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New Orleans Pelicans 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2016-17 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The New Orleans Pelicans entered the 2015-16 season with a lot of excitement and optimism. The Pelicans won 45 games in the 2014-15 season, made the postseason, were riding the back of Anthony Davis, their young superstar, and had just hired head coach Alvin Gentry to take the team to the next level. On the night the Golden State Warriors won the 2014-15 NBA championship, a celebrating Gentry – then the associate head coach of the Warriors – sent a message to his young superstar: “[Anthony Davis], we’re coming right back here!”

Unfortunately, the 2015-16 season didn’t result in a trip to the NBA Finals, or a trip to the postseason at all. The Pelicans were decimated by injuries (only Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee played in more than 70 regular season games) and were unable to fully implement Gentry’s pass-happy, movement-based offensive system. The hope for this team is that an offseason of rehab and training and will lead to a healthier 2016-17 season, and that Davis will finally be able to shake the injury bug he has struggled with throughout his young NBA career.

The Pelicans also hope that their offseason additions will offset the losses of contributors like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Anderson and Gordon struggled with injuries as well, but when healthy they were two of the Pelicans’ main pieces.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 New Orleans Pelicans.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Pelicans have unfortunately been decimated by injuries in recent seasons, so hopefully this will be the year that trend ends. The Pelicans will only go as far as superstar Anthony Davis will take them, but that means he too will need to overcome the string of injuries he has endured over the past few seasons. I like the additions of players like Buddy Hield, Cheick Diallo, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill, but I’m not sure that their offseason moves will be enough to make them competitive enough for any sort of postseason run. While this is a team with young, developing players, it also features several veteran players who are there to make this team competitive now. While I am hopeful that this team can shake the injury bug and that Davis can take the next step in his development, I am not very optimistic about this team’s chances of making the postseason or any sort of deep playoff run.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Buddy Hield should immediately pay dividends for the Pelicans, but the biggest concern for the franchise should be the fact that Anthony Davis hasn’t exactly earned the reputation of being an iron man. After four years in the NBA, Davis has yet to play in as many as 70 games in a single season. Last season, everyone expected the Pelicans to take a step forward but injuries to some of their key contributors undercut what looked to be a promising year. With Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon gone and Jrue Holiday out indefinitely pending his wife’s upcoming brain surgery, the Pelicans will likely need some major contributions from Langston Galloway. After working his way through the D-League and emerging as a plus-contributor for the Knicks, Galloway secured a two-year contract from his hometown Pelicans and it’s quite easy to be happy for him. That said, without Holiday, the Pelicans are likely to be playing catch up all season long and unless something similarly catastrophic happens to one of the other teams in the Southwest Division, the Pelicans are likely to be finishing last again this season.

5th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

What a difference a year makes. Heading into training camp last season, fresh off of a playoff berth, most were preparing for an absolute monster (and possibly MVP-level) campaign from All-Star forward Anthony Davis. But Davis limped to just 61 appearances and the club staggered its way to only 30 victories the entire season. Now, the heightened expectations have leveled off and the 2016-17 campaign is shaping up to be one of redemption for Davis and head coach Alvin Gentry. The team lost established veterans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson in free agency, but invested over $70 million in role players E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill in early July. The gamble may pay off, as both guys have showed flashes of potential in limited roles. The key to the Pelicans’ success, however, starts and ends with the play of Davis. For New Orleans gets back into the playoffs, Davis would have to hear his name in the nightly MVP discussion.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

If we could count on Anthony Davis to stay healthy long enough to reach his full potential as a legitimate MVP candidate, it would be much harder to keep putting the Pelicans in the basement of the Southwest Division. However, he’s played between 61-68 games every year of his professional career, and that isn’t enough to guarantee much movement in an incredibly tough division. Frankly, this team didn’t do much to improve its chances this past offseason. Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo look like strong rookie additions, but they don’t suddenly change this New Orleans squad into a contender. Plain and simple, there’s a dearth of talent here. Davis will have to be transcendent for them to make any real progress this year.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Buddy Hield is one of my favorite prospects in this draft class and I think he can make an impact right away for New Orleans. His game is perfect for today’s NBA since he’s such an efficient scoring and excellent shooter. Outside of Hield, I wasn’t crazy about the Pelicans’ offseason moves though. New Orleans paid a lot of money to role players who are nice complementary pieces, but their core still leaves a lot to be desired. I believe the Pelicans will top last year’s win total, but I have them missing the playoffs once again.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

Davis is an all-around threat offensively. He has a smooth jumper that he continues to extend to the three-point line, he’s an effective pick-and-roll partner and is tough to keep off the boards for easy put-backs. There aren’t many limitations in Davis’ current offensive arsenal and he will surely continue to refine and sharpen the skills he already has.

