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Ranking the 70 Greatest Knicks of All-Time (Part 2)

To commemorate the Knicks’ 70th anniversary, Tommy Beer, in a two-part series, ranks the 70 greatest Knicks.

Tommy Beer

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Earlier this week, Basketball Insiders released the first installment of a two-part series ranking the 70 greatest New York Knicks of all time to commemorate the franchises’ 70th season, which you can read here.

Now, Tommy Beer ranks the remainder, from #34 all the way down to #1:

34. Johnny Green
Green spent his early 20s in the Marine Corp and was 26 when the Knicks selected him fifth overall in 1959 draft. He became a full-time starter in 1961-62 and averaged 15.9 points and 13.3 rebounds. He bumped those averages up to 18.1 and 12.1 the following year. He was named to the All-Star team both seasons. In February 1962, he set a Knicks team record by grabbing at least 20 rebounds in three consecutive games. Walt Bellamy, Willis Reed and Tyson Chandler are the only other Knicks to have matched that streak.

33. Ray Williams
The Knicks selected Williams with the 10th overall selection in 1977. He struggled as a rookie, but then averaged at least 17 points and five dimes per game for each of his next three seasons. His best season with the Knicks was his third, when he averaged 20.9 ppg, 6.2 apg and 5.0 rpg in 1979-80.

32. Stephon Marbury
When the Knicks traded for Marbury in 2004, it seemed like a dream scenario for both the point guard from Brooklyn and his hometown team. Unfortunately, there were up and downs in the marriage, before it ended in an ugly divorce. Marbury posted solid numbers during his time in New York, with a cumulative average of 18.5 points and 7.1 assists. The Knicks also qualified for the postseason in 2003-04 (the only time they did so from 2002 through 2012), although they were quickly swept by the Nets. However, all the drama and bad basketball played during Marbury’s time in New York make it difficult to look back with much fondness.

31. Amar’e Stoudemire
“The Knicks are Back!” That’s what Amar’e boldly proclaimed for all the world to hear on the day he signed with New York. And for a few months, it looked like he was prophetic. Stoudemire started off his Knicks career with a bang, averaging 29.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in December of 2011. He set a franchise record by scoring at least 30 points in nine straight games that month. MVP chants rang out inside the Garden. He was named a starter in the All-Star game, the first Knick since Ewing to achieve that honor. Then, in February, the Knicks made the trade with Denver to bring Carmelo Anthony aboard. Predictably, STAT and Melo never meshed on the court. And, also predictably, Stoudemire’s knee began to betray him. He appeared in just 47 games in 2011-12 and then played just 29 games off the bench in 2012-13.

30. Tyson Chandler
Chandler had trouble staying healthy during his three seasons in New York, but he dominated the paint when he did suit up. He was phenomenal during his first season as a Knick in 2011-12. Chandler was incredibly efficient on the offensive end of the floor, shooting a league-leading 67.9 percent from the floor. At the time, Wilt Chamberlain was the only player in league history who had posted a higher FG percentage. Tyson remains the Knicks all-time leader in field goal percentage (63.8). No other qualified player is above 56 percent. However, Chandler was far more valuable on the defensive end. He spearheaded a revived Knicks defense and ended up winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011-12. He is the only Knick ever named DPOY. In June of 2014, in his first major move as Knicks GM, Phil Jackson traded Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Mavs in exchange for a package centered around Jose Calderon.

29. Marcus Camby
The highpoint of Camby’s Knicks tenure was the improbable run to the NBA Finals in 1999. When Patrick Ewing went down with an Achilles injury in the Eastern Conference Finals, Camby stepped in and stepped up. He averaged 14.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, three blocks and 2.2 steals over the course of that six-game series. Larry Bird called Camby the MVP of the ECF. The Camby Man also posted a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 4.1 in 2000-01, the highest single-season mark in Knicks history. Camby was traded to the Nuggets in exchange for Antonio McDyess on Draft Day in 2002.

28. Nathaniel Clifton
Sweetwater was not merely a significant contributor on the court for the Knicks; he also made a tremendous impact off the floor as well. Drafted by New York in 1950, Clifton became the first African-American player to sign a contract with an NBA team. He was 27 years old at the time, having played for the New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters in his early 20s. He also played for the Chicago American Giants in Negro League baseball. The Knicks advanced to the NBA Finals in each of his first three seasons in New York. He averaged 10.3 points and 8.5 boards over his seven-year Knicks career.

