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Prodigies: Devin Booker and Andrew Wiggins

Jake Rauchbach evaluates Devin Booker and Andrew Wiggins in Part Three of the Prodigies Series.

Jake Rauchbach

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In the third installment of the Prodigies Series, Basketball Insiders takes a look at two of the most exciting up and coming wings in the league, Devin Booker and Andrew Wiggins. Both of these players make their mark on the game from the wing slot, but in a slightly different manner. Nevertheless, their potential for greatness is quite clear.

Booker, who just turned 20 years old in October, is a silky-smooth scorer who impressed many around the league during his rookie campaign. In fact, in a poll of NBA general managers, Booker received 31 percent of the votes for the player most likely to have a breakout season in 2016-17. Booker has not disappointed.

Wiggins has improved each season since he came into the league three years ago. He combines supreme athleticism with great size and continues to increase the number of ways he can positively affect the game.

Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both Booker and Wiggins.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

19.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 41 percent from the field, 34 percent from three (37 Games)

STRENGTHS

Transition – Booker is very effective in transition. This season he has recorded 186 points on 157 possessions, which ranks him in the 66th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He sprints the floor hard and effectively maneuvers around defenders for finishes at the basket. Booker is leading the league in scoring efficiency from the middle of the floor in transition, averaging 2.18 points per possession. When leading the break, Booker has proven to be very effective, converting 60 points on 59 possessions.

Spot-ups – A knockdown shooter, Booker excels with spot-up play. He has scored 109 points on 96 possessions, ranking him in the 82nd percentile in the NBA. The Suns’ guard is posting 1.14 points per possession on such plays, and on pure catch and shoot opportunities, Booker is averaging 1.33 points per possessions (86th percentile). His great shot preparation, silky-smooth form and quick release allow him to get his shot off in various situations, especially on short clock possessions. On end of clock situations, Booker is excelling, averaging 1.19 points per possession (ranking him in the 84th percentile in the NBA).

Post-up Play At 6’6, Booker has good size for an NBA wing and he uses this size and his strong post-up skill-set to excel with his back to the basket. He is averaging 1.0 point per possession in the post, good enough to be ranked in the 80th percentile in the league. From both blocks, Booker has the tendency to turn over his left shoulder but likes to mix up his production with drives to the basket, turnarounds and passes to open teammates for spots-ups and cuts to the basket.  Because of his high efficiency with his back to the basket, the Suns should look to get the ball to Booker in the post more frequently to act as a facilitator.

WEAKNESSES

Isolation Play – The Suns’ guard has recorded 90 points on 106 isolation possessions this season, ranking him in the bottom half of the league (48th percentile), according to Synergy. Isolation possessions make up 13.2 percent of Booker’s offensive production, according to Synergy.  Although a righty, Booker likes to drive it hard left from both sides of the floor. From the left side, he looks to get to the baseline, but struggles with his pull-ups and runners as he currently is averaging .53 and .75 points per possessions in these situations, according to Synergy.

When operating out of right side on isolations, Booker looks to his mid-range game, where he is adept at driving to the middle of the floor, getting to his spot and shooting or fading over his defender (1.66 points per possession going middle). However, in most other areas he struggles to create scoring opportunities from this side of the court. When driving baseline, he often allows himself to be funneled into the opposing shot blockers. So far this season, Booker has not scored the ball when driving baseline from the right side of the court.

Improving this part of his game will be a part of Booker’s development.

Handoff – Booker is clearly a wing who has a knack for putting the ball in the basket. That being said, the second-year man out of Kentucky has not yet shown that he can be effective scoring consistently off of handoff opportunities. He only ranks in the seventh percentile in the league, scoring 22 points on 41 possessions this season. Booker does not always do a great job of getting his footwork and body squared up to attack the rim off of the rub created from the dribble handoff (“DHO”), especially when coming off right. Because of this, his poise and effectiveness in these situations suffer. As Booker becomes more and more comfortable creating opportunities going both left and right, nuances of the game, such as DHO effectiveness, will improve.

Off Screen – Surprisingly, another area where Booker has struggled thus far this season is when he is looking to score the ball off of screens. At this point, Booker is below average in this category, only posting 69 points on 95 opportunities this season. This play type makes up 11 percent of his total offensive production. As you would imagine, Booker is more effective coming off left, where he has scored 30 points on 33 possessions, with the straight cut being his most effective method of scoring. When coming off right, he ranks in the 15th percentile of the NBA in scoring efficiency, where he again finds himself in many straight cut opportunities within the Suns’ offensive sets.

Booker is on track to become an elite scorer in this league and working off the ball should be one of his main priorities moving forward.

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

21.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 44 percent from the field, 35 percent from three (38 Games):

STRENGTHS

Transition Play – Wiggins uses his world-class athleticism to excel in the open floor. Wiggins attacks the rim in transition and often will get hit-ahead passes, or dimes by running the lanes hard. Although he excels running the lanes, Wiggins is especially adept at leading the break as the ballhandler. In these situations, he ranks in the 86th percentile in the league and loves to attack the rim and get back to his right hand finish around the rim. So far this season, he has scored 111 points on 89 possessions in transition, per Synergy.

Put-backs – Wiggins has been great cleaning up missed shots on the offensive glass. Similarly to how he attacks the rim in transition, Wiggins appears to employ the same aggressive mentality on the offensive glass. His high motor, long arms and his lighting fast second-jump ability allow him to corral rebounds and convert put backs over defenders. He also does a great job of following his own missed shots on drives. Wiggins has scored 47 points on 31 possessions, good enough for 1.52 points per possessions on these types of plays.

