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Predictive or Predicament? Three Teams Poised for Regression

Despite mostly maintaining their respective rosters, these three teams may regress next season.

Ben Dowsett

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As with nearly every major team sport worldwide, win-loss record in the NBA can be an imperfect measure of true team quality. A simple yes/no result over 82 attempts lacks deeper context. It’s more than enough to separate the best from the worst in a 30-team league, but can be much less reliable for parsing teams grouped more closely together in the standings.

More importantly, through an offseason lens, raw wins and losses often fall well short in predictive power for future seasons. They don’t offer enough data points with which to accurately judge teams and players, and that’s before considering more obvious year-to-year factors like personnel movement and development, or decline from guys at various stages in their careers.

A few candidates for moderate to severe regression from their 2015-16 performances might surprise you. Note that “regression” here doesn’t necessarily mean playoff teams sliding to the high lottery – at least two of our top examples will still be in the postseason next April barring major catastrophe. There’s evidence to suggest each could take a step back overall, though, and perhaps a bigger one than surface factors would ever indicate.

San Antonio Spurs

There’s no danger of a playoff miss provided Kawhi Leonard stays healthy, but the usual ink we use to mark down the Spurs as elite title contenders might be better swapped with a dark pencil this year.

Personnel moves are the most obvious indicator, and allow us one final (okay, probably not final) ode to Tim Duncan here: He will be missed for more immediate reasons than legacy and culture. Duncan entered the league as one of its best defenders and left it the exact same way, with ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking him as the second-most impactful per-possession defensive player in the NBA last season after controlling for team and opponent quality. Figures from Nylon Calculus continued to rate him among the league’s 10 best rim protectors even as he rarely ever left the ground to contest shots.

True to form, Duncan’s impact was felt on the floor even during plays he wasn’t directly involved in. The Spurs’ famous “anti-Moneyball” defense became markedly less so when he sat down: they allowed more attempts near the rim and a higher conversion percentage, and gave up nearly five more three-point attempts per-100-possessions, per NBAwowy.com. With Duncan out there, they were the NBA’s stingiest defense against the consensus “best” shots in the game.

San Antonio was still great defensively without Duncan so long as Leonard was on the floor, but dropped back to league average or even slightly below when both sat. Those minutes made up just over a quarter of the team total on the year, a figure that could nearly double this season if Kawhi’s minute load, already high for any recent Gregg Popovich player, remains similar. Neither LaMarcus Aldridge nor Pau Gasol has ever proven capable of approximating Duncan’s impact defensively.

There are concerns surrounding current roster players as well, namely fellow future Hall of Famer Tony Parker. Dragging around a 40,000-minute ball and chain that’s only further weighted by years of international play he’ll add to this summer in Rio, it’s worth wondering how much Parker has left in the tank. His jump shooting numbers have been exceedingly positive the last two seasons given his age and history here – so positive, in fact, that speculation as to their sustainability is justified. It’s tough to imagine a career 33 percent three-point shooter continuing to bang home over 40 percent from deep for much longer, and he won’t keep matching his career highs from longer midrange areas every year. It’s never fun to forecast a decline from such a crafty and likable player, but the smoke signals are there.

Does Manu Ginobili have another renaissance year in him, particularly gaudy jump-shooting numbers that blasted his career averages out of the water at 38 years old last year? Manu shot a ridiculous 54 percent on all midrange shots 16 feet and further from the hoop last season, per basketball-reference, nearly 20 points higher than his career mark.

Can Gasol fit alongside Aldridge on either end of the floor with both now over the age-30 threshold? David West and Boris Diaw were far from stars last year as both showed their age, but can San Antonio’s depth maintain with David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon in their place? Leonard is among the game’s best all-around players; is he really one of the five best shooters in the league, though, or simply a very good one, as the rest of his career before last season would indicate?

Look, these are the Spurs, and this is Gregg Popovich. They’d need guys playing on broken legs to miss 50 wins or the playoffs. They’re not winning 67 again, though, and it’s fair to wonder whether a more precipitous drop back into the West’s middle might be on the horizon.

