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Phil Jackson on the Hook for Carmelo’s Massive Contract

Why didn’t Phil Jackson play hardball with Carmelo Anthony? The Knicks didn’t have to give Anthony seemingly everything he asked for in negotiations.

Tommy Beer

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“As far as the money, it don’t really matter to me… My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level. […] Any opportunity I have to build that up in New York, I’d do it. I told people all the time, always say, if it takes me taking a pay cut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. Dolan’s steps saying, ‘Take my money and let’s build something strong over here.’” – Carmelo Anthony, February 13, 2014

“Because the way things have been structured now financially for teams it’s really hard to have one or two top stars or max players, and to put together a team with enough talent, you’ve got to have people making sacrifices financially. So we hope that Carmelo is true to his word and we understand what it’s going to take, and we will present that to him at that time.” – Phil Jackson, April 23, 2014

 

Earlier this week, when it was officially announced that the Knicks had re-signed star forward Carmelo Anthony, the responses were wide-ranging and varied.

It seemed the majority of Knicks fans were both exceptionally excited and relieved when they learned the franchise’s best player since Patrick Ewing would spend the remaining prime years of his career in New York City.

However, some pundits, after factoring in the long-term impact of the massive contract and recognizing that salary cap space is such a precious commodity, panned Melo for his unwillingness to give the Knicks a more significant discount.

Over the last few months, I have used this space to express my opinion. As detailed in numerous columns, my belief was that New York would be best served to sign Anthony only if he was amenable to a contract that paid far less than the maximum; and ideally move Melo in a sign-and-trade to kick start a rebuilding process if he demanded anything close to the max.

Now, we know the full details of the Carmelo contract. Per ESPN’s Marc Stein, Anthony’s annual salary is as follows:
2014-15 season: $22,458,401 million
2015-16: $22,875,000 million
2016-17: $24,559,380 million
2017-18: $26,243,760 million
2018-19: $27,928,140 million

This sums to a grand total of $124,064,681 million.

While not the full max of $129 million, the ‘hometown discount’ Anthony accepted from the Knicks was far, far less of a pay cut than most expected, especially after Anthony went on record at the All-Star Break, loudly proclaiming his willingness to take less in order to build a championship-level team in New York.

Nonetheless, I find it difficult to be overly critical of Carmelo. Should he really be blamed for accepting an offer presented to him?

He did what so many of us would do (Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade among the notable exceptions); he accepted an extraordinary offer from his employer to continue working in a location he loves.

Would it have been a noble gesture to leave money on the table in order to facilitate the building of a more balanced roster? Sure. If Anthony took less, would the Knicks be in a much better position to snag a stud free agent in 2015 or 2016? Absolutely. Yet, one of the reasons for his greatness is that Anthony, like many illustrious athletes, possesses an unbending belief in himself and his abilities. He likely wholeheartedly believes he can put even a decent team on his back and carry that team to a title. Anthony even alluded to this concept during his discourse at the All-Star Break: “I always look at what’s going on and always feel naively I could change it and turn it around, put it on my shoulders.”

So Melo figures, ‘I’ll take the money and Phil will somehow figure out a way to get players who are good enough to keep us competitive and I’ll take us over the top.’ Although that thinking may be misguided, based on what we know of the NBA’s salary structure demanding a team’s best player’s sacrifice salary, it is commonplace among elite athletes. Thus, it’s a rational and understandable reaction to take the massive payday and assume everything else will get worked out at a later date.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe he would have received over-the-top appreciation from the fan base. Many fans don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the minutia of the salary cap and project the implications a 7.5 percent increase versus a 7.5 percent decrease. In actuality, a few extra million that could be offered to prospective free agents is a huge sum. For instance, it’s the difference between signing a player that’s worth a starting salary of $6 million, versus a player worth $9 million. Or $16 million vs. $19 million. For instance, what if the Bulls had an extra $3.5 million under the cap this summer? Would Anthony be a Bull right now?