Cut – Wiggins does a great job cutting to the basket within the Timberwolves’ offense. On basket cuts, Wiggins is averaging 1.38 points per possession, ranking him in the 72nd percentile in the league. When teammates drive it to the rim, Wiggins naturally seems to make his way to the basket, positioning himself effectively for finishes in the pant. Overall, Wiggins is averaging 1.44 points per possession off of cuts, scoring 52 points on 36 possessions, according to Synergy.

Post-up Play – Wiggins is a solid post player. He has posted 91 points on 100 possessions, ranking him in the 58th percentile in the league. He does his best work on the left block, where he likes to turn over his left shoulder (right-hand finishes) to make plays. Wiggins finds himself there 61 percent of the time and ranks in the 68th percentile in efficiency from that side of the floor. Remarkably, he is the best player in the NBA when it comes to jump shots from the left block, scoring 18 points on 15 possessions. He likes to crab dribble his man deep enough in to turn, fade and use his length and athleticism to shoot right over top.

From the right block, Wiggins is not great, ranking in the 38th percentile in scoring efficiency, where he still looks to turn left his shoulder to free himself.

WEAKNESSES

PNR Ball Handler – The majority of Wiggins’ play types on the offensive end are out of pick-and-rolls (“PNR”) (32 percent of his offensive plays are as a PNR ballhandler). He ranks in the 45th percentile in the league, posting a .77 points per possession in PNR ballhandler situations, and at this juncture of his career, Wiggins’ efficiency is only average out of PNRs. When coming off of PNRs and with the defender going under screens, Wiggins struggles. He is shooting just 33 percent, scoring 26 points on 35 possessions. Dribbling into his jumper out of PNRs is also an area of weakness for him as he ranks in the 30th percentile in this category and is currently shooting 36 percent from the field. Improving his comfort-ability in PNRs, especially from the left side of the floor, could help Wiggins level up his offensive efficiency as his career progresses.

Spot-up Situations– Wiggins can and does score in a myriad of ways, and for the most part he does it very effectively. However, one area where Wiggins has yet to separate himself from the pack is with this jump shooting. Spot-ups make up 15 percent of Wiggins’ production, where he has scored 124 points on 137 possessions. He is shooting 37 percent on these opportunities. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, he is just average, shooting 36 percent from the field. When driving it or pulling up right or left out of spot-up situations, Wiggins struggles, ranking in the 27th and 28th percentile of the league, respectively. Improving his balance and mid-range scoring capability could prove invaluable in expanding his game.

Isolation Play – Wiggins also could stand to improve his isolation play, where he is averaging .845 points per possession. Isolations make up 11 percent of his overall offensive production.  From the top of the key, Wiggins likes to drive right aggressively, but if he can’t get all the way to the rim, he has a default tendency to get to his fade away jumper. He also likes to pull up on and within the perimeter if his defender sags. Wiggins often will catch the ball off of the right and left elbows within the T-Wolves’ offense, where he will often drive to the right side. When this happens, opposing team’s help side defenses look to stop splits, dig, and take charges on Wiggins as they know what is coming. Improving his ability to make plays going left in traffic could prove useful as Wiggins progresses.

******

In the next part of this series, Basketball Insiders will break down the games of Zach LaVine and Myles Turner.

After playing four years of college basketball at Drexel University, Jake Rauchbach coached at the collegiate level, founded The MindRight Pro Program and trained numerous professional and Olympic athletes. Now, Rauchbach writes about the NBA and college basketball for Basketball Insiders and serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University's men's basketball team.

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Houston Rockets 2017-18 Season Preview

With Chris Paul joining James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, how high can the Rockets soar? Basketball Insiders takes a look.

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After overachieving last season, the Houston Rockets pulled off one of the more surprising moves of the summer. With Chris Paul now joining James Harden, the Rockets have one of the league’s best backcourts. The question now, however, is whether or not they have enough to help them become one of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

With a roster that isn’t as deep as it was last season, the 2017-18 Houston Rockets will be counting on their supremely gifted backcourt to help them surpass last season’s 55 wins.

Whether or not they can may ultimately depend on how general manager Daryl Money fleshes out his roster around his two superstars—and also whether the team is able to eventually pull off a long-discussed trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2017-18 Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

For the first time during his Houston Rockets tenure, James Harden has a true superstar companion (no, I’m not counting Dwight Howard in that category).

Chris Paul joins Harden in H-Town after a season that saw Harden switch to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and lead the league in assists per game. While that may seem odd at first glance, Paul’s ability to command the floor, shoot and score effectively, and play elite defense gives Houston a backcourt that can rival any in the league — even those dudes in the Bay Area.

With role players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza on board, Harden and Paul should have enough artillery to overtake their division and actually give Golden State a run for their money.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Oh, there will be three-pointers. So many three-pointers. A year ago, the Houston Rockets broke the single-season record for most deep attempts in a season, having shot over 40 of them per game, and it doesn’t look like this year is going to be any different, especially with Chris Paul helping to break down defenses and create potentially even more open looks for those Houston shooters. Nabbing Paul was a huge boon, and somehow finagling Carmelo Anthony would only add to the haul basketball gods willing. Even without Anthony, though, Paul and last year’s MVP runner-up James Harden is enough to make this team a powerhouse. The role guys here fit Mike D’Antoni’s system beautifully, and the star power obviously is there. Pencil the Rockets in for a very deep playoff run this summer. Nobody is going to give Golden State more trouble than these guys, health pending.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Houston is hoping that the backcourt duo of James Harden and Chris Paul can bridge the gap between the Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are still the favorites, but Houston now has arguably the league’s best backcourt, versatile wing defenders that theoretically match up well with Golden State and enough overall talent to have a chance to upset the Warriors on any given night. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah Moute help to bolster the team’s defensive versatility, while Paul is still one of the league’s best defensive point guards. However, the loss of players like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could sting a bit more than most predict. The wildcard right now is the stalemate regarding Carmelo Anthony. If Anthony ends up in Houston, the Rockets would have a very impressive arsenal of offensive talent. Whether the skill sets of Paul, Harden and Anthony could effectively mesh together is unclear, but it sure would be fun to see what they could achieve together.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

