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New Orleans Pelicans 2019-20 Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans may have had the busiest offseason in the NBA by trading away Anthony Davis, drafting the top overall pick in Zion Williamson and remaking the front office into a world-class operation. Will that be enough to matter this season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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No team in the NBA has remade themselves quite like the New Orleans Pelicans. After a drama-filled season last year that saw franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis ask for — and ultimately receive — a trade, the Pelicans pulled off an offseason no one could have expected a year ago.

The Pelicans tapped long-time NBA executive David Griffin to run the team and he wasted no time to put his own stamp on the franchise. The Pelicans landed the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, which became Duke big man Zion Williamson. Then New Orleans earned an absolute windfall from the Lakers in the Davis trade, thus giving Griffin a rebuild-on-the-fly that could set the franchise up for a very bright future.

Let’s take a look the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Talk about a quick rebuild! The Pelicans are now one of the most interesting teams in the league — and not only because of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. New Orleans now features incredible depth and versatility in Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes. They will be incredibly fun to watch, and they could even compete for the final seed in the Western Conference.

They’re still really young and that will probably cost them a few too many games. Williamson’s ability to stay on the court will be put to the test immediately. Remember, very few non-centers have played at 285 pounds or above, so the shape in which Williamson enters the season could play a major role in his durability. But the Pelicans really streamlined their rebuild and look better off now than they were prior to trading Anthony Davis, which says a whole lot about their immediate and long-term future.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Pelicans officially hit the reset button when they traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. But they managed to get a really good haul for him, bringing in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and drafting Jaxson Hayes with the Lakers lottery pick. Not to mention the basketball gods smiled upon them with the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson. They also pulled off a draft-day trade for Nickeil Alexander-Walker. This team is oozing with young talent, you couldn’t have asked for a better rebuilding situation. Playoffs are probably out of the question this season, but this will be a very entertaining team to watch.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

What hasn’t been said about the Pelicans’ busy offseason? We’ve been treated to the new-look squad in NOLA all over social media. Former Lakers such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are going to be a key part of this re-tooling, but it’s the addition of Zion Williamson that is drawing the hype train. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes put their potential on display in Las Vegas. Smartly, David Griffin went out to get veteran presences in both Derrick Favors and JJ Redick to ensure the team would hit the ground running. Jrue Holiday is going to show the world just how good he really and he’ll bring the rest of the crew along with him. Talking playoffs isn’t too far off with Alvin Gentry’s resilient squad.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

While the upcoming season is still over a month away, I still believe Griffin has already put himself in the running for the 2019-20 NBA Executive of the Year Award. That may sound hyperbolic but when you consider where the Pelicans were last season when Anthony Davis demanded he be traded, the moves Griffin made in response to this situation and where the team currently stands, it seems clear to me that Griffin is already a leading candidate for this award. There is a wide range of opinions on the young players the Pelicans acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, but each player has serious talent and is worth investing in.

Griffin also managed to shed Solomon Hill’s contract and sign JJ Redick to a very reasonable deal. The savvy-front office expert also added Favors, whom the team can re-sign after this season using his full Bird rights. And Griffin drafted some promising young prospects in this year’s draft who will grow alongside Zion Williamson. Landing the No. 1 pick and drafting Williamson was a lucky outcome so we aren’t crediting Griffin with that necessarily. But the roster he has structured around Williamson can credibly compete on a nightly basis this upcoming season and is loaded with young talent. This is a great overall outcome for the Pelicans and Griffin deserves a lot of praise for it.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It is hard not to look at the Pelicans offseason in awe. Few franchises survive the exodus of a mega-star player without needing to hit the bottom to get another one, but not only did the Pelicans get an epic return for Anthony Davis from the Lakers, but they also landed the future face of the franchise in Zion Williamson — all without having to part with Jrue Holiday. On paper, the Pelicans might be a better all-around team than they were with Davis, mainly because of his extensive injury history and the upside of the guys coming in from the Lakers. We’ll see if the Pelicans can come together fast enough to matter, but the roster work was impressive.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pelicans were one of the most active teams over the offseason, rebuilding the team under the leadership of new executive vice president David Griffin. The franchise went under the salary cap to bring in veterans like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, supplementing the bounty they got from the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis. One big question is the future of Brandon Ingram, who can sign a contract extension before the start of the season.