Toronto Raptors

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a two seed that reached Game 6 of the conference finals running it back the following year. In practice it’s all about the details, and a few are suspect north of the border.

First and simplest: Toronto’s two best players both had career years last season, and that sort of thing just doesn’t happen all that often. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both great-to-elite players at their positions, but at 30 and 26 respectively are unlikely to improve much. In fact, history – both personal and league-wide – suggests one or both could slide back a bit.

Lowry is a success story who blossomed from an overqualified backup into an All-Star in his late 20s, and he’ll deserve every cent of the mammoth deal he signs next summer after giving the Raptors three years of value that wildly exceeded his dollar figure. He’s also a guy with a history of running out of gas late in the season, and even the high-level peak he reached last winter feels a bit like fool’s gold.

Lowry topped his career high in three-point attempt rate last year; he can keep doing that pretty easily, but will his career-best success rate continue? It seems especially unlikely from the corners, where he shot nearly 50 percent on the year. Likewise with a free-throw rate that was steadily declining every season in Toronto before a sudden resurgence last year – like several elements of his game, it dropped off a cliff late in the season and into the playoffs. Undersized 30-year-old guards don’t often sustain this kind of single-season production when prior multi-year trends suggest they’re outliers, and Lowry’s style offers few distinguishing factors from these types.

DeRozan’s case is a bit murkier. He did post career bests in typically high-variance areas like jump-shooting, but the optimist sees a 26-year-old just entering his prime who can sustain those figures. His peripherals mostly remained solid or improved slightly.

But while this is less scientific, doesn’t it feel like the book is out on DeRozan after his first deep postseason run? His shooting and free-throw rate both dropped sharply against top defenders leaning on his weaknesses. Most teams don’t have Paul George and days to devote purely to scouting the Raptors, sure, but it’s not exactly tough for coaches to emphasize the sort of sell-out, under-every-pick approach that often turned him into a non-factor in April and May. The playoffs can be a harbinger of things to come in future years – even if DeRozan himself maintains last year’s value in a vacuum, the way he’s defended could strain his production.

The Raptors were dead last in the NBA for percentage of baskets assisted last year, relying heavily on Lowry and DeRozan to work their magic, and it could spell trouble in River City if either takes a step back. They’ll hope for better health from Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, but injuries masked the fact that even once they returned, Toronto was a better team while both sat on the bench.

This is understandable for Carroll, who may have strained himself getting back in time for the stretch run, but it’s a more worrying trend for Valanciunas. Frankly, departed Bismack Biyombo was pretty clearly the more effective center within Toronto’s most used lineup combinations. Valanciunas is a highly skilled beast in the right situation; whether this is that situation is a valid question with DeRozan back on the books long term and limited touches to go around. Don’t be shocked to see the Raptors quietly gauge his trade market on a fair contract if they underachieve.

It’s all a bit concerning for a team that already exceeded their Pythagorean expectation (based on point differential) by three wins, then added precisely zero new talent in the offseason. Biyombo’s departure hurts, especially on defense, where the Raptors would have been a bottom-half team during the minutes he sat. Patrick Patterson and Corey Joseph are nice players who have nonetheless probably reached their value ceilings. Dwane Casey has proven capable of connecting with and motivating his team, but he is also relatively incapable of adjusting his approach when better teams clamp down on Lowry and DeRozan.

Like San Antonio, the Raptors are at least one major injury away from being in any danger of finishing outside the playoff picture. Most simply penciling them in for a home playoff series could be in for a surprise, though, especially if moves from a few of their chief rivals behind Cleveland in the East pan out.

Portland Trail Blazers

Forecasting the Blazers after a pleasantly surprising 2015-16 comes down mostly to this: Do you believe the team that beat Golden State and Oklahoma City on the way to the league’s best record from mid-January through the end of February is the real thing, or is it the sub-.500 group we saw the rest of the year?