But future hypothetical scenarios and salary scarifies are often lost on the average fan. Look at what happened with LeBron James. When he signed with the Miami HEAT back in 2010, he took far, far less money than he could have and signed a deal that paid him a starting annual salary of just $14.5 million (or roughly $8 million less than Melo’s starting salary). LeBron was still intensely vilified. Granted, the nonsense of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. But, even after the uproar of ‘The Decision’ died down, it was rarely even mentioned that The King made significant financial sacrifices in hopes of capturing the crown. Despite making winning a priority over a pay day, LeBron was lampooned as a loser who joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh because he needed help to win a ring

Thus, at the end of the day, I have a tough time heaping blame on Anthony.

However, on the flip side of the coin, I have been genuinely surprised at how little flack Phil Jackson has received. Even in those published pieces knocking Melo for making a cash grab, Jackson has escaped unscathed. As the newly installed President of Basketball of Operations, Jackson’s first big decision was incredibly important. He held the reins as the Knicks approached a franchise-altering fork in the road.

Personally, I find more far more fault in Jackson’s decision-making process than Anthony’s. Carmelo simply accepted an offer that was presented to him.

But why did Jackson feel he needed to present Anthony a $124-million offer?

And not only did Anthony get north of $124 million, he also got a no-trade clause in the contract, a player option for the fifth and final season and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Anthony got nearly everything he could have hoped for. Did Jackson and Dolan draw a line in the sand anywhere?

In the months, weeks and days leading up to this franchise-defining moment, Jackson said all the right things.

“When I take his word, he’s the one who opened that up, that it wasn’t about the money… So I challenged him on that, because I wanted our fans to see he’s a team player, that he was going to do what’s best to get our team ahead farther and faster,” Jackson proclaimed to reporters back in June.

“I’m all about moving forward,” Jackson said of the Anthony situation shortly after the season ended. “Just deal with what is and move forward. If it’s in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ If it’s not in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ We’re going forward anyway.”

He referenced the consistent success of Tim Duncan and the Spurs, and cited the recent example of James, Wade and Bosh taking less to play together in Miami.

Moreover, it seemed he was cognizant of both the ‘pros’ of retaining the team’s best player, and the ‘cons’ of agreeing to a contract that could very well become an albatross a few years down the line.

According to Jackson’s own stated logic, there was no need to give in to Anthony if he wasn’t willing to make substantial sacrifices and meet the Knicks halfway.

Thus, when the details of the contract were announced, it was somewhat shocking.

In the end, it seems Jackson, owner Jim Dolan and the Knicks’ front office completely caved and gave in at nearly every turn. When reports surfaced last week that New York had presented multiple offers to Melo, one of which was an offer at the full max, it seemed implausible. However, that report certainly looks accurate now.

The question I keep coming back to is this: What prevented Jackson from playing hardball with Anthony?

A crucial component to this whole conversation is acknowledging the fact that the Knicks had no serious competition for Carmelo, as no team could offer anything close in terms of financial compensation. Because they possessed his ‘Bird Rights,’ the Knicks were in the driver’s seat all along.

The Lakers supposedly piqued Melo’s interest, but the most they could offer was $95.9 million over four seasons.

The Bulls were considered prohibitive favorites at one point, as adding Anthony would likely have vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, due to cap constraints, the maximum amount of money they could have presented to Anthony would have been approximately $73 million.

Just because the Knicks were able to pay him $33 million dollars more than any other team in the NBA, doesn’t mean they were required to offer him $28 million more than any other team.

Clearly, New York had the upper hand in negations, but they never seemed to play that hand.

Why not offer Anthony a four-year, $98 million contract?

In an open letter to Knicks fans on his website shortly after announcing he returned to the Knicks, Anthony explained he intended to return to NYC along, that his “heart never wavered” and that he is a “New York Knick at heart.”

Why not challenge Anthony to have his actions match his words?

If Jackson offered $98 million over four years, that would still be over $2 million more than any other team in the NBA could submit, and $15 million more than the Bulls could bid.

Thus, if Melo was truly dead set on returning to New York, he would have the option of doing so and still receiving a very fair wage (nearly $100 million over four years would ensure he remained one of the NBA’s highest paid players). Additionally, this would allow New York to maintain flexibility and cap space, which would have enabled Jackson to continue building a balanced roster around his superstar.

If Anthony insisted on securing a five-year deal, then Jackson could have offered $110 million over five seasons. Again, it’s far more guaranteed money than Melo could have received anywhere else.

You’d think that, at the very least, Jackson could have said: “Okay Melo, we are willing to pay you nearly $30 million more than anyone else can, but we need you give us some concessions in regards to a trade kicker and a no-trade clause.”

