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Oklahoma City Thunder 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder have started down the long and painful road of rebuilding after a decade featuring some of the NBA’s biggest stars in one of the smallest markets. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Thunder in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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So, that happened.

That, of course, is the sudden, unexpected departure of Russell Westbrook, the undeniable top dog in Thunder-era franchise history.

Onto Houston to reunite with former teammate James Harden and forge a new path ahead, leaving Oklahoma City – for the first time since the franchise moved cross-country in 2008 – without a bonafide superstar. That show-stopping occasion came just weeks after the Oklahoma City traded Paul George, one year after signing him to a large deal in free agency, to the Los Angeles Clippers. With the simple snap of Sam Presti’s fingers, the team and city head into the uncharted waters of a cold, inevitable rebuild.

Sure, Chris Paul will fill the hole as the rostered icon and future Hall of Famer, but the swap leaves the Thunder in limbo — hampered by a few remaining contracts, but steadfastly dedicated to their young assets and a newly-found treasure trove of draft picks. Serious dreams of a deep postseason run are likely dead and gone with Westbrook and George’s departures, but the Thunder have an exciting collection of talent — however, does anything on the court matter?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Thunder finally folded their hand entering 2019 free agency. They traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George for a windfall of draft picks – six unprotected first-round picks, one protected pick and four pick swaps – along with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. While they still have a solid – albeit a mismatched – core, there is lots of competition out West. The Thunder possess nice pieces like Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder, but it seems more likely like the Thunder will be sellers come the 2019-20 trade deadline. After all, odds that they make the playoffs are incredibly slim even if they play their vets. The Thunder will probably decide to cash in their remaining chips sooner than later, looking to move Adams, Schroder, Gallinari and/or Paul. That would enable them to allow Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo and rookie Darius Bazley to spread their wings. But it won’t produce many wins. And either way, the Northwest Division is ultra-competitive, and the Thunder will struggle to finish ahead of any of its teams regardless of the moves it makes.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Thunder officially hit the reset button with their decision to trade Russell Westbrook and Paul George. They did get a nice haul picks though from the Clippers in the George deal, as well as promising young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s a good start. Now they need to decide what to do with the rest of the roster, namely Chris Paul, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. This team isn’t going to be a good one, so it’s best not to get any delusions of grandeur of making an underdog postseason push. Rebuilding should be the sole focus. Don’t expect Paul to remain on the roster past the trade deadline. Gallinari could be an attractive piece for a team looking for that missing piece for a deep playoff run. Adams has been one of the franchise cornerstones, but is his presence really necessary for a rebuilding team? That’s the question OKC is going to have to answer, and whether or not it’s in their best interests to trade him and get something in return that could potentially help the rebuild.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

The idea of Oklahoma City’s first home game of the NBA season being without Russell Westbrook there to fire up the crowd is going to take some getting used to. Yet as they say, the show must go on. For the Thunder, it’s a new day. The rebuild has begun, and it’s already ahead of schedule thanks to the proactive nature of Sam Presti. There’s much to look forward to with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander learning under the tutelage of Chris Paul, who is returning to the city he once played in during the prime of his career. When you look at the young talent – Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton, rookie Darius Bazley – there’s a lot to like. Unfortunately, their playing time is to be determined until veterans such as Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari are booted from the top of the pecking order. Those two, and Steven Adams, may be trade bait at some point of the season. This year won’t be pretty in the wins and losses column, so Billy Donovan will be tested in his toughest season to date.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

There is actually a lot to like in what’s left in the aftermath of the trades that took the Thunder from contender to lottery hopeful. Darius Bazley, Terrance Ferguson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams are all really nice upside players that could flourish without the ball dominating Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul could be the veteran playmaker that brings all this youth and upside together. It’s possible because there is talent there, but what’s more likely is the continued tearing down and selling off of high priced players as the Thunder look to the lottery for their future, and that’s always sad to watch. Maybe these Thunder are scrappy for another year because they do hold a lot of veteran cap dollars that would be tough to trade away in one season, but it’s more likely the Thunder lose 50 games than win them.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