A past criticism of Davis’ game was his thin frame and inability to back down bigger opponents in the post. However, as the league continues to move away from posting up big men in isolation situations, this concern becomes increasingly less of an issue. Additionally, Davis has filled out his frame considerably since entering the league, has improved his ability to leverage opposing bigs to clear space when necessary and is generally able to turn and shoot over most opponents because of his length and athleticism.

One area that Davis could improve is in his ability to make plays for his teammates. Davis is a better ball handler than most bigs and has pretty good court vision. The more Davis can facilitate the offense from the power forward or center position, the more Gentry can offset the fact that his lead guards are either sidelined indefinitely or not pure point guards, like Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson. Despite this, Davis is already one of the most dynamic talents in the entire NBA and is the best all-around offensive player on the Pelicans.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

There are reasons to question just how much of a defensive impact Davis has made throughout his career. He blocks a lot of shots, but this has become less of a measuring stick for all-around defensive impact with newer advanced statistics regularly being developed. However, while Davis doesn’t generally rank at the top of the defensive charts (e.g., Davis ranked 16th among all qualified power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive RPM statistic last season), he is the ideal defensive big man for today’s NBA. He has the length and mobility to protect the rim, the awareness to make weak side blocks, the footwork to attack ball handlers on the perimeter, the vision to play passing lanes and the intelligence to execute defensive schemes that require timely rotations and continuous communication.

The trick for Davis will be developing defensive chemistry with his teammates and taking care of his body to offset the impact of competing against opposing bigs each night. Davis has the tools to be one of the best all-around defenders in the NBA, but he needs to improve his consistency and effort on that side of the court and needs to get as many reps as possible with his teammates, which could be an issue if injuries continue to plague this team.

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

Holiday is out indefinitely to be with his wife, Lauren Holiday, who was diagnosed with an operable brain tumor on the right side of her brain in June. There is obviously no timetable for Holiday’s return since his wife’s health and recovery take precedence over basketball.

Without Holiday, the Pelicans enter the season minus their starting point guard and best playmaker. Tim Frazier came on strong for the Pelicans in 16 games last season and even tallied more assists per-36 minutes than Holiday, but this was a small sample size and Holiday’s combination of size, skill and experience make him the team’s best playmaker.

The Pelicans also have Tyreke Evans, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Lance Stephenson to turn to for playmaking, but Evans is hurt, Stephenson has been a shell of his former self and the other options haven’t proven they are the answer for any team as the full-time starting point guard. As previously mentioned, Davis should be used in a heightened playmaking capacity to expand his already considerable impact and to at least partially offset the loss of Holiday.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The Pelicans took Buddy Hield with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. Hield has become a knockdown shooter and has a ton of confidence in his game, so he may eventually become the Pelicans’ best clutch player. For the time being, though, Davis is the team’s best option in high-pressure situations.

Davis has already logged a few game winners in his short career,and seems poised to be the team’s number one option moving forward.

“At the end of the game, I think we need to get the ball to Anthony more,” Alvin Gentry said about Davis. “We need to start training him to be the guy down the stretch. If you’ve got a great player, that’s what you do. He is gonna be our closer. And that doesn’t necessarily mean making the shot. But I think he’s gonna be the guy more times than not that we’re gonna depend on to make the play at the end of the game. That means maybe finding the open guy, or when a double team comes being able to swing the basketball and put guys in the position where they can make the shot.

“I think we’re gonna have to start trying to go through him — and it may be a screen-and-roll situation, where he screens and rolls to the basket. But we’ve got to have him involved in a lot of the plays at the end of the game.”

Davis can knock down a set jumper, a floater off the dribble, be the roll man on a pick-and-roll and can either finish a play or dish the ball to an open teammate after drawing in multiple defenders. Being able to either score or open looks for teammates down the stretch makes Davis a strong option at the end of close games and makes him the team’s top clutch player.

The Unheralded Player: Quincy Pondexter

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the sort of impact Pondexter can have on a game, so it’s easy to forget how valuable he can be when healthy. Pondexter missed all of last season with a knee injury and has had two surgeries within the span of eight months to address the issue. Pondexter just went through his first full workout earlier this week and will reportedly be ready for the start of the upcoming season.

Pondexter’s ability to knock down three-pointers and lock down opponents makes him a very valuable piece for the Pelicans. Defense has been a struggle for this team, so any help on that end of the court will be a big boost moving forward. Knee injuries like Pondexter’s can be complicated and tough to fully recover from, so new addition Solomon Hill will have to help Pondexter hold down this role for the Pelicans.

Top New Addition: Buddy Hield

Hield put together a fantastic senior season at Oklahoma and, as a 22-year-old, is one of the most NBA-ready rookies in this year’s draft class. Hield may not have a huge role early in the season considering how many more experienced guard the Pelicans have, but he should be one of the team’s most important rotation players sooner rather than later.