Who were the Knicks bidding against? Why give in to Anthony’s demands? Carmelo claims to love New York; make him prove it. (Ironically, signing at a substantial discount would also likely be beneficial to his legacy, as the team would be able to build a better supporting cast around him. And creating a lasting legacy by constructing a winner in NYC would produce incredible ancillary and financial benefits…)

Again, the ‘worst case scenario’ wasn’t actually all that bad. If Anthony left, all was NOT lost. In fact, it could be argued that while the Knicks would have had to take a gigantic step back in the short-term if Anthony signed elsewhere, it might actually put New York on a path that ultimately proved more successful over time. In other words, losing Melo for nothing might be favorable to signing a deal that would guarantee nearly $28 million to a 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony in 2018-19. The Knicks would have had to suffer through next season, but would then enter the summer of 2015 armed with a lottery pick and oodles of cap space to spend on a free agent crop flush with stars.

For those that argue the Knicks wouldn’t be able to attract free agents without a stud like Anthony already in the fold, in a counter-argument I’d present the Lakers’ inability to land any notable free agents this summer as ‘Exhibit A.’ The Lakers are one of the most well-respected organizations in all of sports, with a nearly unparalleled track record of success. In addition, they have one of the greatest guards in NBA history, Kobe Bryant, under contract for the next two seasons. Kobe is obviously a question mark as he works his way back from a major injury, but no one would be all that surprised if Bryant is among the league’s leading scorers next season. Still, every big name free agent steered clear of L.A., despite the fact they had plenty of cap space and could offer max contracts. Instead, the Lakers ended up settling and spending nearly $40 million to re-sign Nick Young and Jordan Hill.

I’d contend that although fellow great players undoubtedly respect Kobe as an all-time great, the fact that Kobe is making $48.5 million over the next two seasons deterred other stars from joining him in Hollywood. Players today are well aware of the ramifications of limited cap space. If Kobe had re-signed for a more reasonable amount, other players would be more eager to accept a max deal from the Lakers. It’s not just great players that attract free agents; it’s great talent and cap-friendly contracts.

Circling back to New York, based on his comments last month, it appeared Jackson had come to a similar, logical conclusion: If we get Carmelo to sign for a fair contract, then it benefits us to keep him as our franchise cornerstone going forward. However, if Anthony demands more than we are comfortable offering, then we can let him walk and we’ll still be in fine shape going forward.

Even from a public relations standpoint, I’d argue it’s safe to assume most Knicks fans wouldn’t be furious at Jackson and the Knicks if Anthony did leave under such conditions. Even if most fans wanted New York to keep Carmelo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to appreciate the fact Jackson had operated with the best intentions of the organization in mind. Jackson has been open and honest with the public his entire career and he could plainly explain his rationale through forthright conversation with the media. The myth that New York fans wouldn’t embrace rebuilding is patently false. The Knicks were terrible for most of the 2000s and Madison Square Garden was still sold out on a regular basis. The Knicks were terrible last season (with Melo) and MSG still played to over 95 percent capacity. In my opinion, Knicks fans would embrace a rebuilding effort if they saw that a concrete and sensible plan was in place.

As I have posited previously, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable prior to Jackson arrival. However, with Phil calling the shots (instead of Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency would likely be decreased.

A common counterargument from the “keep Carmelo at all costs” camp is that free agency is too much of a crapshoot and it’s unlikely that New York would be able to reel in a player on par with Anthony no matter how far below the cap they got. Well, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks would not necessarily have to sign a player better than Anthony in order for them to improve their overall roster. With mountains of cap space, the Knicks could construct a “team” that was far more balanced and not reliant on a single scorer.

When Phil was brought to New York, Knicks fans looked forward to future decisions being made based strictly on what’s best for the long-term success of the franchise, as opposed to bringing in big names to sell tickets and jerseys. Knicks fans were hoping that Jackson would sanitize away the stink of previous regimes. In year’s past, there were rumors around the league that the Creative Artists Agency was running the Knicks. Ironically, the way the Anthony contract negations (or lack thereof) played out, it ends up looking like a sweetheart deal for one of CAA’s biggest clients.