What an offseason for Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who should easily be in pole position for Executive of the Year at this point. The Chris Paul trade is the obvious feather in the cap, but Morey also got fantastic deals on guys like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute – both exactly the kind of wing stoppers this team has been in dire need of for some time. The Rockets now have more of the kind of switchable bodies needed to throw at a behemoth like Golden State, plus two of the league’s best ball-handlers in Paul and James Harden. They’re all-in on making a charge at the champs this year; we’ll see if they have enough to do it.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Rockets enter the season very similarly to the Celtics.

Each team surpassed expectations last season, but ended up trading away a few rotation pieces to consolidate and bring in a superstar. I think the partnership between Paul and James Harden will work so long as Harden continues to play with his head up. The propensity for many people in Harden’s shoes would be to revert to being a shoot-first guard, but I think the Rockets will only maximize their potential if both Paul and Harden make it their duty to make their teammates better.

Although these guys may struggle to get defensive stops at times, they are just one more piece away from potentially winning the Western Conference. The Rockets would be best-served by encouraging Carmelo Anthony to work out a contract buyout with the Knicks and join them after potentially clearing waivers. Until they find a way to add him (or a player with similar caliber), they will still be looking up at the Spurs in the Southwest and at at least two other teams in the conference.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

Although Chris Paul is a supremely gifted offensive player, James Harden is absolutely extraordinary. Russell Westbrook’s record-breaking 42 triple doubles overshadowed the fact that Harden himself turned in an amazing 22 over the course of the season. Always having been a dynamic scorer, Harden took his game to the next level last season after being installed as the primary point guard for Mike D’Antoni and his club. Harden reverted to his prior days as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and proved that he still had the ability to create plays for his teammates and be an effective “finder” in pick-and-roll situations.

Last season, the Rockets finished second in points per game and second in offensive efficiency, and they did so because of Harden. The bearded point guard averaged career-highs across the board with 29.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 11.2 assists per game.

He’s not only the top offensive player on the Rockets; it could be argued that he’s the top offensive player in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Again, Chris Paul gets snubbed, but barely. The same can be said for the newly signed Luc Mbah a Moute, who is entering his 10th NBA season. Both Mbah a Moute and Paul were members of the most effective defensive lineups deployed by Doc Rivers last season, but Clint Capela is a true game-changer on the defensive end of the floor.

Although he had the benefit of being protected on the perimeter by Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza, Capela is a prototype of what today’s defensive NBA should be. He is wiry and rangy—his long arms make him a good shot blocker and pass lane defender, while his athleticism and light-footedness make him nimble enough to defend opposing perimeter players after being switched out on pick-and-roll plays. The numbers might not necessarily back up the claim (Capela averaged just 1.2 blocks and 0.5 steals per game during the regular season), but he was the anchor and final line of defense for a team that finished a respectable 18th in defensive efficiency last season. Most importantly, though, was Capela’s defense during the playoffs. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game and helped the Rockets hold their playoff opponents to 105.8 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the playoffs.

As it relates to defensive presence, the Swiss-born center is special.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

James Harden may have led the league in assists per game last season, but Chris Paul is the best playmaker on the roster. Whether or not he can be more effective with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson—the three of whom all shared the floor with Harden last year—remains to be seen, though.

Still, Paul has averaged at least nine assists per game for each of the past 10 seasons and has never drawn criticism for a lack of creating opportunities for his teammates. In fact, it will be especially interesting to see how effective Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be on the offensive side of the basketball without him.

As it currently stands, Paul enters his 13th season averaging 9.89 assists per game—the third-highest per-game average in NBA history. Magic Johnson (11.19) and John Stockton (10.51) are the only ones who have averaged more per game. Paul is also just one of two active players to rank in the Top 10 for total career assists. Andre Miller, who has recorded 8,524 career assists, ranks ninth. That leaves him just 273 assists ahead of Paul’s 8,251.

In all likelihood, Paul, one of the top playmakers in the history of the league, will become ninth this season.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

While Chris Paul has certainly made his fair share of big shots, James Harden gets the nod. Truth be told, however, an inspection of the numbers yields the conclusion that both Paul and Harden leave a bit to be desired in clutch moments of games. Last season, in the final five minutes of a game that was within five points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Harden shot 33-for-93. Converting on just 35.5 percent of shots in those situations is a mediocre showing, but it is better than the 13-for-41 shot by Paul in those moments. Paul’s 31.7 percent shooting in those situations is not as good as we would expect it to be, but he should also point out that his lack of attempts in those situations is probably due to the fact that he has more of a propensity to pass the basketball in the first place.

Still, Harden gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

In an interesting twist, in December 2011, Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package of players that most prominently featured Eric Gordon. The two will now share the floor as members of the Houston Rockets.

After averaging 22.3 points per game in his third season, Gordon seemed destined for greatness as the NBA level. The Hornets thought they were getting an All-Star caliber player in exchange for Paul, but Gordon’s very first season in New Orleans was an indicator of what would become of his career. Gordon was limited to just nine games in 2011-12 and would play just 42, 64, 61 and 45 games over the following four years, respectively.

Last season, though, things turned. After being relegated to the bench, Gordon appeared in 75 games and scored 16.2 points per game off the bench. As a result, Gordon managed to edge out Andre Iguodala for the 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Award and play an integral role in the Rockets and their overachieving last season. He hasn’t necessarily gotten his due from the masses, though, which is why he deserves some love here.