While his game may ultimately expand, Hield’s best attribute right now is his shooting. In his fourth and final season at Oklahoma, Hield averaged 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Alvin Gentry

Despite putting together a disappointing first season in New Orleans, Gentry is still a coach capable of pushing this team — especially Davis — to the next level. Gentry has done his best work as the lead assistant coach on teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, but he has the knowledge, experience and philosophy to be a successful head coach in today’s NBA. Hopefully enough of his roster will stay healthy this season for him to successfully institute his offensive and defensive systems.

  1. Anthony Davis

He’s the foundation of the Pelicans and one of the best overall players in the league. Injuries have somewhat tarnished Davis’ glowing reputation around the league, but if he can play in 70-plus games this season and push his team into the playoffs, durability concerns will be quickly forgotten.

  1. Langston Galloway

When Galloway has received consistent minutes in his short career, he has produced. Galloway isn’t likely to ever be an All-Star caliber player or one of the top guards in the NBA, but he is a solid rotation player and a nice player to have on hand if a starter goes down with an injury. Galloway joins the Pelicans along with some other nice depth pieces like E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill, who will likely have to take on bigger roles than they had with their former teams.

  1. Buddy Hield

Hield joins the Pelicans just as the incumbent sharpshooting guard, Eric Gordon, departs. Hield shares many of the same characteristics that Gordon boasted entering the league, so the hope is he can be the answer at the two-guard position in the way that Gordon never was because of injuries. Hield has the unshakable confidence that we see in the best shooting guards, but can suffer from inefficient gunning at times. Nevertheless, if Hield can lock in a manageable role, he has a chance to be one of the biggest impact rookies this upcoming season.

  1. Jrue Holiday

Like most current Pelicans, Holiday has suffered from injuries in recent seasons and is now out indefinitely as he helps to care for his wife. While Holiday has struggled to stay on the court, his experience and skill are key elements to this current Pelicans team. He will be sorely missed until his return, which hopefully comes sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t, the Pelicans are going to have a tough time keeping pace in the Western Conference.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Pelicans went under the salary cap this summer, signing players like Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and rookie Cheick Diallo.  New Orleans also used most of the team’s Room Exception on Tim Frazier, leaving just $808,000 in spending power.  With 15 players under guaranteed contracts (and Lance Stephenson possibly becoming No. 16), camp invites Robert Sacre, Chris Copeland and Shawn Dawson have long odds on making the regular-season roster.

Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, who are in the final year of their contracts, are both eligible to have their deals restructured, but the Pelicans no longer have the cap space to accommodate them. Looking ahead, New Orleans projects to have roughly $28 million in spending power under next year’s salary cap, assuming Dante Cunningham and Galloway opt out of their final seasons.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Pelicans’ greatest strength is obviously Anthony Davis, one of the best all-around players in the NBA. The Pelicans were a mediocre offensive team last season, finishing just 16th in offensive efficiency. Gentry knows how to run an efficient offense, so hopefully with another year of experience and better luck with health he will get more out of Davis and his other players on offense. But not having Holiday at least for the early part of the season may make this difficult, though, Gentry does have a committee of playmakers that he can turn to.

Offense wasn’t a particular strength for the Pelicans last season, but if Gentry can successfully turn Davis into more of a facilitator and get him easier buckets through his pass-happy offense, then the Pelicans could see a nice bump in their offensive efficiency this season.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Defense. The Pelicans were the third-worst defensive team in the league last season, giving up 107.3 points per 100 possessions. Of course injuries had a lot to do with this, but even when their key guys were healthy, the Pelicans simply struggled to lock down their opponents. As with most things, Davis is the driving force for the Pelicans and will need to continue improving his ability to anchor the team’s defense.

Gentry doesn’t have a reputation for being a defensive guru, so it’s not clear how much his coaching can push the needle forward in terms of the team’s defensive competence. Having a player like Pondexter should help, but it’s not clear that the Pelicans’ other offseason additions help shore up the team’s collective defense. The offense should improve this upcoming season, but it’s not clear that the same can be said for the team’s defense.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Pelicans overcome the injury bug?

Injuries are the great equalizer in sports and the Pelicans are no exception. Gentry can put together a masterful season of coaching, but it won’t make much of a difference if guys like Davis, Holiday and Evans are on the sideline for a significant portion of the season. Some injuries are unavoidable, and circumstances like Holiday’s obviously can’t be prevented either. But if the Pelicans can keep their guys on the court this season, they have the talent and the superstar to make things interesting in the West. They are unlikely to be competing for a championship, but they could push a team in the postseason if everyone is healthy and they buy into Gentry’s system.

– Jesse Blancarte

 

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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