Just as Anthony demanding $124 million and all the added incentives makes sense, so does Dolan wanting to keep Melo regardless of his ultimate price tag. Dolan desperately wanted Anthony back in 2011, and pulled the trigger on the trade that brought him here. As long as Anthony is in a New York uniform, the Knicks will likely remain competitive every year he is on the roster. He’s that good. A healthy Melo means consistently solid TV ratings on the MSG network, along with tickets and jersey sales spiking.

Keeping Carmelo is definitely the safer play, but does it cap the Knicks’ ultimate upside. That is the tough question Jackson had to answer.

It’s possible, given his advanced age and relative inexperience, that Jackson had no interest in undertaking a challenging and precarious rebuilding project.

Either way, what his motivations were, the die has been cast. Eventually we will find out if Jackson made the correct call.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Mavericks Reacclimating Kristaps Porzingis From The Outside In

Kristaps Porzingis has been away from the game for nearly two years. In his first exhibition games with his new team, the Mavericks are reacclimating him from the outside in. Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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Any doubt surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ blockbuster trade for Kristaps Porzingis had nothing to do with his play.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2015 proved draft-night boos foolish during an eye-popping rookie season that seemed to establish him as the New York Knicks’ long-awaited, homegrown franchise player. Porzingis made subtle strides as a sophomore, adjusting his shot chart to include more three-pointers and attempts at the rim, before accelerating his developmental timeline and suddenly living up to his All-NBA potential over the first half of the 2017-18 season. He couldn’t sustain a blistering start that was so good it prompted early-season MVP talk, but averages of 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game nevertheless made it clear Porzingis was bound for true stardom – if he wasn’t there already.

All that progress came to a crushing halt on Feb. 6, 2018, when Porzingis cut backdoor for a powerful dunk on a trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo that caused him to land awkwardly and clutch his left knee as he writhed in pain on the Madison Square Garden floor. The worst fears of the Knicks and their success-starved fan base were confirmed shortly thereafter, when it was announced that Porzingis had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season and putting his future in jeopardy.

Porzingis’ injury would have been considered a blip for almost any young player. A torn ACL isn’t anything close to the career-threatening injury it was even just a decade ago. Most players return to the floor well within a year of suffering the injury, and all are expected to eventually regain their initial level of athleticism.

Porzingis was the exception to those updated rules. Especially tall players have a long history of reacting poorly to serious lower-body injuries, and Porzingis is a physical anomaly at 7-foot-3 with rare mobility and overall coordination. If his all-around athleticism was even marginally affected by invasive knee surgery, just how good could Porzingis be?

The height of Porzingis’ readjusted ceiling remains a question mark two exhibition games into his playing career with the Mavericks. He’s struggled to shoot the ball from deep after 20 months removed from the NBA game, and it stands to reason he’s more likely to re-injure his knee after going under the knife. But concerns that Porzingis has lost explosiveness as a result of his torn ACL are almost long gone, and more importantly, those about his ability to hold up physically have been lessened by how Dallas has used him.

It would be remiss to submit that Porzingis is all the way back athletically, even though he insisted on Media Day he’s “110 percent.” The Mavericks are planning to load manage Porzingis in 2019-20, perhaps sitting him for either end of all back-to-backs, for a reason.

Still, it’s wildly encouraging to see Porzingis, in his exhibition debut against the Detroit Pistons, throwing down the type of from-nowhere tip dunk he made seem routine during his ill-fated time in New York. A few minutes later, he withstood a reckless shove to finish a lob from Luka Doncic, even landing hard on his left leg no worse for wear.

But just because Porzingis avoided re-injury on that dangerous play hardly means Dallas should be more comfortable putting him at risk. In fact, it provides further justification for Rick Carlisle’s apparent plan of easing him back into NBA action from the outside in.

Comparing young players to all-time greats is an exercise in disappointment. Porzingis isn’t Dirk Nowitzki, and never will be. The Mavericks would be absolutely thrilled if he enjoyed half the extent of individual success that propelled Nowitzki to 12 All-NBA selections and 14 All-Star Games. But just because Porzingis isn’t Nowitzki hardly means Carlisle won’t use him in much the same way he did the greatest player in team history.