New Orleans also needs to pick up the team option on Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball before November. With Darius Miller out with a torn Achilles, the Pelicans will probably ask the league for a disabled player exception that would give the team another $3.6 million to acquire a player (with one year left on their deal), either via free agency, trader or off waivers. The Pelicans have two players on partially guaranteed deals in Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams. If both stick, they round out the roster at 15 (not including two-way players).

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jrue Holiday

It’s amazing what one year can change. Last year at this time, Anthony Davis could have been considered the top player in almost all of the following categories. He was the best player on the team, so, obviously, the franchise was gutted when he demanded a trade prior to the All-Star break.

This made things even worse for the second-best player, Jrue Holiday. He had recently signed a big extension with the franchise and received his money, but once Davis wanted out, he was hung out to dry. Certain reports even said the Pelicans were calling teams to gauge interest in Holiday, just in case they wanted to trade him.

Things changed dramatically for the franchise come lottery time. Not only did they receive a nice haul of young talent from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Davis, but they were also blessed with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.

With Zion coming to the team, all hope was not lost. And moving forward – at least in the immediate future – this is Jrue Holiday’s team.

Last season, Holiday averaged career-highs in points, steals, blocks and rebounds. As the best offensive player, let’s highlight the specific stats that point to that designation.

His 21.2 points per game were best for third on the team last season behind Julius Randle and Davis. Both of those players have moved to different teams, and none of the players brought in as replacements averaged more than 18.3 points per game. Williamson could eventually become a bigger scoring threat than Holiday, but we need to see him play some serious NBA minutes first.

Holiday had career-highs in both free throws made and free throw attempted — still, even after all these years, he is getting better at drawing fouls and getting to the line.

He averaged 7.7 assists to only 3.1 turnovers — cementing that he is both a capable ballhandler as well as a legitimate scoring threat.

His one glaring weakness on offense is his three-point shot. It’s not horrible, but it has dramatically gotten worse throughout his career. There is almost a direct correlation in his shot attempts increasing with the percentage decreasing. In fact, last season he put up a career-high 5.4 three-point attempts per game but made a career-low 32.5 percent of them.

Top Defensive Player: Derrick Favors

Many fans don’t quite understand the caliber of player that Favors has become. He’s more-or-less been in the shadow of Rudy Gobert the last few seasons but — as one of the most humble guys in the NBA — you haven’t heard any complaints. Utah – reluctantly – had to trade Favors in order to make room for their new free-agent acquisitions, so New Orleans was the team lucky enough to pick up the last year of his team-option contract.

Favors is one of just 11 players in the last five seasons to average at least 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Take away guys that played more than 30 minutes per game and guess how many that leaves on the list? Just one: Favors.

What’s more, he has only averaged 27.6 minutes per game over the last five seasons. Imagine what he can do with a full load of starting five-caliber minutes.

He’s a monster in the paint, easily a top-5 rim protector in the NBA, and strong enough to guard the most powerful post players. He isn’t elite at switching onto forwards but has the ability to make a decent impact when it’s necessary.

Jrue Holiday has a case for the best defensive player, but he won’t have near the impact as Favors does in stopping opponents from scoring. New Orleans will be more than pleased with their new starting center.

Top Playmaker: Lonzo Ball

The inevitable finally occurred for the Ball family. Ever since Davis requested his trade, Lonzo was considered to be a centerpiece in the trade talks. Much to the dismay of LaVar, the baby Ball found himself out of Hollywood and down in the Big Easy.

Ball was third in assist percentage last season in Los Angeles behind LeBron James and Rajon Rondo – two elite passers. He was second in assist-to-turnover ratio behind, again, only Rondo.

While he has continued to struggle with his shooting, his court vision has only gotten better since college. He is one of the true young talents when it comes to playmaking in the NBA and, considering his age, could likely become the best in the league within a couple of years. He has to be considered the best passer in the league aged 21 or younger — and the only person currently on New Orleans’ roster who could give him a run for his money is Holiday. But Holiday has transitioned into more of a scoring role, so his ability to dish the ball has taken a backseat.

Ball is still waiting for his breakout season and, with a bigger role in New Orleans, it might be his time. Watch for his playmaking to improve even more now that he has more room to function.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

This will most likely be a tough box to check during the season. Most players on the roster either didn’t play much in the clutch last season or performed poorly when they did. As a remember, clutch situations occur when there is a five or less point differential with five minutes remaining in the game.

