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played incredibly well for the Lakers so far this season.
Should Kawhi and Paul fulfill expectations, the Battle of Los Angeles may, in fact, reward the winner with a trip to the Finals.