After his first regular season at the NBA level, Basketball Insiders sat down with Cleveland Cavaliers guard John Holland to discuss the experience, his road to the league and more.
Basketball Insiders: The regular season is over. The playoffs are here. How do you feel about the guys’ chances?
Holland: I feel good. I think we’re in as good of a position as any team to win.
BI: There was a brief time in Boston a few years back in the playoffs, but for you, this was your first taste of the NBA life. The experience overall, how would you describe it?
Holland: It’s been great. It’s been such a crazy year. You basically see two different teams almost. That first half of the year where you got everybody—this whole big super team coming together—and now you have the second half of the year where it’s a whole different type of team. So it’s been a crazy year, fun ride.
BI: Nonetheless, being teammates with the best player in the world in LeBron James had to be an amazing way to come into your rookie year, right?
Holland: I mean, yeah…(pauses) He’s—when it’s all said and done—probably gonna be the best player to ever play the game, so to be able to say you were teammates on the same court, same floor is something I’mma look back at probably. It’s gonna be an experience.
BI: Do his accomplishments leave you in awe? You’re seeing this night-in and night-out from this guy.
Holland: It’s pretty amazing. He finds a way to amaze you every single time you see him play. Especially with the things he’s accomplished this year. I don’t know what it’s been like. I haven’t seen him day in and day out in years past. This year, it’s been really amazing.
BI: Have you studied how he goes about things on a daily basis?
Holland: You can learn so much by just being around him. It’s crazy how much you can learn just from being around him and this whole basketball culture right here. It’s amazing. I’ve learned so much just from watching.
BI: What about the Cleveland Cavaliers organization’s culture stood out to you?
Holland: Just how they do things. Just about the professionalism, the approach and how they handle things. Because you know it’s no easy task to have the media scrutinizing literally every single game every single day. From the smallest thing to the biggest thing, it’s under scrutiny. It’s a lot.
It’s a lot of pressure on the guys. It’s a lot of pressure on the coaches. It’s a lot of pressure on everybody around. So just to be able to see how they deal with that is impressive.
BI: Is there anybody in the locker room you got particularly close to this year?
Holland: All the guys are cool. Cedi [Osman]. Obviously the guys that were down in Canton a lot. Ante [Zizic]. Before they left—obviously I spent some time in Boston—so Jae [Crowder] and [Isaiah Thomas]. I knew them a little bit. And just now, everybody’s close. It’s not like one particular person. It’s the team.
BI: The NBA introduced the two-way contract before the season. Was it beneficial to you in your eyes?
Holland: I think so. I mean…if you could stop me at the beginning of the year and say, ‘You’re gonna play this many games. You’re gonna have an opportunity to be up [in Cleveland] and experience this,’ I’d do it again.
BI: You’ve spent three years in the G-League. Before that, four years overseas. That’s a long time to get to the pros. Is that something you take pride in?
Holland: Yeah! It’s something that I made the conscious decision to come back from overseas and try and pursue it. I’m not all the way there (laughs), but I’m making progress. It’s better than nothing. The first year I was in the G-League, I was able to get called up to Boston. Second year, didn’t nothing happen. I went back one more year for this two-way and I think it worked out.
BI: The world saw the opportunity that Andre Ingram got and the success he had in his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers. Do you know him? Have you played against him before?
Holland: I believe I may have played against him…like maybe once. I didn’t really know him, but seeing the story…It’s just such a great story because it’s about perseverance. Like, who knows? I don’t know if I could’ve done it for 10 years. G-League is…three years felt like 10 (laughs), you know?
For 10 years, to deal with it day-in and day-out and be able to persevere through that and then finally get your opportunity? It’s a great story. And then to do what he did with that opportunity in that game—I was rooting for him, I know. It’s hard not to root for somebody like that that’s been through so much.
BI: That’s my next question as it relates to you—do you ever stop and think about how you gutted it out for those three years down there and the time before that?
Holland: Listen, everybody—the thing about it is, everybody has a journey they go through. To get to this level, you gotta persevere through something. There’s nobody out here on this court, whether it be from LeBron to anybody to me, they’ve gone through challenges to even be where they are.
It’s a great story. It’s a story that a lot of people have. They have to persevere through things to get what they want and that’s just…it’s life, really. But it’s good—to be able to see it on this level, it’s clearer when you see somebody that’s been [in the G-League] for 10 years and then they have this opportunity and they take advantage of that opportunity. It’s so clear how much [Ingram’s] had to overcome.
Maybe it’s not as clear as how much LeBron had to overcome or how much another player has to overcome. You don’t really see it because you think, ‘Oh they’re here. They’ve been here.’