27. Kurt Thomas
Kurt’s claim to fame, other than the “Krazy Eyes” look he gave to officials after a questionable call, was leading the nation in both scoring (28.9 ppg) and rebounding (14.6 rpg) during his senior year at TCU. For five straight seasons with the Knicks – from 2000-01 to 2004-05 – Thomas averaged over 10 points per game. He averaged a career-best 14 points – along with 7.9 rebounds – in 2002-03. During the 2004-05 season, he averaged a double-double (11.5 points and 10.4 rebounds). He ranks third all-time in franchise history in defensive rebounds and fourth in blocks.

26. Walt Bellamy
Bellamy’s career numbers are undeniably impressive. He is one of just nine players in NBA history to tally more than 20,000 points and more than 14,000 rebounds in his career. The others are Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. In four seasons with the Knicks, Bellamy averaged a double-double with 18.9 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. He also holds a unique NBA record: Most regular-season games played in one season (88), thanks to the midseason trade that brought Dave DeBusschere to the Knicks.

25. Larry Johnson
By the time LJ arrived in New York (via a swap for Anthony Mason in July of 1996), he was no longer the high-flying dunk machine that starred at UNLV and won the Rookie of the Year in Charlotte. A back injury robbed Johnson of his athleticism and forced him to reinvent himself. LJ did just that, developing a stellar low-post game and a reliable jumper. He never averaged more than 15.5 points or six rebounds per game during his Knicks career, but he was a steady, reliable force on both ends of the floor. And, of course, his four-point play against the Pacers in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals will never be forgotten by any Knick fan that witnessed it.

24. Willie Naulls
Naulls put up incredible numbers during his Knicks tenure. During three seasons in the heart of his prime, 1959 through 1962, Naulls averaged 23.3 points and 13 rebounds per game. For his Knicks career, he averaged 19.3 points and 11.1 boards. He was named to the All-Star team four times. His scoring average of 19.3 is the fifth highest in Knicks history. While with the Knicks, Naulls was also the first African-American player to be named the captain of a major professional sports team.

23. Jerry Lucas
Lucas was a terrific player in his prime. He won Rookie of the Year in 1964 and was named MVP of the All-Star Game the following year. Lucas made the All-Star Team in six straight seasons, from 1964 through 1969, and then again in 1971. By the time he arrived in New York, he was at the tail end of his career. He played only three seasons for the Knicks, his final three seasons in the NBA. He averaged 16.7 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists during that first season (1971-72) with the Knicks. To this day, he remains the only player in franchise history to average double-digit points and double-digit rebounds while also averaging more than four assists per game over the course of a full season. In addition, over 16 playoff games that year, Lucas averaged 18.6 points, 10.8 boards and 5.3 assists, playing 46.1 minutes per contest. The following season Lucas played far fewer minutes and had less of an impact, but he was still a valued contributor on the 1973 title team. When he won that ring with the Knicks, he became the first man to win a championship in high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA.

22. Bob McAdoo
McAdoo only played a total of 171 games as a Knick over parts of three seasons; however, he packed plenty of points and rebounds into that short period of time. In 1976-77, he averaged 26.7 points and 12.7 rebounds. The following year he averaged 26.5 points and 12.8 boards per contest. Those are the only two times any Knick has averaged at least 26 points and 12 rebounds in the same season. In addition, McAdoo has the highest career scoring average as a Knick in franchise history (26.7 ppg), barely edging out Bernard King (26.5 ppg). McAdoo is also the team’s all-time leader in minutes per game (39.8).

21. Anthony Mason
Much like Oakley, the late, great Mase was the personification of the rugged 90s Knicks. He was a kid from Queens who attended tiny Tennessee Valley State. Mason bounced around the NBA and the minor leagues for a bit before latching on the with the Knicks in 1991. For the next five years, he captured the heart of the city by putting everything he had on the line every time stepped on the floor. He was a vital contributor on teams that went deep into the postseason every year. Belying his burly appearance and aggressive attitude, Mase had a soft touch around the basket and an incredibly high basketball IQ. In many respects, he was the predecessor to the modern-day “point forward.” He was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1994-95 and led the NBA in minutes played in 1995-96.