For now, that means taking advantage of Porzingis’ deep shooting range from the frontcourt by spacing the floor across four and sometimes five positions. Porzingis has spent most of his time beyond the arc through his first two exhibition games, running high and side ball screens with Doncic, popping back on off-ball screens he sets for catch-and-shoot chances and lagging behind in transition for trail threes.

The numbers, as could be expected from a player who last played competitive NBA basketball nearly two years ago, aren’t great. In 43 total minutes so far, Porzingis has scored only 29 points on 31 shots, including 4-of-16 shooting from deep. But the result doesn’t matter nearly as much as the process for Porzingis, a reality that should extend into the regular season, and there’s ample reason to believe he’ll thrive offensively once he re-acclimates to basketball being played at its highest level.

It’s not Porzingis’ physical tools nor package of offensive skills that makes him special, but the layered scoring opportunities that blend of attributes presents. Leave him free, and Porzingis is the type of shooter who can get hot from three in a hurry. Close-out too aggressively, and he’ll put the ball on the floor to create a cleaner look.

Porzingis started at center on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, and opened next to Maxi Kleber up front two days earlier versus the Pistons. Regardless of what position he’s played, Dallas has mostly used Porzingis as a screener and weak-side spacer, letting him finish plays rather than start them.

Putting a player like Porzingis in a box, though, ignores the versatility that led Kevin Durant to famously dub him “Unicorn.” When he’s been on the floor with another big, the Mavericks have occasionally treated Porzingis like a wing or guard, running him off screens away from the ball.

Purists need not worry: Porzingis hasn’t completely abandoned the post. His touches on the block have been few and far between through his first two exhibition games, and have shrewdly come after he sets screens on the perimeter, allowing him to roll into post position instead of fighting hard to establish it. Porzingis’ right-shoulder turnaround jumper is nearly as unblockable as Nowitzki’s iconic one-footed fadeaway. It’s not going anywhere.

But Dallas clearly plans to utilize Porzingis from the perimeter first and foremost, a development that doesn’t just mitigate the physical toll he’s bound to take, but also leverages his unique abilities as a shooter and driver to make the game easier for Doncic and his teammates. No team in the league will benefit more from pitch-perfect spacing this season than the Mavericks. Porzingis, obviously, is much more than a floor-stretcher, but he can get his own playing mostly from the outside while teammates – including likely starter Dwight Powell, one of the best roll men in basketball – reap the rewards of him being on the court.

In time, Dallas will ask more of Porzingis offensively. He’s too gifted an individual scorer for that not to happen. But as he gets his feet under him in the season’s early going and perhaps for its duration, Porzingis will offer more than enough by his presence alone to make the Mavericks dangerous. And if he grows comfortable quickly, don’t be surprised if Carlisle affords Porzingis more responsibility, perhaps lifting his team to legitimate playoff contention in the process.

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NBA MIP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

While the Most Improved Player Award is the hardest to forecast, there are certain signs that a player may be poised for a season worthy of this honor. Quinn Davis names five that could be in the running come season’s end.

Quinn Davis

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Forecasting the Most Improved Player award is not an easy undertaking. Unlike other awards, the field for Most Improved cannot be narrowed down to a select few that usually are in consideration. Theoretically, any player in the NBA could make a significant enough improvement to win this award.

Rookies heading into their second year could be an easy choice, as a year of NBA experience usually translates to improvement on the court. The issue here is that the voters think it’s too easy, and second-year players who were high draft picks are rarely considered for this award.  

De’Aaron Fox bucked this trend last year, finishing third in voting. Using that as a guide, it would be fair to say that it will take a Fox-like improvement for a second-year lottery pick to be considered for Most Improved.

The task becomes much more fun, and much more difficult, when looking beyond that batch of players. There are certain things to look for, such as an increased role or a player who has received praise for their work over the summer. In the end, it may just come down to a gut feeling.

Here are five players that check one or multiple of those boxes.

Jonathan Isaac

The third-year big man enters this season primed for improvement after a summer spent training with the USA Select team. Isaac has particularly shown flashes of defensive ability in his two seasons and could blossom into a disruptor on that end in this upcoming campaign.

Isaac’s coach, Steve Clifford, made it clear that he has high hopes for the Flordia State product this season in an interview he gave before training camp.