Holiday played plenty of clutch minutes but shot horrendously from the field when he did. Favors’ scoring was incredibly efficient, but he only played 11 games in clutch situations and put up less than one field goal per game.

Ingram performed best in the clutch last season, although he still wasn’t a killer by any means. He averaged 1.4 points per game in the clutch, shot 44 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. His unique ability to get to the basket certainly helps in late-game situations when most players are gassed.

Ingram, although young and not mistake-prone, is athletic, knows his handle well and can beat defenders either to the rim or to certain spots where he likes to shoot. He has an elite length for his position and this really comes in handy when his team needs a bucket. He wasn’t the Lakers’ go-to guy last year for late-game shots – for obvious reasons – but he’ll have the ability to be that guy on an inferior starting-five for the Pelicans.

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Seriously, by the end of the season, you will have a much better idea of who Favors is. It’s really hard to point out exactly what it is that Favors does so well, likely because he does many things on the court at a high-level.

As previously mentioned, he is an elite rim protector. Favors is also an incredible rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is superb at finishing at the rim but has quite a solid midrange game, too. The veteran’s offensive efficiency is up there with the best players in the league, to boot.

But his best attribute of all has to be his effort. Favors is a workhorse on both ends of the court and will give you his all regardless of how many minutes he plays. Not once during his almost nine-year tenure with Utah was his effort ever called in to question and not a single time did you hear him complain about losing minutes to Gobert or declining touches on offense.

Even better, Favors rarely has an off night. He’s outrageously consistent, supremely humble and, overall, just a dude you want in your locker room and on the court every night. Pelicans fans may not have known how to react when they got him via trade, but they’ll be very pleased with the results he brings at the end of the season.

Best New Addition: Zion Williamson

Okay, I know you were waiting for this one. Probably the most hyped player to come out of the draft since LeBron James, Zion brings a certain buzz of excitement to the league that hasn’t been felt since the aforementioned Davis entered. His mix of size, athleticism and basketball IQ at such a young age are perhaps better than even James’ at the time of his draft.

It almost looks extraterrestrial to see his massive frame jump off the ground as high as he does. He has the weight and strength of an NBA center, the height of a small forward and the handles and touch of a guard. At the collegiate level, he was unbelievable in the open court when running fast breaks.

Williamson’s defensive skills are ahead of his time. He can guard just about every position with ease and can elevate to levels above the rim that almost seem impossible for his height.

He finished his college campaign with a 20 box plus-minus which is the best on record for a college player, finishing in front of players like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Victor Oladipo.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what position and situation will allow him to have the biggest impact in the NBA, but his success is almost a sure-fire thing. It is unfathomable to assume his floor is any lower than a solid starter for many years. His ceiling could go as high as the greatest player of all time. We won’t get ahead of ourselves here, but the intangibles are all there. Now, it just comes down to whether or not he can put them all together.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jrue Holiday

Until Zion proves otherwise, this is his team. He remained as second-fiddle to Anthony Davis for quite some time, so this could truly be his breakout year. We got a taste of it last season post-All-Star break when Davis played severely shallow minutes, but Holiday’s game has really grown to an All-Star-caliber level. He defends at an elite level and can score quite well, too.

He still needs to improve his finishing, as often his scoring comes as a result of poor efficiency, but downplaying the ability to get points in the NBA, regardless of percentages, is a poor move. Holiday is continually improving his offensive arsenal — and his defense is already at one of the top positions in the league — so he will be a major face to the franchise for at least this season, likely for many to come.

2. David Griffin

Give it to the big man upstairs for constructing this talented roster when all seemed lost. It was expected that they’d get quite the haul for Davis, which they did, but getting Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick, in addition, was huge. Also, drafting both Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker using draft picks from the trade, look to be enormous pickups as well. Both of those young guys played incredibly well during the NBA Summer League.

Seriously, things appeared pretty dismal for the Pelicans after the Davis news originally broke. The fact that they are even minutely mentioned in the playoff race six months later in the deep Western Conference is pretty miraculous.

3. JJ Redick

Redick – at age 34 – is coming off his highest-scoring season ever. On a roster that included Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid that is surely saying something. He finished the season with 18.1 points per game and did so shooting an effective field goal percentage of 55.7 percent.