Best New Addition: Chris Paul

Obviously, when you add a player like Chris Paul to a team with the firepower of the Rockets, he is the best new addition. At 32 years old, Paul is probably past his physical prime, but his game has never been about athleticism. If there is a concern, it would be that he managed to appear in just 61 games last season, but in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, he suited up for 82 and 74 games, respectively.

It will be interesting to see how Mike D’Antoni managed Paul’s minutes, and the extent to which he has James Harden and Paul share the floor for long spurts or whether he uses them to spell one another. However, if Paul can remain relatively healthy, the Rockets may be one or two more pieces away from winning the Western Conference, and that’s the case because they managed to add Paul.

Luc Mbah a Moute gets an honorable mention here, as well.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Say what you want about Mike D’Antoni, but the Rockets were a respectable defensive team last season. At the very least, that shows that when D’Antoni has the personnel, he can pull some good defense out of his club.

What D’Antoni deserves respect for, however, is demanding greatness of his team and remaining true to his principles. Since his departure from the Phoenix Suns, he has failed to find the type of success that many expected after leading the Suns to contention. The winner of the 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year Award, D’Antoni joins Gregg Popovich, Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Gene Shue, Bill Fitch and Cotton Fitzsimmons as the only coaches in history to win the award multiple times.

As great as James Harden has been, it could certainly be argued that he wouldn’t have been able to unleash his offensive potential without having a system that could take advantage of his gifts and a coach that could reach him.

It’s easy to argue that the 2016-17 season with the Houston Rockets represents the finest coaching job in D’Antoni’s career.

2. Daryl Morey

One of the leaders of the contemporary NBA’s love affair with advanced statistics and analytics, Morey is one of the more renowned general managers in the NBA. Whether it was making an aggressive run at Chris Bosh or signing Jeremy Lin or Dwight Howard, Morey has traditionally been a general manager who often looks for and usually finds ways to improve his team. An autopsy of the moves that he has made would show a few failures and a few contracts that were richer than they should have been, but the same can be said of most executives across the NBA. Long ago, Morey earned the monicker of “the Wizard” for seemingly being able to come away from trades with more than he gave up. The test of the monicker will be this season, though. With Chris Paul’s advancing age, Morey will have limited time to build a contender around he and James Harden. However, over the course of his 10 years in Houston, we admire his zeal and give him the benefit of the doubt.

3. Trevor Ariza

Though lacking the hardware, one could make the case that Trevor Ariza is a lite version of the modern day Bruce Bowen. Since being drafted with the 43rd pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Ariza has been a plus contributor for each one of his 13 years in the NBA. He has earned a reputation for being a true professional, an excellent teammate and a hard worker.

Defensively, although Ariza has lost a step or two, he is still pesky on the perimeter. He shot 34.4 percent from the three-point line last season and is a career 35 percent shooter from deep. Although that percentage doesn’t necessarily put him among the league leaders, it allows him to blend in nicely with Chris Paul and James Harden. He will contribute positively on the defensive end while helping to keep the floor spaced and the game open.

4. Nene

Having just turned 35 years old, there was some doubt that Nene would return for his 16th NBA season after his 2016-17 campaign ended prematurely. Nene tore a muscle in his left thigh during the Rockets’ playoff battle against the San Antonio Spurs, and any chance that the team had of competing with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard went up in smoke.

Nene is still an effective defender and still has magnificent footwork. He’s nimble and should still be able to give the Rockets an effective 15 minutes per game. It’s also reasonable to expect him to be the team’s best post option and, in a best case scenario, someone who can help some of the younger big men on the Rockets develop their own skills.

5. Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson’s name has been mentioned a lot this past summer, but mostly because the New York Knicks have let it be known that they refuse to take him back in any would-be trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Truth is, when it was learned that the Rockets would sign Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract last summer, most people questioned the wisdom behind the deal. Certainly a hefty commitment, Anderson could be argued as being overpaid, but his effectiveness with last season’s Rockets can’t be questioned.

In 29.4 minutes per game last season, Anderson scored 13.6 points per game. More importantly, though, he led the team in three-point percentage, connecting on 40.3 percent of his looks from long distance.

What made Anderson’s proficiency and durability especially noteworthy last season was the fact that he missed 97 total games over the precious three seasons. He appeared in 72 total contests last season, and appears to be trending in the right direction. Although he owns a rich contract that the Knicks rightfully want no part of, he fits nicely with the Rockets, who they are and what they do.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Rockets had an interesting summer, dipping below the salary cap in June to acquire multiple contracts to immediately turn around in trade for Chris Paul. The team has been over the cap since the start of July, using almost their Mid-Level Exception on P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi. Houston also spent its Bi-Annual Exception on Tarik Black. With $114.7 million in guaranteed salary, the Rockets have some wiggle room under their hard cap of $125.3 million – potentially staying completely under the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold.

Next summer, the team could get to almost $20 million in cap room but only if Paul leaves as an unrestricted free agent. Houston is far more likely to stay over next year’s projected $102 million cap, locking down Paul on a new, long-term deal. Before the start of the coming season, Houston can work an extension with Clint Capela, otherwise he’ll hit restricted free agency in July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Backcourt and the Coach

Chris Paul and James Harden, in terms of talent, can argue for mention as the top backcourt in the league. At the very least, they are on the same plane as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Whatever the Rockets hope to be this season will begin and end with how Paul and Harden galvanize their troops. For the most part, though, the two have each proven themselves to be effective leaders and winners. Paul has always maximized the talent around him, and last season Harden proved that he is just as capable of doing the same. If the Rockets can collectively take the next step and keep the ball moving as opposed to standing by idly and waiting for Paul and Harden to create, they’ll be in business.