“He’s had a terrific summer. He looks good physically. He’s worked really hard with (assistant coach) Bruce (Kreutzer) and with (assistant coach) Pat (Delany) on his shooting, his range, his mechanics, his ISOs, his post-ups, his shot-making,” Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “I think he’s in a really good place. Last year from Game 1 to Game 82 he made great strides. He was a big reason why our team improved so much. I think people will see he put a lot of hard work in. I think it’ll pay off.”

Clifford mentioned the improvements across last season, which were particularly seen in Isaac’s shooting. The versatile forward shot a dreadful 28.7 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break last season, but improved to 38.2 percent following that time off, per Basketball Reference.

Isaac is armed with a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, giving him the ability to contest shots and take away passing lanes. One of his biggest weaknesses on the defensive end has been his skinny build, which makes it difficult for him to body up against some of the league’s brutes.  

Isaac is reportedly up to 230 pounds, after ending last season at 209. This weight could not only help him guard in the post, but also score in the post on the other end. Isaac will likely be guarded by opposing fours starting next to Vucevic, and his length could give him a significant advantage over opponents at that position.

Last season, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. If those numbers jump up to 15 points and eight rebounds with strong defense for a playoff-bound Magic team, he could be in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player.

Zach Collins

Another third-year big who teems with potential resides in Portland. Collins, who will likely start at power forward this season for the Trail Blazers, should see a large minute increase and has many excited for the possible leap he could take this season.  

A lot of this excitement was brought about by Collins’ performance in the playoffs last season when he played a pivotal role in Portland’s series win over the Nuggets. Collins flashed his defensive potential late in that series, recording five blocks in Game 6 and four blocks in Game 7 – both Blazers wins.  

Portland will ask Collins to stretch the floor this season next to the paint-bound Hassan Whiteside. Collins has shot 30 percent from deep in each of the last two regular seasons and will need to climb towards league average to give his team’s star backcourt requisite room to operate. 

If Collins can better space the floor while being an impactful defender, he may emerge as Portland’s third-best player this season. With increased minutes and a more defined role, the stage is set for Collins to build on his playoff performance and put himself into contention for Most Improved.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

As mentioned, it is very hard for second-year players to make a case for this award. Since the expectation for these players is to improve, they need to make a very significant leap to stand out for the voters. De’Aaron Fox did this last season, going from lost rookie to stud point guard that helped the Kings chase a playoff seed. Shai will need to do something similar on his new team in Oklahoma City if he is to make an impression.

Last season, the Kentucky product showed an ability to get into the paint and finish around the rim. He attempted 39 percent of his shots at the rim and finished 61 percent of those attempts.  Those numbers ranked in the 78th and 72nd percentiles for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.

SGA also shot a serviceable 37 percent from beyond the arc and a very impressive 48 percent on long mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.  

Now under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Shai may be able to take his all-around efficiency to the next level and learn how to get to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. The future Hall-of-Famer could also school SGA on the art of the pass, which is an area the second-year guard may have the most room to improve on.

While Shai had a very low assist rate for a point guard, he did show the ability to scan defenses and make the right play. With further experience and more teaching from Paul, he could make great strides in that department.

The second-year guard also has defensive potential thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan. He already showed an ability to block shots and swipe passes as a guard last season and could immediately become a strong defender if he reduces his foul rate and stays focused off of the ball.

While he is poised to build off a strong rookie year, Shai’s candidacy may come down to the construction of the Thunder roster as the season goes along. It may be difficult to stand out while playing next to a ball-dominant point guard like Chris Paul.

If Paul is traded, SGA may have the opportunity he needs to control the offense and make a large enough leap to vault into the Most Improved conversation.

Lonzo Ball

There have been few players that have had as tumultuous first two seasons as Ball. Coming out of UCLA with his father as a hype man, Lonzo was drafted by the Lakers and asked to turn the franchise around.

After two seasons that featured a LeBron free-agent signing sandwiched between them, Ball was sent to New Orleans this summer as part of the Anthony Davis trade. He will now have the luxury of being away from the spotlight and could put more focus on his game.  The early returns on this focus have been encouraging.

Multiple videos have come out of the Pelicans training camp showing an improved jump shot form from Ball, and he’s looked confident putting it up in the preseason. If the confidence translates to the real games, Ball could truly take his game to the next level.  Already a brilliant passer and strong defender, Ball could go from an internet punching bag to an above-average NBA player this season with improved scoring ability.