BI: That’s true. So let me ask this: Through your journey personally, how many guys have you seen come and go because it was too much or too tough to get to the next level?
Holland: I think the G-League is one of the hardest routes to take to get to the [NBA]. There’s a lot of opportunity, but there’s a lot of people that want that opportunity.
BI: There’s what, 26, 27 teams next year. You’ve got to think at least 12 players on each roster…
Holland: Exactly. It’s really a dog eat dog world down there. And thing about it is, in college you have four years. You’re competing with everybody in the G-League. It’s about winning and it’s about being able to show what you can do to help a team win or help a team in any type of way. So it’s tough, it’s tough. You see guys that don’t make it.
But also, honestly in my time in the G-League, Quinn Cook was my roommate for two years. We had that guys that I saw that went through that and that put in the dues and they made it. Eric Moreland was my teammate last year. He’s up in Detroit. So like, you see these stories where people make it, but then you don’t see some stories. There’s teammates all around that don’t make it, that don’t have that same story—but they’re still playing. They’re still doing something.
BI: Which in that case, in the end, it’s worth it, right? You got the opportunity this year.
I know it’s not under the greatest circumstances because it’s the very last game of the year and a lot of guys are resting, but you went out there and had yourself a career-high. That had to feel good at least.
Holland: It always feels good to get that type of opportunity and to try and do at least something. I wish we could’ve won, but the only thing could do is the best I could do you know what I’m saying? That’s my only mindset, to go out there and not be timid, not be shy, just play my game and do the best that I could do. That’s the only thing that I could bring to the table. And the position I’m in, that’s all I try and do.
BI: On the six-game road trip on the west coast, you guys were battered by injuries and that led to some huge experience for you.
You got an opportunity to play big minutes in Portland, for example. I remember you had to match up with C.J. McCollum for a good chunk of time.
Holland: Listen, it’s all part of the experience. Everything I learned here, in the G-League, all my years overseas—it all’s gonna add up to getting better and better and experience, and when it’s all said and done, a career. It was fun. Actually getting to play and feel like…getting those meaningful minutes, somewhat meaningful minutes (laughs). It’s a good feeling because this is the level I wanted. This is what I wanted, so it’s just that opportunity alone is worth it.
BI: With the year as a whole—playing with Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kevin Love, IT—guys that have left their mark, is that wild to you? That you’ve gotten to that point where you were teammates with these guys and you shared the floor with them?
Holland: Can I be honest? It’s not wild. ‘Cause I’ve always believed that I could play at this level, to be honest. It’s surreal in the fact that that I used to look at Dwyane Wade and LeBron and look at their highlights and be like, ‘Wow. These guys are amazing.’ I used to watch them before games, watch their highlights and wanna be like that. But as far as me, I always believed in my ability to be able to play at that level. Even if nobody else did, I think that’s something that, me personally, I believe. So when I’m doing it, I try not to be like, ‘It’s crazy’ because…
BI: Because you belong.
BI: That’s awesome. Alright, last one. What are your goals moving forward in the summer, after this playoff run of course and watching the guys?
Holland: My goal is just to get better as a player. Come back next year better than I was this year, learn, grow and watching this whole run just to try and absorb it. Try and learn and see what it’s like as they make this run. Just try and help any way that I can.
BI: What does getting better entail for you as far as on the court?
Holland: Well I wanna get better at…probably ball-handling, shooting, decision-making, defending, rotations. That’s stuff that you could get better at every year, I think. It’s always something that you can work on. And also just like working on my body, trying to come back better physically than I was this year.
It’s a process. Anything you try and get better at every single year, and when you can’t, that’s when it’s over. Always gotta try and keep developing. I don’t believe that there’s anytime where you could stop developing, any age. If you’re still playing, you could still get better at something. There’s still something you can get better at. Your game’s gonna change, but you still can develop and get better, and that’s the fun of it, for me at least.
NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers
The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.
The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.
For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.
The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.
“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.
General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.
“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”
Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.
“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.
When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.
“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”
Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.
“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.
Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.
“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”
Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.
“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”
Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.
“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”
Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting
Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.
“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”
With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.
“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.
Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.
“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.
For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.
“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”
Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.
“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.
Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.
“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.
Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.
“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.
When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.
“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.
“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”
The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’
Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?
In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.
Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.
While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.
The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.
After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.
The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.
And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.
But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.
This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.
Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.
However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.
Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?
Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.
There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.
It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.
And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.
Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.
NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?
Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?
The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.
In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.
Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.
He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.
In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.
That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?
Here are three possibilities:
Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.
Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.
He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.
Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.
Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.
He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.
This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.
He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.
In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.
With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.
In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.