Sustainability isn’t an issue for Portland’s star guards, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both following traditional developmental paths and both young enough to expect continuation. Like the guard duo in Toronto, though, smarter teams poked holes in their shooting-driven style as the year went on last season, forcing the supporting cast into larger roles in which they mostly succeeded – and that’s where issues of continuity rear their heads.

Al-Farouq Aminu was a career 29 percent three-point shooter heading into last season; he nearly matched his attempts from those previous five years combined, and still managed 36 percent. Gerald Henderson likewise posted career highs in attempts and percentage from deep (he’s now in Philadelphia). Mason Plumlee hadn’t averaged even a single assist per night in his first two seasons until defenses began blitzing Lillard and McCollum up high last year, forcing the ball into Plumlee’s hands and tripling his output (it nearly doubled again from there in the playoffs as the Clippers and Warriors trapped even more aggressively).

These were non-trivial factors in Portland’s seventh-ranked offense, a unit that conveniently masked a bottom-10 defense. The Blazers did nothing in the offseason to dissuade teams continuing to aggressively hedge their pick-and-rolls; can the supplementary guys, now featuring Evan Turner, ostensibly in Henderson’s place, continue performing?

With the right tinkering from Terry Stotts, it’s certainly possible. Turner is a non-threat from three, but could be smartly staggered with Allen Crabbe to inject a bit more spacing if things tighten up – he’s a solid bench prop-up piece when Lillard or McCollum (or both) sit. Meyers Leonard is around as a spacing option, though he’s been a weakness on the other end. Noah Vonleh is running out of time to prove himself, and it feels like one of Vonleh or Maurice Harkless could become redundant and fall out of the rotation (or be traded). If Lillard and McCollum maintain their level and at least a couple of these guys shine, maybe there isn’t much cause for concern.

Even for glass-half-full types, though, big issues remain on the other end of the court. Portland picked up Festus Ezeli on a below-market deal, but getting a good price isn’t always the same as getting a good player. A return to the promise of a year ago could put Ezeli on track as a defensive anchor, but the 770 minutes he logged in Golden State last year (in an elite defensive culture, no less) offered little convincing proof that he can get back there.

Outside that, it’s tough to see where this group finds organic improvement defensively. Aminu is a wonderful universal jack, Crabbe is solid on the wing and Harkless did his best last year, but this team is devoid of much other defensive talent, especially in the backcourt. There’s only so much Aminu can do to cover for McCollum and especially Lillard, and slotting Crabbe onto tougher guards either opens up a mismatch with a bigger small forward or forces one of the studs to the bench. Rim protection will be a big issue if Ezeli isn’t the answer. It’s basically impossible to post even a league average defense with sieves on the perimeter and no one reliable to clean up inside.

None of this considers injury luck, either. The Blazers were among the league’s healthiest teams, particularly among their top guys – each of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu, Plumlee and Harkless played in at least 75 games, and Henderson logged 72.

Stotts is a proven wizard, and Lillard has made a habit of silencing doubters in his career. Still, it’s tough to shake the feeling that a bad break or two could doom a team that was four games from the ninth seed last year. The Blazers have to prove their streaky group can hit last winter’s level consistently.

 

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Towns, Wolves Prepared To Take Next Step

Tom Thibodeau and Karl-Anthony Towns look back on a successful season and gaining meaningful experience in the postseason.

Spencer Davies

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For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA Playoffs.

Sure, the exit was early and the experience was short-lived, but the way the younger players and team finished out spoke volumes to head coach Tom Thibodeau.

“I told the players, I said, ‘I’m very proud of what you did,’” he said following the Wolves’ loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 5.

“To get out of the hole that we were in, to win 47 games, to get into the playoffs after 14 years of not being in the playoffs, to do it in a very tight playoff race, to finish one game out of the fourth spot—it’s a major jump from where we were two years ago.”

It all started with the final stretch of the year and the winner-take-all matchup between the Wolves and the Denver Nuggets where it was win or go home.

“I think it’s huge,” Thibodeau said of how Minnesota closed out. “I think the last month of the season was really good for us because of how tight the race was. In many ways, it was similar to playoff experience.