The threat to shoot off the dribble would instantly improve his pick-and-roll game, which has been a weakness thus far in his career. This improvement could be amplified with the presence of Zion Williamson, who could make for a great partner in those plays.

Maybe more important than his on the court improvements are his lack off the court distractions.  Without the constant attention of the Los Angeles media, Ball could quietly make a case for Most Improved if his jumper is indeed improved this season.

Ben Simmons

Yes, it would be quite an achievement for a player to win Most Improved after already being an All-Star the year before; but Ben Simmons has the room to improve, specifically in one area, and could take a leap this season that warrants consideration for the award.

Simmons authored maybe the biggest moment in a preseason game thus far when he drilled a 27-foot three-pointer off the dribble in a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The shot sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave many Sixers fans hope for a new Ben this season, one that isn’t afraid to launch from deep.

While it is unclear whether this newfound brashness from beyond the arc will translate to games against actual NBA teams, the fact that he took the shot in any game is encouraging. If the shot attempts keep coming and a few makes come along with them, Simmons could go from All-Star to All-NBA this season.

The best comparison for Simmons’ Most Improved campaign would be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2016-2017 season. In 2015-16 Giannis averaged about 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 50 percent shooting. The next season, he averaged about 23 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 52 percent shooting on his way to being named Most Improved Player.

Last season, Simmons averaged about 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, on 56 percent shooting. It’s plausible that an improved jumper and increased confidence could give Simmons the push he needs to make a similar jump that Giannis did. 

Both players have proven to be impactful defenders. Giannis has longer arms and is a better rim protector, but Simmons can lock down perimeter players when he needs to, as seen in his total erasing of D’Angelo Russell in the Sixers’ playoff series against the Nets. If Simmons further engages on that end he could make himself an even more viable candidate.

Simmons making this leap would be a surprise and a fun story, but it would not be unprecedented.  If the jump shot proves viable, he will certainly garner some consideration for Most Improved.

All of these players share the ability and the opportunity to make a run at Most Improved this season, but that is not to say that they will be the only candidates. It is likely that multiple players will surprise us with a breakout season and throw their hat into the ring for this award. 

Be sure to stay up to date and check out Basketball Insiders’ postseason award watch, for all of the awards, this season.

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NBA

Could Gordon Hayward Officially Be ‘Back?’

Following what had to be a frustrating season, Gordon Hayward is showing signs of being the Hayward of old. Matt John examines what looks different about Gordon and what impact that could have on the Boston Celtics.

Matt John

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Let’s not dwell on Gordon Hayward’s injury from two years ago. You probably saw it, and if you didn’t, first of all, consider yourself lucky; and second, you probably know what happened.

Instead, let’s talk about what happened this past season with Gordon. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen his struggles coming. What happened back on opening night in 2017 would be quite the hurdle for anyone to get over one year later, but in Hayward’s case, it may have been worse for him than anyone could have expected.

Hayward entered the summer of 2018 hoping to get back into his old routine, but after experiencing serious discomfort, Gordon opted to get another surgery at that time to remove the screws in his ankle. Little did everyone know, the second surgery was a major setback for the former All-Star. All of his plans he had got pushed back to the fall, which – long story short – meant that Hayward had little time to prepare for the start of last season.

That should have been the red flag that maybe the Celtics weren’t getting the old Gordon back to start. It’s tough because since they were paying him handsomely, they wanted to get him involved as much as possible on a team that wanted a championship. Unfortunately, it was clear through the first couple of months that he was both not back to normal and would take time to get up to speed.

It was nobody’s fault. Fate threw both the Celtics and Gordon some unfair and unexpected twists.

Did he get better as the season went on? Uh… sure? Every so often we got flashes of the old Hayward, but they were few and far between. Another problem was that Gordon was on a team filled with one too many guys who needed both minutes and touches. Force-feeding him minutes when he was still in recovery over talented players at full health was a frustrating ordeal for everyone.

Hayward ended the regular season on a promising stretch and followed that up with a solid outing against the very short-handed Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. His progress halted when Boston faced Milwaukee the following round. Everything fell apart for the Celtics when that series ended, but Hayward’s disappearance specifically made any remaining optimism surrounding his comeback follow suit. Being outplayed by Pat Connaughton, who was making barely over five percent of his salary, would do that to him.