The Oklahoma City Thunder were not on a path to winning a championship despite having Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster. Credit Sam Presti for understanding the limitations of his roster and salary cap situation and making bold moves to rebuild. Presti got a historic haul of assets from the Clippers in the Paul George trade. The Thunder received Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 2021 Miami HEAT first-rounder, a 2022 first-rounder, 2023 first-round swap rights, a protected Miami 2023 first-rounder, a 2024 first-rounder, 2025 first-round swap rights and a 2026 first-rounder. Gallinari played at near All-Star levels last season and Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best young point guard prospects in the league. Then Presti traded Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, conditional 2021 swap rights, a protected 2024 first-rounder, conditional 2025 swap rights, and a protected 2026 first-rounder (top-4 protected, otherwise conveys as $1 million). Presti managed to completely reload the team with future draft assets and quality players as well. With the remaining talent and the additions of Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul, I think Oklahoma City is poised to beat expectations this upcoming season.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Thunder have gone through an obvious transformation since last season. In losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George, via trade, the franchise added significant draft resources for the future. The team has also whittled down their salary to just below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Oklahoma City currently has $131.8 million in guaranteed salary, and could still look to shed for some breathing room before the trade deadline.

The team needs to decide on options for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Terrance Ferguson before November. While the Thunder still has access to its Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions, along with two sizable trade exceptions ($10.4 million for George and $9.3 million for Grant), don’t expect the franchise to spend with tax concerns (they’d be a repeat payer if over).

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari

The perpetually underrated and once forever-injured Italian can often be a one-man show on offense. Since he entered the league in 2007, that’s always been true as long as he’s reached the court. Gallinari hasn’t played 70 or more games since 2012-13 — and maxed out at 63 during the five seasons between then and now — but he was, at long last, a force for the Clippers last year. At 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 43.3 percent from three-point range in 2018-19, it was likely Gallinari’s best effort as an NBA-level professional yet.

Gallinari was virtually tied with Tobias Harris and Lou Williams in the scoring department for Los Angeles and offered the upstart Clippers a versatile, efficient weapon at multiple positions.
At 6-foot-10, Gallinari is adept both inside and out, in isolation or on the block. Given both his mobility and height, defending him can be a nightmare-ish version of picking-your-own-poison, often just rising up-and-over at a standstill should the opposition sag off at all. And if his past campaign appeared to be a fluke, Gallinari put up similar numbers for Italy at the FIBA World Cup as their unquestioned No. 1 option.

The talent within the 31-year-old has never been up for debate and, if he remains at full strength, he’ll be a key piece wherever he plays — in Oklahoma City or otherwise.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

Over the previous two seasons, this answer was Paul George without a single doubt — and that’s not a slight at Roberson whatsoever. George finished in third place in Defensive Player of the Year voting last spring, while Roberson missed an entire season as he continued to rehab from his brutal injury. Of course, in January 2017, Roberson ruptured his left patellar tendon and missed the remainder of the year. On the comeback trail the following autumn, Roberson suffered through setback after setback before an MRI in November found a small avulsion fracture that shelved him once more — eventually, that turned into a lost season as well.

Nothing about Roberson is a given at this point, but — like Gallinari — when healthy, he’s proven to be an absolute force. In 2013, Roberson was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year; four years later, the former Colorado standout had reached the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, named along Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. In that 2016-17 season, Roberson was one of 11 players to finish with at least a block and steal per game. Perimeter defenders need their mobility to guard the league’s elite, so we’ll have to wait and see if Roberson still has it — but his return, particularly so following the departure of George, has become a much-needed storyline for the Thunder.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

Naturally, it’s all Chris Paul here.

Paul, 34 and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, is not only the Thunder’s best playmaker, but he’s also one of the best playmakers in NBA history. The 6-foot guard is a nine-time All-Star, four-time assist champion, six-time steal champion, eight-time All-NBA Teamer and a nine-time member of an All-Defensive team. In any definition of the term, Paul is a playmaker, even at his older age. It’s been four years since Paul averaged an assist total in the double digits, but his 8.2 assist tally was still sixth-most in the entire league. Better, his two thefts per game put him at No. 3 along Harden. Even Father Time can’t slow him down at his ball-hawking, court-visionary best.

