In Basketball Insiders’ new series, we’ll take a look at the new players in every division. We start with the Southeast Division.
Thabo Sefolosha: The Hawks stayed mostly quiet on the free agent front, but did add Thabo Sefolosha to the mix. The Hawks have been desperately seeking a player to lock up opposing teams’ best players and seem to have finally added that player in Sefolosha. While Sefolosha will provide the biggest impact on the defensive side of the ball, the Hawks are hoping that he’ll be able find some of his stroke from behind the arc. Sefolosha shot 42 percent from three-point range with the Thunder two seasons ago, but regressed from that number last season hitting just 32 percent of his shots from long distance.
Lance Stephenson: Perhaps the biggest addition in the entire division comes from the Charlotte Hornets in Lance Stephenson. When Stephenson is engaged, there is no question that he can be one of the best players on both sides of the ball. Adding Stephenson to the backcourt with Kemba Walker will surely make the duo one of the better backcourts in the league and should be very fun to watch throughout the season. The Hornets are gaining a player with ample playoff experience and somebody that can energize the team and fans with his emotional play on the court. Stephenson’s presence will take some of the burden off of Walker and allow him to not force as many shots as last season when he attempted nearly 16 shots a game. Much has been made about Stephenson’s off-court behavior, but a change in scenery could be exactly what Stephenson needs to have people talking about his behavior on the court, not off the court.
Noah Vonleh: The Hornets have a player with tremendous upside in Noah Vonleh, the 19-year-old rookie they drafted with the ninth overall pick. The Hornets got Vonleh at a bit of a steal as the 6’10 big man was projected to go as high as fourth overall to the Orlando Magic. Vonleh suffered a sports hernia over the summer and is currently out of team activities for at least another two weeks. While sitting out, Vonleh is missing out on crucial training for his upcoming rookie season. Once he proves he’s ready to go, the Hornets will have a guy who is compared to Chris Bosh since he is athletic and can shoot the ball. He’ll have to earn his minutes when he returns as he’ll be competing with Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller for time on the floor, but the team will certainly have depth in the front court when he’s ready to go.
P.J. Hairston: The Hornets got another steal in the draft in P.J. Hairston with the No. 26 pick. Hairston is another player that will most certainly have to earn his way into the rotation, playing behind Stephenson and Gary Neal, but can light up the scoreboard if he gets hot. Hairston averaged 21.8 points last year in the D-League and shot 36 percent from the behind the arc. During the Summer League, Hairston drained six threes during one game against the Kings so he has already shown the ability to hit threes from NBA range. While Hairston may not play too much from the beginning, he provides head coach Steve Clifford with shooting options off of the bench.
Luol Deng: In what could go down as one of the most underrated moves of the offseason, the HEAT added free agent small forward Luol Deng. The HEAT will look to Deng to help replace part of the production lost by LeBron James. In addition to helping provide offense for the team, Deng will try to anchor the defensive side of the ball as well. Heading into training camp this season, HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra is making it a point of emphasis to improve the defense. After falling out of the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions last season, Spoelstra wants to improve the defense and spoke very highly of Deng’s defensive efforts. In past seasons, Deng was leaned upon heavily in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes and rotations and should continue to be somebody Spoelstra can count on.
Danny Granger: The expected theme for the HEAT this offseason was to replace the production lost by James. After Deng, Danny Granger seems to have been the next biggest signing for the team. Granger has been hobbled by injuries over the past several seasons, but has shown, when healthy, that he can still be a solid contributor off of the bench. This was evident in his first preseason game of the season on Saturday night when he scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting and four assists in 22 minutes of action. It would be unfair for the HEAT to count on Granger to return to his former self, but if Granger could average around 8-10 points a night then the HEAT could have a solid bench contributor.
Josh McRoberts: The HEAT found extreme value in the signing of Josh McRoberts. It seems Steve Clifford finally figured out how to use McRoberts last season in Charlotte, and Spoelstra definitely has taken his notes when designing his new offensive schemes. Clifford used McRoberts’ strengths in athleticism, passing and shooting to his advantage and McRoberts had his most productive season as a result. He scored career-highs in points with 8.5 and assists with 4.3 per game, and added 4.8 rebounds. His 4.3 assists were second-highest in the league among power forwards. McRoberts will also be able to stretch the floor a bit as a career 34 percent shooter from long range.
Channing Frye: The Magic opened up the checkbook and signed Channing Frye to a four-year, $32 million deal. The arrival of Frye will strengthen the Magic’s ability to score points. The only problem is the team also lost key offensive players in Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson, but that is another issue in itself. With Frye on the roster now, the Magic will benefit from his three-point shooting that will space the floor and open up lanes for players like Victor Oladipo, Maurice Harkless and rookie Elfrid Payton. The Magic were ranked 19th in the league last season in three-point shooting, so Frye’s 39 percent career three-point shooting will help make an impact immediately. With Afflalo and Nelson out of the picture, Frye should compete to become the team’s leading scorer.
Elfrid Payton: The Orlando Magic brought in Elfrid Payton through the draft and have really high hopes for him. Playing alongside Oladipo, the Magic’s backcourt duo can become one of the best in the league in terms of defense. Oladipo finished last season 15th in the league with 1.61 steals per game and Payton’s 6’4 frame and quick hands will allow him to knock a lot of balls loose as well. The spacing that Frye will provide will be huge for Payton as he showed in college the ability to drive to the lane very quickly. Payton welcomes the early comparisons to Rajon Rondo, but wants to make a name for himself on his own terms which likely won’t happen for another season or two.
Paul Pierce: The loss of Trevor Ariza for the Wizards was going to leave a huge hole in the starting lineup, but the addition of Paul Pierce surely makes up for that loss. Pierce brings championship experience to the team and his leadership should prove to be huge for the Wizards. The Wizards will count on Pierce for that leadership, but his ability to hit the big shots could put this team over the top. With John Wall, Bradley Beal, Pierce, Nene and Marcin Gortat in the starting lineup, the Wizards face increased pressure this season and Pierce could be the guy that helps this young team manage that pressure.
Kris Humphries: The days of Kris Humphries dropping a double-double every night may be behind him, but the Wizards don’t need him to do that playing behind Nene and Gortat. With Nene and Gortat, the Wizards have one of the best traditional, big man front courts in the league and adding Humphries’ size off of the bench fits into that philosophy. Humphries playing around 20 minutes will be what the Wizards need and his depth may help the Wizards reach the next level in the Eastern Conference.
NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM
The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.
The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming up just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone, Kemba Walker.
In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard went 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, whom went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently being outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.
Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.
“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”
While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the other numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt the Hornets. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and selected Anthony Davis.
The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either player would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.
“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”
Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”
Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.
“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.
Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently selected with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.
Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization with Cho’s contract set to expire. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.
The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA
The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.
When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.
With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.
One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.
Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.
“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”
Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.
When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.
“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”
He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.
Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.
“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”
While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.
He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.
It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.
“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”
NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.
Playing For Something Bigger
The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.
By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.
“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”
Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.
“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.
“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”
Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.
“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”
With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.
“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”
With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.
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