“And then having the final game of the season mean so much, whether you were gonna get in or not get it in, that had a Game 7 feel to it. I thought that that helped us going in.”

For Karl-Anthony Towns, his first taste of the postseason was valuable to building his character as a professional.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially in these playoffs,” Towns said. “You understand a little bit of the difference between the regular season and postseason. We haven’t been there in like 14 years, so there’s experience that needed to be garnered and we wanted to take that next step. We came up short, but we’re very confident in ourselves leading up to next year.”

Towns was especially grateful for his teammates and their teachings throughout the season. He mentioned the likes of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson for the advice they gave him.

“Learned a lot from them,” Towns said. “Especially going through the experiences we had to go through this year. “We went through a lot of adversity. We’ve had injuries, tough schedule, tough last stretch to get in the playoffs. Found a way to scratch out wins and put ourselves in this position.

“We’re very blessed that every single day we went to work, we got to see each other and fight. I couldn’t ask for any better teammates. To be able to be out here with these guys is a true blessing. I’m honored to be able to work with them every day and learn from them.

“It’s an amazing thing when you look back at the season to realize the narrative that was almost written for us. To get to this point is almost storybook—having to go through so many obstacles.”

Unfortunately, though, the Wolves’ playoff life only lasted five games against the league’s top-seeded Rockets. However, there is a silver lining in the grander scheme of things.

Playing against an experienced team with two of the best in the game today—James Harden and Chris Paul—Minnesota can come to understand why that brand of basketball has led to such a great product on the floor and apply it to themselves.

“I’ve been around both of those guys,” Thibodeau said. “They’re great talents. They can hurt you a lot of different ways. They hurt us with the pass [Wednesday]. With our young guys, we talk about the importance of trusting the pass.

“When you watch the veteran teams, you can see that that’s what they do. They’ll make the right play. The game will tell you who’s gonna get the shots. They’re not worried about their shots. They’re worried about the team getting good shots. We have to get to that. The defensive part of it is something that we have to continue to work on.”

Thibodeau continually pointed out the change in how the organization has handled its business top to bottom.

“Everything matters and that’s how you improve,” he said. “That’s why I felt that I was very proud of this team.

“When you come out of the hole that we were in, when you have to change the entire culture of an organization—there’s gonna be steps that you have to take along the way. It’s a tough league. The Western Conference is loaded. It’s hard to get wins in this league and I think you have to understand that, so you also have to understand the commitment that needs to be made to be a great team.”

So taking the lessons learned from this series, what is the next step for the Wolves?

“Just continue to build,” Thibodeau said. “We need to have another strong summer, have to have a strong fall. We need to have everyone make a commitment to continue to improve and learn.

“It never ends. That’s the thing about this league. You’re always gonna be challenged. If you have the good fortune to win it, when the next season starts, you start at zero again. You’ve got to prove yourself again. That’s why it’s so important to work every day. You have to prepare yourself for this.”

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

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Boston’s Young Trio Rises to the Occasion

The Boston Celtics accelerated their youth movement to compete in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, writes Mike Yaffe.

Mike Yaffe

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With a stifling 92-87 victory in game five of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are one victory away from advancing to the second round. In that contest, they held the Milwaukee Bucks to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them by a substantial 50-37 margin.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Celtics entered the campaign with veteran acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to lead them to the conference finals and beyond. After Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener, Irving proved that he was more than capable of being productive outside of LeBron James’ shadow. But then Irving himself was sent to IR with a knee issue, and the team ultimately settled into the playoff bracket as a two-seed behind the Toronto Raptors.

Due to his extended absence, Hayward had already become an afterthought as the team seemed to be dominant enough with Kyrie running the point. But without (arguably) their two best players, a potential upset was in the making for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Instead, the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead, with the home team winning each time. And if that trend continues, Game 7 would be played at the friendly confines of TD Garden and Boston would advance to play the Philadelphia Sixers, who have already eliminated the Miami HEAT themselves.