As it relates to Mike D’Antoni, he will only be effective if his players are buying into what he is preaching. With Paul and Harden, D’Antoni will have the most gifted tandem he’s ever coached, and it should be interesting to see what kind of return he is able to get. If there is one coach that should be entrusted with finding a way to make Paul and Harden work together, it’s D’Antoni.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Chemistry

Jumping on the opportunity to acquire a player like Chris Paul was the right move, but the Rockets don’t have the depth required of a championship contender. Both the Warriors and Cavaliers have 10 players who can be counted on to have an impact on any given night. The same probably can’t be said of the Rockets. At best, the Rockets have eight players who have proven that they are everyday NBA contributors, but Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are only threats on offense, while Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute are most effective on the defensive side of the ball. Nene probably can’t play much more than 15 minutes per game and at least one of Demetrius Jackson, Tim Quarterman or Isaiah Taylor will be depended upon to play impactful minutes at the lead guard position, especially if either Paul or Harden goes down.

Aside from that, the Rockets have a lot of new faces. For a team that won 55 games last season and found success with what it was running, incorporating so many new faces will pose a challenge.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Daryl Morey find a way to land Carmelo Anthony?

Acquiring Chris Paul came at a great cost. In exchange for the future Hall-of-Famer, the Rockets traded away some key members of last seasons team in Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, as well as a few youngsters in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. The Rockets also sent a top-three protected 2018 first round pick to the Clippers. The club also sent cash to the Clippers.

The only problem for the Rockets now, though, is depth. While they still have some very good contributors, the team has consolidated a few of its important pieces (including a top-flight defender in Beverly) for the right to acquire Paul. It makes perfect sense that the team is interested in Carmelo Anthony, but the cupboard seems fairly bare. What remains to be seen with the Rockets now is whether and how they will find creative ways to add two or three more rotation-ready pieces to their roster. If Anthony holds out until December, the trade winds will begin swirling, as players who signed contracts this past summer will become trade-eligible. In other instances, players who seek buyouts (such as Dwyane Wade) may eventually wiggle free and may circle Houston as a preferred destination.

The question at the end of the day thus becomes whether Morey can continue to be the Wizard we have come to know and put some more meaningful pieces around his dynamic backcourt—whether it be Carmelo Anthony or someone else.

— Moke Hamilton

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NBA

The Atlanta Hawks Seek To Meld Championship Cultures

The Hawks are seeking to build a new but familiar culture, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk made no secret of his intention to borrow cultural and organizational elements from the Golden State Warriors — his former employer — while speaking to media at Philips Arena Friday morning. The spirit of collaboration he brings from Golden State shares similarities with the San Antonio-inspired spirit of his immediate front office predecessors. Another similarity is to specifically target high-character players who will always strive to reach their full potential, and Schlenk said he’s not concerned if his group overachieves and sacrifices draft position.

“We drafted Draymond Green while I was in Golden State at 35,” said Schlenk. “You can get franchise-type players and very solid players all over the draft. We’re going to be competitive. When you look at the guys we signed this year in free agency, those are guys that show up and play hard every single night. So we’re laying the foundation for the future of the Atlanta Hawks.”

Character is a recurring theme for Schlenk, who noted the Warriors as a team that was able to assemble a high-character roster without sacrificing talent.

“All the guys that we sign or look to acquire moving forward, they’re going to be high character guys as we start to build a culture here,” said Schlenk. “When you look back when I was involved with Golden State, that’s a conscious decision we made. You look at the guys that are on that roster now and they are all high-character guys, and that’s what we’re going to mimic here in Atlanta as well.”

Another element Schlenk brings from Golden State is a spirit of collaboration among members of the front office and coaching staff to develop consensus on important decisions. While Schlenk has made some additions to the basketball operations staff, it hasn’t been a complete overhaul. Some of the key voices remain from coach Mike Budenholzer’s previous front office regime, providing Atlanta with some continuity.

“I’m very fortunate [that] when I got here, there was a great staff already in place,” said Schlenk. “Those guys are still with us and — going through the draft process with them — their organization was really, really strong. Going through free agency we were extremely prepared. That group is Jeff Peterson, who is our assistant GM; John Treloar, our director of player personnel; obviously coach Budenholzer; and Mike McNeive, our director of basketball operations. Those are kind of our senior management crew and then we have younger guys that are also involved in the process.”

One of the additions Schlenk made was to bring on Rod Higgins, who was the GM in Golden State early in his career and later GM of the Hornets, as a college scout.

“He was the GM there when I was a back-row assistant coach,” said Schlenk. “I’m very comfortable with the staff we have here but I thought bringing in somebody with a little more experience could be useful for us. It’s important to have a group and it’s important that you get everyone’s opinions and they’re different opinions. You don’t want a group of people that are all going to give you the same mind unless it’s the right decision.”

While some have wondered how enthusiastic Budenholzer is to oversee a developing roster since he hasn’t missed the playoffs since his first season as an assistant in San Antonio (the season before the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan), Schlenk was very comfortable with his buy-in.

“Coach Bud, when I first got here we spent a ton of time together, getting to know each other [and] getting to know each other’s philosophies,” said Schlenk. “He’s completely on board with what our plan was this summer. He’s excited about the upcoming season. He and his staff have proven that the one thing they have done very well since he’s been here is develop young talent. And so they’re excited about this venture that we have where they’re going to have a great opportunity to develop a lot of — hopefully — great players that we’re going to draft over the next few years.”

Schlenk provided some insight on one of the moves that set the Hawks up to have additional draft assets in the future, the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets and returned Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli. Although the trade cost Atlanta 10 spots in the second round, Schlenk insisted that it set the team up for flexibility in the future.