When it was over, one question remained. Would Gordon Hayward ever be Gordon Hayward again?

The man who just two seasons before was coming off of the best one of his career, averaging 22 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47/40/84 splits? The man who while leading an excellent Jazz team, was a shoo-in All-Star and garnered serious all-NBA consideration during that time? The man who the Celtics traded down from the first overall pick, as well as the long-tenured Avery Bradley, to make room for him money-wise?

We can’t really answer that at the current moment since we’re only entering the beginning of preseason. But since the start of training camp, all reports about Hayward have been encouraging to say the least.

It started with Enes Kanter, who played with Hayward for over three years in Utah. At media day, Kanter stated that not only was Gordon back to where he was, but that he would “shock the world” as well.

Then, Robert Williams III followed it up with similar sentiment.

Danny Ainge sounded optimistic as well about Hayward coming back to his normal self, but he tried to temper both his and everyone else’s excitement. The buzz around the Celtics as training camp started was all the same – Gordon Hayward was back to normal.

But talk is talk. As great as all of this sounded for Boston, everyone needed to see for themselves if Hayward was back to his old self. In his first preseason game against Charlotte, he only played briefly because of an elbow injury, but when he was on the floor, it looked like the believers would have their faith rewarded.

Of course, it’s just one game. Worse, it’s one preseason game, an exhibition that means nothing for just about everyone except the guys who are trying to make the roster. But for Hayward, this definitely looked different for two reasons. First, the fluidity. If you compare how he moved on the floor during that game to how he looked at this exact time a year ago, you can see the difference.

When he started out last year, Gordon ran like he had ankle bracelets attached to his feet. Maybe it’s the added leg spandex, but from the looks of things, Hayward is moving much as he did before his injury. He was never an elite athlete, but Gordon’s specialty was how crafty he was on his feet. If that has returned, then his ceiling should be right back where it was when he first came to Boston.

Second, his confidence. Among all of Hayward’s issues from last season, one of them was that he never figured out what his role was for the Celtics. The overabundance of talent, combined with his recovery both physically and mentally, made it hard for Gordon to know what he was supposed to do.

Now, Kyrie Irving is gone. Al Horford is gone. Marcus Morris is gone. Terry Rozier is gone. On the one hand, the Celtics don’t have nearly as high of expectations. On the other, less could be more for them. With those four gone, there’s more room for Hayward to stretch his legs and play his game. That’s going to take having faith in himself, which Gordon showed he might just have again.

In that one preseason game, Hayward drove to the basket, made quick decisions and played within the team’s concept. Even when he missed a bunny, seeing Gordon drive to the basket without hesitation is something we saw him do only on occasion last season as opposed to pre-injury when he’d do it all the time.

So if Hayward is 100 percent as he’s clamored up to be, one question remains: What should we expect of him? Even with all the team lost, Boston still has plenty of scoring with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Enes Kanter if we’re really including their best scoring options.

Because of that, expecting Gordon to put up the same scoring numbers he did in Utah may be unrealistic. Where Gordon could really make up for the Celtics is in his passing. The Celtics made up about as well as they could have from Kyrie’s departure by adding Kemba, but Al Horford is a different story.

Replacing all that Al Horford could do is downright impossible because he’s a big who can do pretty much everything. Hayward can’t replace that because Al’s got a few inches and, hence, can play taller positions. What Gordon can do – now that he’s expected to have a bigger role – is replace Al’s playmaking abilities.

Hayward’s always been a good passer; it’s why he’s a good fit in Brad Stevens’ offense. Last season, he still put up around the same assist numbers that he did in Utah despite a significant dip in minutes. Now that he’ll have a bigger role, and the Celtics offense will want to remain in motion, Hayward can be the playmaker in the offense that Al was. Gordon can’t do all the things that Horford can, but he can make up some of the difference with Horford’s departure on passing alone.

When it comes down to it, Gordon should not have a repeat performance of last season. Instead, we should see a more accurate version of the player the Celtics had in mind when they rolled out a max deal back in 2017.

The Celtics are going to have a lot of questions to answer as this season goes on. If that one preseason game is a sign of what’s to come from Gordon Hayward, they can rest easy knowing he won’t be one of them.

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