20. Bill Cartwright
Remembered mostly as the starting center on the hated Bulls team’s of the early 1990s, Cartwright’s career got off to a great start in New York. He averaged 21.7 points and 8.9 rebounds as a rookie in 1979-80. In the process, he became the only Knick in franchise history to average over 20 points per contest as a rookie. Cartwright also cracked the 20-point plateau his second season. A debilitating foot injury cost him the better part of two seasons in the mid-80s and he was eventually traded to Chicago for Charles Oakley in June of 1988. Cartwright ranks second in blocks on the team’s all-time list and was in top-10 in scoring until Melo knocked him out earlier this year.

19. Latrell Sprewell
The Knicks were able to get the incredibly talented Sprewell at a steep discount (Terry Cummings, Chris Mills and an aging John Starks) in January of 1999 due to his infamous confrontation with Golden State coach P. J. Carlesimo. He played 37 games for the Knicks that first season in New York, coming off the bench in 33 of them. However, he played superbly in the postseason, sparking the eighth-seeded Knicks all the way to the NBA Finals. The Spurs knocked out the Knicks in five games, but Sprewell averaged 26 points per contest. He had 35 points and 10 boards in Game 5, the last time in which New York participated in a Finals game. He averaged 17.9 points over his five seasons a Knickerbocker.

18. Mark Jackson
Action Jackson was born in Brooklyn and played collegiately in Queens at St. John’s University. Thus, Knicks fans knew what they were getting and were ecstatic when New York snagged him with the 18th pick in the 1987 draft. His chemistry with Ewing was immediate. Jackson was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1987-88. His assist per game average (8.0) is the highest in franchise history. He also ranks sixth in steals.

17. Micheal Ray Richardson
In terms of pure talent, athleticism and basketball ability, very few rate higher than Richardson. The Knicks selected Sugar Ray fourth overall in the 1978 NBA draft (two spots ahead of Larry Bird), and Richardson lived up to the hype early on. In 1979-80, Richardson led the NBA in assists (10.1) and steals (3.2) while scoring 15.3 points per game. He would earn All-Defensive First Team honors in two of his first three years in the league. Richardson recorded 18 triple-doubles as a Knick, the second most in franchise history. He still ranks second All-Time in NBA history in steals per game (2.63 spg). Sadly, in 1986, Richardson was banned for life by NBA commissioner David Stern for violations of the league’s drug policy.

16. Dick Barnett
Barnett arrived in New York in October of 1965, via a trade that sent forward Bob Boozer to the Lakers. Barnett averaged 23.1 points per game that first season as a Knick, which was his career-high, and was named to the All-Star team that year. He averaged at least 12 points per game in each of his first 12 seasons. Although he was 33 years old by 1970, Barnett was a key contributor on New York’s first title team. Starting in the backcourt beside Frazier, Barnett averaged 14.9 points per game in the regular season and bumped that up 16.9 points in the playoffs. He scored 21 points in Game 7 vs. the Lakers. Barnett remained the Knicks starting shooting guard until they acquired Earl Monroe.

15. Carl Braun
Braun began his Knicks career in 1947 and didn’t play his final game in orange and blue until 1961. He appeared in 740 games for the Knicks, which is fourth all-time in franchise history. Only Ewing, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley stand ahead of him. He scored 10,449 points as a Knick, which ranks fifth all-time, behind only the big three (Ewing, Frazier, Reed) and Allan Houston. Braun led the team in scoring during his first seven seasons and was a five-time All-Star. It is also important to note that he missed two years of his prime (1950 through 1952) to serve in the United States Army.

14. Dick McGuire
McGuire is in the conversation for greatest Knicks point guard not named Walt Frazier. McGuire played eight seasons in New York and was named to the All-Star game five times. In 1949-50, he dished out a then-NBA record 386 assists, which stood as team’s highest total by a rookie for nearly four decades, until Mark Jackson came along. He led New York to three straight NBA Finals (1951-52-53). His Knicks No. 15 was formally retired on Mar. 14, 1992.