“The way the process goes when you start having conversations with other teams, you start building out all the other things that would be involved with making the trade,” said Schlenk. “When it got down with Charlotte, there were other players that were going to be in the deal that both teams decided wouldn’t be in there. Obviously, the 31st pick was important to them.

“When we look at our roster moving forward, with the nine draft picks we have in the next few years, it wasn’t as important to us to be able to add that young player this year because we have so many opportunities with three first-round draft picks next year. And we really only slid back ten spots to 41. Obviously, we would have loved to have the 31st pick, but to be able to get that financial flexibility that we wanted for the future, it made it worth it to slide back 10 spots in the second round.”

Schlenk added that not nearly enough time has passed to evaluate the trade’s impact on Atlanta.

“Well, we haven’t played a game yet so it’s hard to say,” said Schlenk. “We did that trade for the financial flexibility. We were able to use that flexibility this summer to acquire a first-round draft pick in next year’s draft from the Clippers in the Jamal Crawford trade. So it played out well for us.”

While the Hawks will be building the product on the court from the ground up, Schlenk appears to have made the transition to new leadership in the front office as seamless as possible. While Schlenk is the final decision maker on front office matters, he strives to build consensus. In that way, the collaborative spirit he brings from Golden State is similar to the Spurs-inspired culture that already existed in Atlanta. However, with the Hawks looking at a lengthy development project, it will be a long time before we see if the melding of championship cultures can produce results similar to those achieved by the organizations of origin.

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NBA

NBA AM: Boston Celtics 2017-18 Season Preview

The Boston Celtics will have a very different look this season. The question is will it be enough to topple the Cavaliers? We look at the Celtics in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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When a franchise returns just four players from the prior season, that’s typically a sign of a rebuild, a strategy not often embraced by teams that were just three wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, this massive roster overhaul comes after the Boston Celtics clawed their way to the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a 53-29 record, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to demoralize them in five games.

After moving down from the No. 1 overall pick (via Brooklyn) in the 2017 NBA Draft to take talented rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics then added Gordon Hayward in free agency and executed a blockbuster trade for Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics are still soundly one of the conference’s elite contenders, general manager Danny Ainge has effectively gone all-in for 2017-18 without sacrificing much of the franchise’s long-term potential.

The Celtics’ revamped roster has set their collective sights on a championship, but here’s how Basketball Insiders envision this season shaking out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Incredibly, the team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season added two star caliber players and a top-three pick in the draft during this offseason.

Talk about a productive summer.

The Boston Celtics are officially a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers Eastern Conference throne after signing Gordon Hayward, adding Jayson Tatum to the mix, and ultimately parting with the Brooklyn pick and their own point guard to bring Kyrie Irving behind enemy lines.

However, this season won’t be the season they finally usurp the King in Cleveland. But, Boston fans should be overjoyed with how the immediate and long term future of their team looks now with the likes of Irving and Hayward on board alongside a bevy of young talent and assets. The return to the glory days of Celtics basketball seems to be right around the corner.

1st place– Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

It is my opinion that adding Kyrie Irving was good for the Celtics. Also, that signing Gordon Hayward was good. Also, that drafting Jayson Tatum was good. Together, all of these good things added to the good things Boston already had on the roster, including last year’s big additions, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, makes for a good team. The coach is good, too. Everything here is good. Big things are on the horizon for the Celtics this season.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

After scores of people ridiculed Danny Ainge for failing to land either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, he absolutely got the last laugh by signing Gordon Hayward and executing a trade for Kyrie Irving. As a result of a fairly busy summer, the Celtics have a ton of new faces and have lost their defensive stalwarts in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. With Hayward and Irving joining Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though, the Celtics probably have enough firepower to win the Atlantic Division.

The reasonable expectation for this team is to give the Cavaliers a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals. My main concern with them is that they simply lack the depth that made them who they were last season. Sure, consolidation is generally a good thing when you’re adding superstars, but the Celtics probably need two more solid rotation players before I consider them to be a legitimate threat to the Cavs atop the East. That, of course, assumes that everyone remains relatively healthy.

Still, Ainge deserves an A+ for what he pulled off this summer, and the Celtics’ next reign atop the Atlantic will likely begin this season.

1st place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The summer’s most active team, the Celtics will suddenly be without three of the five guys they sent out to start Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They landed the offseason’s biggest free agency fish in Gordon Hayward, then engineered a massive blockbuster for Kyrie Irving. These moves also forced them to move on from each of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, though they also picked up Marcus Morris for Bradley. The Celtics undeniably got more talented this summer, but how will potential fit and chemistry issues clash with that improvement? It’s tough to say, though coach Brad Stevens is among the best bets in the league to work things out quickly.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and a top-three draft pick in Jayson Tatum is a big deal. However, we can’t simply forget that guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are no longer with the team. The Thomas hip injury is problematic and he was about to become very expensive, so replacing him with Irving, even at a high price, was probably the right thing to do. Bradley is also about to become very expensive, but his elite perimeter defense and shooting will be missed. Also, I think the loss of Crowder is going to hurt more than most people predict. Having said all of that, the Celtics are primed to compete now and for the foreseeable future. Boston has a nice mix of versatile veteran and young talent to mix and match and I’m confident that Brad Stevens is going to figure out how to best utilize it. I don’t know if Boston has enough to take down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I think the potential to do so is there.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Simply put, Irving is one of basketball’s best offensive players without a doubt. Whether Irving is looking to create his own shot or wants to feed off of his teammates as a spot-up assassin, the 25-year-old can do it all. Although Cleveland ultimately came up short against the Golden State Warriors, Irving managed to improved in the playoffs once again, this time tallying 25.9 points to go along with 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. With the ball, Irving is immensely talented and creative in both pick-and-roll or isolation situations, particularly so when the game hangs in the balance.

