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Noel, Okafor On Turning Corners in Philly

Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor talked to Basketball Insiders about this season and the team’s potential moving forward.

Ben Dowsett

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The ever-divisive ongoing rebuild in Philadelphia has, for better or worse, shined an unbalanced light on a few of the specific participants – whether willing or otherwise. Many people were involved in some way with the 76ers’ decision to undergo an intentional tanking project never before seen to this magnitude in North American professional sports, but the spotlight has generally featured only a small percentage of those mixed up in what’s been, at times, a painful ordeal.

From a player perspective, particularly during a 2015-16 season that threatened all-time levels of futility early in the year, the two main outlets for fan and media frustration have been blue chip big men Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. With fellow college standout Joel Embiid still on the sidelines and out of the spotlight, potential Euro transplant Dario Saric toiling half a world away and the rest of Philly’s roster inhabited mostly by placeholders and journeymen, Noel and Okafor are on the front lines daily.

“We have to deal with it,” Noel told Basketball Insiders during All-Star weekend in Toronto. “We are patient. Things are getting better – guys are coming along, and we’re starting to play at a higher level.”

He’s right, and the distinction between the run-of-the-mill bad we’ve seen from Philly in the last month or two and the historically awful product on the floor in the season’s early months is hugely relevant. Consider that at one point they were an almost unbelievable 1-30 after a late December loss to Milwaukee – on pace to shatter the NBA record for futility with three or fewer wins for a full season. Discontent was growing and became focused on all the wrong areas to an even larger degree when Okafor’s public behavioral issues became a major talking point as well. Real whispers had begun to spread as to whether Philly’s culture was permanently damaging these players. Through it all, Noel and Okafor remained the most visible on-court faces.

Things aren’t quite so dire after a couple of personnel fixes and the hiring of Jerry Colangelo stabilized the franchise to a degree. As it turns out, going about your daily work isn’t quite as difficult minus questions about playing on the worst professional sports team of all-time at the end of each game. From Noel’s eye, the group’s camaraderie has grown to a point where they lift each other.

“It doesn’t wear on the team, because we’re such a close-knit team,” Noel said. “We’re all around the same age, a lot of common interests. So guys are really close in that regard, and Coach [Brett] Brown does a great job of keeping the locker room so close.”

In addition to being the most visible faces on the floor, the on-court dynamic between the two young bigs has brightened the spotlight they face. Noel and Okafor have frequently struggled as a frontcourt pairing to an even larger degree than the 76ers as whole, and have generally seen team performance improve when they play separately. For a franchise hoping they can make up two thirds of a dominant NBA front line, it’s certainly concerning.

“I wouldn’t say we’re struggling because of Nerlens and [me],” Okafor told Basketball Insiders “We’re just a young team. We have a lot to figure out. But Nerlens and I can definitely coexist.”

Whether his latter statement eventually becomes true or not, the numbers don’t currently back up his first proclamation. In 608 minutes together so far this year, the Noel-Okafor pairing has been outscored by a frightening 19.3 points per-100-possessions, the third-worst mark of any two-man unit with over 500 logged minutes. Only two other Philly duos (Okafor-Stauskas and Okafor-Grant) have been worse, and only a couple other duos in the entire league have even come within shouting distance of their futility.

Meanwhile, though, when Okafor plays without Noel, the number drops to a minus-13.1 – still terrible, but a step up. And when Noel plays without the 2015 third overall pick, the 76ers even approach respectable, outscored by just 5.2 points per-100, a figure that would “only” be 27th in the NBA on a team level for the full season.

The figures are concerning, but like many elements of Philly’s season, things have improved as the year has worn on. Brown has split the two up a bit more often to mitigate the damage to some degree, and the insertion of mid-season addition Ish Smith at the point guard spot has really appeared to stabilize both players. The Noel-Okafor twosome is down into the single digits for red numbers since Smith’s first game in Philly on December 26, outscored by a more manageable 8.7 points per-100 in that time. Okafor-only lineups continue to be a bit worrisome, but the franchise has plenty of time to be patient with their youngest asset as things improve elsewhere. Noel thinks Jahlil is already making strides.

“He’s matured so much, and developed his game in such a short period of time,” Noel said of Okafor. “Our relationship growing as much as it has since the season started, and us being able to work through so many things, just go through so many things together so early and at a young age… it’s really helped us.

“I think me and Jah are so young, where we’re still figuring out a lot of things about the NBA game. We’re still growing our game and developing. As the season grows, we’ll get more comfortable in building certain parts of our game that will make it easier to play together. So I think it’s just a matter of time.”

As the two grow together and show what they can accomplish when surrounded by actual NBA talent, the focus of the franchise can slowly begin to shift. A much more positive stretch since Smith and Colangelo’s additions has removed the lingering stench of a historically awful team – shoot, the 76ers might even have competition for the league’s worst record this season if they keep it up. Eyes can start turning to the next steps in the process.

“We have a bright future,” said Okafor. “We have a lot of things to look forward to – JoJo Embiid coming back, Dario Saric coming back over here. Hopefully that happens.”

He didn’t even mention the team’s 2016 draft stockpile (Noel did), which is sizable. The 76ers could have as many as three lottery picks and four first-rounders overall in this draft, including their own pick that projects to once again be in the top three. Saric’s transplant date is unknown at this point, but continued bits of positivity out of Philly certainly can’t hurt the chances that he makes the jump before long. And of course, as likely the highest-ceiling prospect the team has selected during their rebuild, Embiid’s likely return could make a world of difference.

“Joel’s been doing fantastic,” Noel said. “He’s come leaps and bounds. His body looks amazing, he’s really been on top of his medicine, the whole nine. Getting to the arena early, taking care of his rehab and his treatment, he looks real good.”

It’s been a long road for two of Philly’s most promising young pieces, but as the team looks to have finally turned one small corner, they’re hoping creases will begin to open up more often. Colangelo’s hiring signals a clear desire to begin the process of moving forward, and the next couple years are sure to offer countless exciting, revelatory moments as the young core grows both in number and in experience. For now, the two youngsters will enjoy the scenery in Toronto, knowing their time as the featured attractions at All-Star weekend can’t be far away.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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