13. John Starks
Starks is still a cult hero in NYC, the result of playing with an unmatched fire and passion that Knicks fans loved. The undrafted kid out of Tulsa, Oklahoma who was bagging groceries a few months before securing an NBA contract, also developed himself into a superb NBA player. During his outstanding eight-year career with the Knicks, Starks was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 1992-1993, became an NBA All-Star in 1994, and was awarded the League’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1996-1997. He averaged 14.1 points per game and remains 11th in total points (8,489), eighth in assists (2,394), seventh in steals (711) and first in made three-pointers (982) in Knicks history. Starks is also fourth all-time in postseason points. Oh, and this one time he dunked on Horace Grant (and MJ) and every teenage Knicks fan in the 1990s had a poster of “The Dunk” on their wall.

12. Carmelo Anthony
Ranking Melo is difficult, as he is a better player than some of the names listed above him; however, he has played a majority of his career in Denver (564 career games as a Nugget vs. 404 games as a Knick). Also, he enjoyed his greatest team success and playoff performances as a Nugget. Denver qualified for the postseason in each of his seven seasons, whereas the Knicks have failed to qualify for the playoffs for four straight years. Nonetheless, Anthony has authored some remarkable performances in his relatively short time in a Knicks uniform. He poured in a franchise record 62 points back on January 24th, 2014 in a win over the Bobcats at MSG. In addition, he led the 2012-13 Knicks to 54-regular season wins and helped New York advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first (and only) time this century. In the years since, he’s been the lone bright spot on some bad teams, giving fans a reason to pay attention to a poor product.

11. Charles Oakley
His numbers don’t jump out at you, and his stats won’t compare to many others on this list, but Oakley is one of those players whose true value was never measured by statistics alone. Oak was truly beloved by Knicks fans in the 1990’s due to his blue-collar work ethic and tenacious effort on a nightly basis. Hard-nosed defense and rebounding were Oakley’s calling cards. He ranks 10th all-time in NBA history in offensive rebounds, one spot behind Hakeem Olajuwon and one spot ahead of Tim Duncan. In 1994, he became an NBA All-Star and was named to the league’s All-Defensive First Team.

10. Earl Monroe
Monroe enjoyed his greatest individual success as a member of the Baltimore Bullets. He averaged 23.7 ppg for Baltimore over the first four years if his career. Then, on Nov. 10, 1971, the Knicks traded Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth and cash to obtain Monroe. Pearl adjusted his game to fit in alongside Clyde once he arrived in NYC. Monroe averaged just 20.6 minutes per game that first season in New York (due partly to nagging knee injuries) and scored only 11.4 ppg. He averaged 15.5 points for the Knicks second championship team in 1972-73. He later averaged over 20 ppg in 1974-75 and 1975-76.

9. Allan Houston
Houston will forever have a special place in the hearts of Knicks fans because he drove a stake through the heart of Pat Riley on May 16, 1999. With time winding down in the deciding Game 5 of the Knicks-Heat first-round playoff series, Houston curled off a screen, caught the pass and took a couple of dribbles before releasing a running one-hander from 16-feet. The ball danced on the front of the rim and bounced off the backboard before falling through the net with 0.8 seconds left on the clock. New York became just the second eight seed in NBA history to knock off a number one. That Knicks team would eventually advance all the way to the Finals, which is the last time the ‘Bockers have scaled those heights. Houston went to back-to-back All-Star games in 2000 and 2001 and is among Knicks’ all-time greats in several offensive categories. Houston is fourth on the all-time Knicks career scoring list, trailing only Ewing, Frazier and Reed. He is also second in three-point field goals and third in free throw percentage (.872).

8. Bill Bradley
Bradley is one of the most unique players in basketball history, let alone Knicks annals. He is a NBA Hall-of-Famer, an All-Star, and All-American; he was also a Senator and a Rhodes Scholar. Bradley was the prototypical “glue guy” on the Knicks title teams in the early 70s. He had his best season in 1972-1973, when he played in all 82 games and averaged career-highs in points (16.1) and assists (4.5), while also chipping in 3.7 rebounds. He ranks 10th in points, sixth in assists and third in games played on the Knicks all-time list.