His trade demand exhibited the desire to be a franchise’s top option offensively, a role Irving hasn’t held since LeBron James re-signed with Cleveland in 2014. The future dynamic between the Celtics’ new 1-2 scoring punch hasn’t been defined, but Irving may be headed toward his most fruitful season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart

Nearly by default, Marcus Smart is the clear leader in this category. With the departure of Avery Bradley this summer, Stevens will badly need a defensive bulldog to play a large role in the backcourt. Smart’s slower offensive development has kept him from becoming a star, but there’s no denying his hawk-like instincts and ruthless intangibles. Using his hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, Smart hounds opposing players and aggressively takes advantage of their mistakes.

In 2016-17 alone, Smart totaled 14 games with three or more steals, even reaching an absurd tally of eight in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers just before the All-Star break. Today, Smart is an extremely versatile defender, often capable of guarding every position on the floor despite the difference in height. It’s been said every year since Smart was drafted in 2014 – he owns a career three-point mark of 29.1 percent – but if he develops a more consistent jumper, the sky’s the limit for the enigmatic guard.

Unless the Celtics and Smart agree on an extension before the regular season begins, he’ll be a restricted free agent next July. With a huge role on the table and plenty of money up for grabs, expect Smart to run with the opportunity and become one of the Celtics’ big-time glue guys, even if he’s not a starter.

Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward

Hayward has long been on the shortlist for the NBA’s most underrated, but that will likely change in Boston this season. Since the Utah Jazz drafted Hayward in 2010, the 6-foot-8 small forward has improved in every consecutive season and posted career-highs in points (21.9), rebounds (5.4) and field goal percentage (47.1)* during his final campaign in Utah. Despite his low usage for a star (27.6), Hayward was the key linchpin behind a Jazz team that reached the playoffs’ second round for the first time since 2009-10.

As a versatile offensive wing, Hayward has blossomed into a reliable shooter from nearly every spot on the court. Defensively, Hayward was a difficult assignment in 2016-17 and he was more than happy to launch from long range (39.8 percent) or penetrate (5.9 FTA) depending on the situation. In 2013-14, Hayward averaged 5.2 assists per game and the Celtics will tap into his efficient playmaking abilities in Stevens’ fluid offense.

* If you don’t count his rookie season percentage of 48.5, in which Hayward only attempted 4.1 shots per game

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No matter what situation, moment or deficit is at hand, nothing is impossible or too big for Irving. Even on a team that often deferred to James in the waning moments, Irving’s fourth quarter explosions were always an incredible joy to watch in Cleveland. Armed with an arsenal of ankle-breaking crossovers and an uncanny ability to finish around the rim, there’s no defender that enjoys guarding Irving as the clock ticks toward the final buzzer.

The Boston faithful fell in love with Thomas’ volume shooting late in games and his average of 9.8 fourth quarter points trailed only Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, so Irving undoubtedly has huge shoes to fill. But if Irving’s stellar track record – see Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – is any indication, the Celtics will adore their new franchise point guard all the same.

The Unheralded Player: Al Horford

Al Horford was the Celtics’ big-time free agent coup in 2016, a precursor to this summer’s onslaught of roster changes. And yet, the four-time All-Star took plenty of criticism, even as Boston battled their way to the conference’s No. 1 seed. For $26.5 million, fans argued, Horford should be contributing more than 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, Horford’s influence on both sides of the ball extends beyond the box score.

The 11-year veteran is now on the wrong side of 30, but Horford is a Swiss Army Knife of versatility for Boston. Defensively, his ability to effortlessly switch on screens and stay with driving opponents makes him an invaluable piece to Boston’s puzzle. Rebounding is still a team-wide weakness, but Horford was Boston’s best rebounding big man last season – Bradley grabbed more than anybody else and ranked No. 2 with 6.1 per game.

Like it or not, the Celtics will need Horford’s reliable numbers after shuffling Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko out the door this offseason.

Best New Addition: Marcus Morris

Yes, Irving and Hayward are Boston’s best new additions, but in the interest of sharing the spotlight, there’s another arrival that deserves attention as well. This summer saw the departure of both Crowder and Olynyk, but Marcus Morris should be an excellent replacement for the Celtics. Morris started 79 games for the Detroit Pistons last season and averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds as the team’s small forward. While he’ll be asked to fill a slightly different role with the Celtics, Morris should fit in nicely on the roster and in Stevens’ offensive and defensive systems.

Although he only converted on 33.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season, Morris has developed into a reliable 3-and-D player nonetheless. For almost two years, Morris has been hailed as one of the league’s top LeBron-stoppers as James averaged just 22 points against the Detroist Pistons in 2016-17, according to Boston.com. Another tidbit worth noting: Morris has played in 399 of 410 possible games over the last five NBA seasons, a near-perfect bill of health for the hard-nosed forward.

– Benny Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Danny Ainge

Gifted a treasure trove of high-level assets by the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, Ainge quickly changed the fortunes of a franchise headed for an inevitable rebuild. The combination of hungry youngsters and the eventual emergence of Thomas jumpstarted the Celtics’ latest revival, a streak often attributed to the general manager’s overall savviness in trades and drafts. Unpredictable in nature, Ainge has been calculated in his moves thus far, looking to contend and build for the future at the same time.

When Ainge needed cap space to sign Hayward, he made the difficult decision to move Bradley instead of Crowder or Smart. While Bradley was beloved by fans and essential to the roster’s core DNA, the forward-thinking Ainge traded the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent instead of Crowder’s team-friendly deal or Smart, who will be restricted in 2018. After selecting Jaylen Brown in 2016 and moving down for Tatum this June, Ainge was comfortable enough to move Thomas, Crowder and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder to acquire Irving.