The one thing that has slowed down Paul, unfortunately, is an injury. During his final season with the Clippers, CP3 reached just 61 games; over two campaigns with Houston, that total ended at 58 both times. In 2017-18, a groin-related flare-up in the Western Conference Finals — with the Rockets up 3-2 — cost him his best chance at a championship he’ll ever get. The injuries, even with one of the NBA’s largest contracts, are his biggest hindrance at this point. Still, with plenty of athletic, high-potential rotation pieces already in tow — Diallo, Ferguson, Schröder, etc. — Paul holds immense value as a mentor through 2020 and beyond.

Top Clutch Player: Steven Adams

Without question, plenty of Thunder players could lay claim to this title, but Mr. Reliable, Steven Adams, deserves more shine. Heading into his seventh NBA season, Adams has missed a total of 24 games — and what’s more clutch than constant availability? In his career-best 2018-19, Adams tallied 13.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 59.5 percent from the floor. During clutch-time minutes, Adams shot at 52 percent to boot — a high-percentage, no-nonsense clean-up option around two top-five MVP candidates. Known as one of the hardest pick-setters in the NBA, Adams notched 3.5 screen assists per game, a number that put him at 17 — the best in the league last year. What’s better in a tight fourth quarter than when a seven-foot center shoots excellently within his role and gets others open frequently?

When you put Adams as a foil around those two aforementioned volume shooters that need every possible inch of space — very few are as good as long-haired, joke-cracking New Zealander. Sure, he’s not about to drain a 30-foot game-winner or put up a 15-point final frame, but Adams is a model of consistency and, for a young, experience-light roster, that means he’ll be incredibly important both in the paint and in the locker room. But with Westbrook and George out and Paul leading the charge, Adams could have a bigger role than ever — will his efficiency take a dip? Either way, the reliable center will be there to do whatever it takes to win.

The Unheralded Player: Dennis Schröder

Many questioned Dennis Schröder’s fit as Russell Westbrook’s backup after thriving as the lead option in Atlanta for two seasons. One year later, Schröder is still not a starter but, all in all, the experiment has worked out pretty well so far. Paul, for now, is the incumbent; but Schröder, just 26, has been a trust-worthy spark plug option for head coach Billy Donovan. Behind Westbrook, Schröder’s counting statistics and numbers both fell in 2018-19, but his lightning-quick penetration and microwavable-scoring efforts anchored Oklahoma City from the bench. If the Thunder bring along Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slowly, then there’s a great chance that Schröder could play heavy minutes next to Paul.

Although that means fewer touches overall, Paul undeniably puts teammates in a position to succeed. And for a talented contributor that has always looked to put the ball in the bucket, learning from a legend like Paul can only serve to benefit. During a late-season effort against Milwaukee, Schröder dropped 32 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals on 8-for-15 from three-point range and just two turnovers. Wind him up and let Schröder fly in 2019-20, and the results may surprise many both near and far.

Best New Addition: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

The Clippers were bristly about including their talented Canadians in any big-time moves this offseason, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The former No. 11 overall pick started in 73 games as a rookie — also playing in all 82, impressively — and looked the part without question. In a crowded Los Angeles rotation, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals, all paired nicely with some seriously high-ceiling defending. Gilgeous-Alexander will be just 21 years old for the entire season — but he already looks ready to become next big star in Oklahoma City. Although moving on from Westbrook and George were heartbreaking, franchise-altering decisions, Gilgeous-Alexander — and their bounty of future draft capital — will be worth it eventually, if not immediately.