The upper echelon of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs has been comprised of teams that have been primarily built through either the draft (Golden State, Philadelphia) or via free agency and trades (Houston, Cleveland), but the Celtics have discovered through attrition that they have been well-stocked via both channels.

Here’s a look at the three rising stars who have stepped up their game for the Boston Celtics, both down the stretch and in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:

Terry Rozier

Rozier was taken 16th in the 2015 NBA Draft. In similar fashion to mid-round picks Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards) and Delon Wright (Toronto Raptors), the former Louisville Cardinal was expected to provide organizational depth behind a backcourt rotation that already included Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.

Buried on the roster, Rozier started zero games his first two seasons and averaged just 1.8 PPG as a rookie, which marginally improved to 5.5 PPG as an NBA sophomore.

After the Celtics traded Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, Rozier was given the opportunity to earn additional minutes since Kyrie Irving was taking IT’s spot in the starting lineup. He rewarded Boston’s confidence by averaging 10.1 PPG in 64 games as a reserve this season, which was well above his previous contributions. But when thrust into a starting role, Rozier’s potential was unleashed, as his scoring rose to 15.1 PPG in 16 such games while adding 5.1 assists per contest (up from 2.3 per game off the bench).

In the opening playoff series, Rozier has continued to improve upon his regular season numbers, averaging 16.1 PPG and 6.6 APG to date. While it probably helped his cause that he’s been facing a Bucks team that was bottom-third in the regular season in both field goal and three-point percentages allowed, his confidence may also have been buoyed by an ongoing feud with veteran Eric Bledsoe.

Jaylen Brown

As one of the spoils from the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that unloaded the contracts of aging vets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics selected Brown with the number three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. As a one-and-done player at Cal, he averaged 14.6 PPG as a freshman and was viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone that could help the team rebuild.

To their dismay, Brown’s rookie numbers (6.6 PPG) weren’t much better than what Rozier produced that season, and the pundits were left to wonder whether the freshman phenom would ever live up to his draft status.

Like Rozier, Brown’s promise came to fruition this season, as he averaged 14.5 PPG in 70 starts in a swingman-like role; his defensive rating of 100.3 was among the league’s best as well.  In the playoffs he too has stepped up his play, thanks to a 30-point outburst in game two and 21.8 PPG overall in this series.

The return of Marcus Smart for game five provided a nice boost, but the Celtics would not be ahead in this series without Brown’s stellar play on both ends of the court.

Jayson Tatum

The aforementioned Nets deal continued its lopsided return for the Celtics, as they had the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But instead of taking Markelle Fultz (the consensus top player at the time), they traded down with the Philadelphia Sixers and opted for Tatum at number three instead.

While Fultz was expected to be a can’t-miss prospect, the Celts’ selection of Tatum was also called into question with the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson still available.

As we now know, Fultz is finally showing signs of life after spending his rookie season dealing with a shoulder injury and correcting a shooting flaw. While both Jackson and Fox have had their moments for their respective lottery-bound teams, it’s debatable whether either of them would’ve had a similar impact to what Tatum has done.

Without Gordon Hayward, Tatum’s development timeline was shifted into overdrive, and unlike his aforementioned teammates, he didn’t have an opportunity to watch from the bench. Thrust into the first five, the former Blue Devil produced 13.9 PPG in 80 starts and finished eighth overall in three-point percentage (.434).

As important as his offensive production has been, the Celtics may have profited even more from Tatum’s prowess on defense. He finished the regular season fourth overall in Defensive Win Shares thanks to a 100.3 defensive rating (tied with Brown). His ability was on display in game five, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to only 16 points, which was well below his season average of 26.9 PPG.

The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-2018 season with a “win now” roster that was comprised of proven veterans. But with Al Horford as the last man standing from that group, the team has ridden their draft-day trifecta of Rozier, Brown and Tatum to the precipice of a first-round series win. Time will tell if the team is capable of advancing much further, but they are poised for a bright future regardless of how it plays out in the short-term.

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