The Celtics haven’t conquered their James-sized problem quite yet, but Ainge deserves credit for the bold direction he’s taken the franchise this summer alone.

2. Brad Stevens

Year after year, Stevens continues to build his case as one of the NBA’s brightest coaches. Stevens is lauded as a tactical mastermind and his approach to the Xs and Os helped Boston to a 108.6 offensive rating last season, the eighth-best mark in the league. Out of timeouts, the Celtics are deadly and Stevens excels at utilizing screens and deceptive movements to create easy shot opportunities. Unanimously liked in the locker room as well, Stevens is able to squeeze every ounce of talent from his roster each season.

Reuniting with Hayward is not only a fantastic storyline for the 2017-18 season, but he’s another uber-efficient talent for Stevens to weaponize as he sees fit. Truly historic results from both Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni have stolen the coaching spotlight away from Stevens during recent award seasons, but it shouldn’t be long before the well-received leader earns a trophy of his own.

3. Jaylen Brown

At this point, there’s no stopping Brown’s hype train and his expectations as a hooper have never been higher. After encouraging stints at both the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues, many have tipped Brown as the favorite to supplant Bradley as a starter. Brown is an energetic, enthusiastic defender and his athleticism should make him a highlight machine alongside Irving.

Stevens hasn’t chosen between Brown and Smart quite yet, but the sophomore will see a major boost in minutes this season either way. As Basketball Insiders wrote last month, nobody benefitted more from the Irving-Thomas deal than Brown – now it’s time to prove it.

4. Jayson Tatum

Leading up to June’s NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz was the unanimous choice for the No. 1 overall pick. When Ainge eventually traded down for Tatum, some onlookers were initially confused. With Thomas set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018 and openly searching for an expensive deal, Fultz would have been an appropriate replacement. But after the Irving trade in late August, Ainge’s master plan became much clearer: Brown and Tatum are the future of the franchise.

For what it’s worth, Tatum’s first summer league entry was an undeniable success and the rookie immediately exhibited an ability to score at the NBA level. His role will certainly be limited this season, but Tatum’s positional fluidity should earn him opportunities to contribute, albeit small ones. However, if an injury strikes, it’ll be interesting to see if Tatum can thrive in a high-intensity role.

– Benny Nadeau

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics made their big move in acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team started the summer under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, landing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Now over, Boston used their $4.3 million Room Exception on Aron Baynes. Outside of additional trades, the team can only bring on additional players on minimum contracts.

Next summer, the Celtics will be over the league’s projected cap of $102 million. They’ll need to decide on the 2018-19 options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier before November. Marcus Smart is eligible for an extension until the start of the coming season.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

With just Horford, Smart, Rozier and Brown returning from last year’s team, it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly the Celtics will excel at this upcoming season. The onus here falls on Stevens to put together a cohesive unit as quickly as possible, but many of their strongest traits could return this winter. In 2016-17, the Celtics made 12 three-pointers per game, third-most in the league and equal to the supercharged Warriors’ total.

Thomas, Crowder and Bradley accounted for 7.4 of those 12 aforementioned three-pointers last season, but the arrivals of Irving (2.5), Hayward (2.0) and Morris (1.5) should make the Celtics one of the league’s best shooting teams in 2017-18. Despite their reliance on young talent, the Celtics should continue on as a solid defensive unit – their 105.5 defensive rating was twelfth-best in 2016-17 – even without Crowder and Bradley in tow. Hayward and Morris are underrated defenders and if the youngsters (Brown, Smart and Rozier) are able to provide quality minutes in their increased roles, they’ll frustrate opposing teams for at least another year.

– Benny Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Despite the Celtics’ intense makeover, they’re still lagging behind in the rebounding department. In 2016-17, Boston grabbed just 42 rebounds a game, the NBA’s fourth-lowest mark. It bears repeating that the 6-foot-3 Bradley was Boston’s second-best rebounder last year as well. To shore up that front, the Celtics added both Ante Žižić and Daniel Theis to the roster this summer, but the former was included in the Irving-Thomas trade. At 25 years-old, Theis is a three-time German League champion and could be a valuable pickup behind Horford.

Additionally, the Celtics signed Aron Baynes as well, a 6-foot-10 center that spent the last two seasons with Detroit and averaged 4.4 rebounds last year. Still, the two new centers are unlikely to reverse Boston’s rebounding misfortunes alone. Although Boston has taken steps to address their biggest weakness from 2016-17, they’ll likely struggle on the boards for most of the season once again.

– Benny Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Following the Irving-Thomas trade, can Boston finally topple Cleveland?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question, but we won’t have a better idea until Thomas returns from that long-term hip injury, whenever that may be. The Cavaliers coasted through the regular season in 2016-17 and ceded the No. 1 position to Boston in the process, all before annihilating them in the conference finals. Ultimately, as long as Thomas is healthy come playoff time, Cleveland remains the odds-on favorite to reach the championship for the fourth straight season.

Derrick Rose is not an equal-level replacement for Thomas, but he’ll get the job done on most nights. Crowder, on the other hand, instantly becomes Cleveland’s third-best forward behind Kevin Love and James. Even if the Celtics can’t overcome the Cavaliers this season, this won’t be the last time this burning question is asked, particularly so if James leaves in 2018.

Although Hayward, Irving and Horford will form a fearsome trio in 2017-18, the future is still incredibly bright as well. Anchored by Stevens and guided by the internal development of Smart, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics’ franchise is looking quite strong these days.

– Benny Nadeau

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