As a should-be top dog in a well-accepted rebuild, expect Gilgeous-Alexander to soar even higher than last season. Get prepared, Thunder fans.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Darius Bazley

Bazley, 19, was a five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. Just before the season started, Bazley changed course entirely, deciding to skip college altogether and play in the G League for a season instead. As NBA rules dictate, an athlete must be one year removed from high school graduation before they can declare themselves draft-ready — but that stipulation doesn’t necessitate that Bazley needed to play anywhere at all.

So, instead of Syracuse, instead of plying his trade in G League — where the Salt Lake City Stars once considered choosing him at No. 1 overall in the draft — instead of all that, Bazley did nothing at all. Bazley forewent all basketball activities, both collegiately and professionally, to train all season and get his body ready for the next year’s draft. He hired Rich Paul — one of the four major sports’ most well-known agents — and moved to Boston to take a one-year internship at New Balance for a million dollars.

At 6-foot-9 and 200-plus pounds already, to call Bazley a physical specimen would be nearly understating the premise. Armed with an impressive 7-foot wingspan, Bazley represents the type of multi-faceted, multi-positional athlete that more and more franchises search for every draft season — and this time, the Thunder got their target. Although he may spend most of the season in the G League, Bazley, armed with the camaraderie and power only harnessed by LeBron James and company, could be somebody worth keeping an eye on.

2. Hamidou Diallo

Like Bazley, Diallo had an interesting journey to the NBA, too, first redshirting a season at Kentucky before surprisingly returning for a sophomore year. That year, Diallo started all 37 games for the Wildcats and tallied 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 24.8 minutes per contest. Although it was not the breakout season most had anticipated from Diallo, he played an important role for a Kentucky roster that reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed. As a bouncy, sky-scraping athlete, Diallo finally has room to breathe in a rebuilding Thunder side.

In his best-yet showing as a professional, Diallo scored 18 points on 7-for-7 from the floor in a November loss against Sacramento. But if you want to see his next-level potential, look no further than his Slam Dunk Contest reel. A Vince Carter-era-honey dip over Shaquille O’Neal? Say less, man.

3. Terrance Ferguson

Rounding out the Thunder’s three-man band of mysterious origins is Terrance Ferguson, the elder statesman of the group as he heads into his third NBA season. Unlike Bazley — who did nothing — and Diallo — who went back — Ferguson jettisoned the country altogether, this time in favor of Australia. At No. 21 overall in 2017, Ferguson was an unknown quantity and played like it during his rookie campaign, barely registering a blip-on-the-radar outside of a 24-point explosion early on.

But with more experience came the minutes in year two, so Ferguson saw his points, rebounds and assists rise in tandem. With Westbrook, George, Schröder and others ahead of him on the depth chart, Ferguson’s ceiling was again tapped. During 2018-19, the 6-foot-7 leaper scored 10 or more points in 21 different efforts, all while hitting at a very respectable 42.9 percent from the floor. Now given a clearer path to playing time, Ferguson could be an injection of scoring and highlight-worthy amp-ups that the Thunder bench sorely needs.

4. Justin Patton

Once upon a time, Justin Patton was also one of the hottest potential-laden prospects heading into the NBA Draft. After all, the former No. 16 overall pick had just come off a noteworthy freshman year at Creighton in which the mobile center tallied 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Unfortunately, in his first-ever summer league, Patton broke his foot, had surgery and didn’t make his rookie debut until April. Two weeks later, he underwent a procedure to continue strong healing of that pesky left foot. That, of course, worked well until he broke his other foot five months later instead.

Traded alongside Jimmy Butler once again — as he was from Chicago the night he was drafted — Patton was shipped to Philadelphia. In April, after appearing in just three games for the 76ers, the 7-footer was waived. And there’s no reason to double-down on an injury history as Patton has… still, it doesn’t feel like this story is done yet. With two sturdy, defensive-minded veterans ahead of him — Nerlens Noel, Adams — Patton can grow at his own pace and this time, hopefully, stay healthy for the first time in his career. There’s too much to like here to not get a real look at the 22-year-old at some point — thankfully, the Thunder were willing to kick the tires on this flier.