It is still quite puzzling that the 76ers just let him go, especially for a team that sorely needs three-point shooting. Redick will be an instant boost on offense for the Pelicans and will absolutely help spread the floor.

He has the ability to consistently knock down shots at multiple levels, which will allow his teammates to move around more freely, as defenses will always need to keep an eye on the veteran’s location. He may not do what he did last season points-wise, but Redick isn’t anywhere near a decline at this point in his career.

4. Zion Williamson

What’s not to like? He’s big, strong and fast. For PR junkies, he has a nice smile and always seems to know what to say for a player at his age. He dunks with authority, has a motor that most have never seen and clearly loves the game of basketball. The list goes on and on and on.

What else can be said about this guy? His weight could be a factor down the road as far as the health of his knees is concerned, but something like that is such a small concern for the amount of upside at this time. Plus, it’s not that difficult to lose weight. And Williamson’s weight isn’t all that unhealthy. NBA trainers will get him looking like less of a football player and more of a basketball player in no time.

He will likely be in the starting lineup day one, so look for him to make a hyper-quick impact in the NBA. Fans everywhere will be holding their breath for his first earth-shattering dunk. Especially due to the fact that his play was so limited in the Las Vegas Summer League. Ladies and gentlemen, the Zion Era is almost upon us.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

This team’s biggest strengths are that there are no glaring weaknesses. They have pretty solid talent at multiple levels and don’t really lack anything on either side of the ball.

Their starting unit will consist of five players that would start for just about any team — and the fact that one of Ball, Ingram or Redick will likely start the season coming off the bench is telling about the level of top-end talent they possess.

The roster was pretty heavily rebuilt during the offseason, so we’ve yet to see what it will look like on the court, but there is plenty of talent there. Holiday, Favors and Ball can hold things down on defense, while players like Redick, Ingram and Williamson will be able to generate good looks on offense.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

On the flip side, however, their biggest weakness is that they have no outlying strengths. While everything on the court looks solid on paper, nothing really sticks out as an outright strength. The team is still incredibly young — there’s a lot to like about their roster, but what is one supposed to like the most?

Obviously Williamson will be fun, there’s no denying that. But calling him a strength without seeing any minutes against actual NBA talent would be a stretch. There’s no doubt he’ll get there, and maybe relatively quickly, but it’s still a question mark for now.

Until we see the finished product on the court working as a cohesive unit, you can’t really point to any major strengths. Will they make the playoffs? Maybe. But what will it be that gets them there? Only time will tell.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pelicans make the playoffs?

It would be so fun to say yes here. The team is young, hungry, rebuilt and, in some cases, ready for revenge. What was the Lakers’ young core likely feels like used goods and is ready to show the NBA why they shouldn’t have been traded for Davis. Williamson is ready to make his stamp on the NBA, Favors is ready to blossom post-Jazz-life and Redick is out to prove why the 76ers should have paid him instead of others.

Unfortunately, the conference is just too deep. There are at least eight teams better than New Orleans and at least three teams that are arguably just as talented — to wit, to this writer: the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings Oklahoma City Thunder.

It’s certainly not impossible. There is for sure a path that ends with New Orleans in the playoffs at the end of this season. But they are at least a year out before it becomes a determined, expected reality. They are too young, don’t have enough time together and still need to find out what their identity is. The Pelicans weren’t exactly a powerhouse with Anthony Davis, so they still have a long ways to go.

But they just might have the talent to eventually get them there.

– Jordan Hicks

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NBA

NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain

Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.

“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”

The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.

But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.

“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”

Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9  attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.

Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.

That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.

Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.

The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.

Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.

Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?

Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.

There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.

If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.

Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.

“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”

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NBA

The Divide On Analytics

The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.

Drew Mays

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Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.

After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!

LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.

This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.

Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.

Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.

In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.

Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.

The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.

Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.

On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:

“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”

This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”

“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.

Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.

Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.

The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.

Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.

The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”

And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).

But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.

Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.

You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.

But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.

Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.

Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.

A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.

So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).

Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.

The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.

To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.

But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.

Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.

Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.

It’s more effective. The math says so.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance

The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.

Jack Winter

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Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.

But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.

But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.

The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.

But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.

These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.

Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.

Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.

The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.

That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.

Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.

The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.

Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.

For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.

Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?

It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.

Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.

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