5. A Dragon Lair’s Worth Of Treasure/Invaluable Draft Picks

Often, franchises are forced to rebuild. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, for example, who were forced to burn their plans to the ground and start anew without warning. In other instances, whether by injuries or free agency — Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, take your pick — circumstances can send franchises hurtling in the wrong direction all at once. But to find a front office that can see the writing on the wall, move on from the best player in franchise history (and a second MVP-worthy candidate) and capitalize on their sky-high valuable assets within a few weeks is a truly remarkable achievement. When franchise pillars move on, it’s rarely for the full worth — quarters on the dollar and all that lingo — but such is life for general manager Sam Presti.

The Emerson College alum was once questioned for his return in the trade that sent eventual MVP James Harden even further south — however, those will resurface less after this summer. Between now and 2026, the Thunder have a stunning 15 first-round draft picks. Although they have plenty of young assets — as mentioned above — that number alone should have Oklahoma City fans excited, even if they must wait a few more years to regain relevance.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Without Russell Westbrook — one of the league’s top offensive stars — and Paul George — one of the league’s top defensive standouts — it’s hard to tell just exactly where the Thunder will rise and fall in 2019-20. On the scoring side of things, Westbrook and his history-making usage levels will have to go elsewhere — all those shots, passes and isolation moments, gone. Roberson will slide back into his role as the premier perimeter defender and Schröder should do well in an improved role — but what else?

Their athleticism is through the roof thanks to Diallo, Ferguson, Bazley, Noel and Gilgeous-Alexander, thus making the Thunder daily highlight-creators — particularly so with a court general like Paul pulling the strings. Adams will play hard and make a difference, while Gallinari, if healthy, can carry the offensive load on most nights. As long as Adams is still manning the middle, the Thunder will be near the top in rebounds per game too.

Still, these are just parts of the whole and it’s impossible to make any sort of true-minded conclusions after losing the contributions of Westbrook and George overnight. The defense won’t be elite anymore and the offense won’t be either — fun, sure, but top-tier? Not likely.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Last year, the Thunder owned the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA; uncoincidentally, George almost took home Defensive Player of the Year. And although Westbrook isn’t hailed as a strong defender, he still tallied steals and got the team out in transition often. Replacing George with Roberson — talented but with injury history — and Westbrook with Paul — talented but with injury history and, well, old — should serve to see Oklahoma City plummet here. But an offense with plenty of questions left to answer could be a death knell on any potential playoff dreams in the Western Conference.

The defense will be serviceable, make no mistake. But the Thunder made a living last year as a complete, overwhelming unit in 2018-19. Elsewhere, Oklahoma City was a middle-of-the-pack franchise in three-point makes, attempts and percentages; while their assists tally, surprisingly, ranked in the bottom 10. The Thunder have a full and compelling roster, but no overwhelming standouts either.

This is, after all, a rebuild.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is it the Year of the Youngster in Oklahoma City?

For too long, aspiring talents were shifted aside to make room for Westbrook, George and whatever other veteran-ready contributors came to town for the win-now franchise. But entrenched in the next era — Paul’s albatross contract otherwise — it should be the young roster’s time to shine, develop and lay claim to the Midwest throne. Gilgeous-Alexander is a shoo-in — but what about Diallo? Or Ferguson? Behind Adams and Noel, will Patton get a fair shake? Will Bazley spend much of the season in the G League? Hell, there’s even Juwan Evans and Luguentz Dort, two other interesting guards that have gone unmentioned so far.

Presumably, the Thunder will do what they can to get out from under the final three years and $124 million owned to Paul — to what end, however, remains to be seen. On the other hand, if Gallinari stays healthy, he could be a movable asset on an expiring contract come the trade deadline in February. Aside from Paul, the Thunder will have just $32 million in major deals owed to Adams and Schröder in 2020-21 — so cap space, along with a mountain of draft assets, will be the Thunder’s best allies heading forward.

But until then, nobody is opposed to letting Oklahoma City’s four or five skywalkers loose on the Northwest Division and see what sticks, right?

– Ben Nadeau

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NBA

NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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NBA

What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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