7. Harry Gallatin
Harry “The Horse” was one of the NBA’s best rebounders during the 1950s. Although he was undersized at just 6-foot-6, he averaged double-digit rebounds each season from 1950 through 1958. Gallatin led the NBA in boards in 1953-54, pulling down 15.3 rebounds per game. He grabbed 33 rebounds in one game in 1953, a Knicks record that still stands. Gallatin was also incredibly durable. He played in 610 consecutive regular-season games and 57 postseason contests. He was named an All-Star in seven consecutive seasons, from 1950-51 through 1956-57.

6. Bernard King
King was a genuine shooting star, and if it weren’t for debilitating injuries, who knows how high he’d rank on this list. When healthy in his prime, King was arguably the most talented player in franchise history. His career scoring average (26.5) is the second highest amongst all Knicks. On January 31st and February 1st in 1984, King posted back-to-back 50-point outings against the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks. He was unstoppable in the playoffs that season as well, willing New York to a first-round series victory over the Pistons. King averaged a mind-boggling 42.6 points per game in that series while shooting 60.4 percent from the floor. The following season (1984-85), he led the NBA in scoring with an average of 32.9 ppg.

5. Richie Guerin
The team was often not very good during Guerin’s tenure with the Knicks, making the playoffs just once, but Guerin was great. He is one of only two Knicks in franchise history to average over 29 points per game for a full season, averaging 29.5 points in 1961-62. But Guerin wasn’t just a scorer. In that aforementioned 1961-62 campaign, he also averaged 6.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists. Per BasketballReference.com, Guerin is one of only four players in NBA history to average at least 29.5 points, 6.5 assists and six rebounds over the course of a full season. The other three players in that elite club are Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. During his prime, from 1957-58 through 1961-62, Guerin averaged 7.2 rebounds and six assists per game. His individual game career-highs of 57 points and 21 assists stood as franchise records for more than 50 years.

4. Dave DeBusschere
On December 19, 1968, the New York Knicks traded center Walt Bellamy and guard Howard Komives to the Pistons for Dave DeBusschere. It’s the single greatest trade the Knicks ever engineered. A gritty, underrated star on New York’s two title teams, DeBusschere was the final piece of the championship puzzle. His resume is incredibly impressive. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in each of the award’s first six years of existence. (Remarkably, at least two Knicks were named to the NBA’s All-Defense First Team each season from 1968-69 thru 1973-74.) DeBusschere made eight All-Star games, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

3. Willis Reed
Reed’s incredible career was somewhat limited due to injuries. He played only ten NBA seasons (all with the Knicks) and played more than 69 games only seven times. Nonetheless, he was incredibly dominant in his prime. He is also the author of some of the greatest moments in franchise history; none more memorable than him limping out of the tunnel in the old MSG at approximately 7:34 pm on May 8th, 1970, fifteen minutes before the start of Game 7. Reed wasn’t as flashy as Clyde, but he was the heart-and-soul of those championships teams. “The Captain” was selected Finals MVP both years the Knicks captured the crown. He was also the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1964-65 and Most Valuable Player in 1969-70.

2. Walt “Clyde” Frazier
Willis Reed scored the first four points in the Knicks epic Game 7 victory over the Lakers in the 1970 NBA Finals, but Frazier did just about everything else that night. He poured in 36 points, dished out 19 assists, grabbed seven rebounds and recorded five steals. Read that last sentence again. Walt Frazier did all that in the single most important game in New York basketball history. Clyde is a living legend in the truest sense of the word. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in assists. He was named to the NBA All-Defense First Team seven consecutive times. Not only did he average over 20 points per game six times in his career, but he was also an excellent rebounder for a guard, averaging at least six rebounds per game in six straight seasons. Over a six-year stretch, from 1970 through 1976, Clyde averaged 21.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists per contest.

1. Patrick Ewing
First, let’s start with the stats. Ewing is the all-time franchise leader in points (having scored 9,048 more career points than Frazier, who sits in second), rebounds (Patrick grabbed 2,345 more career boards than Willis Reed), blocks and steals. And, yeah, Patrick never won a ring, but he put the Knicks on his back and carried them deep into the postseason with a subpar supporting cast year after year after year. He never quite reached the mountaintop, but is it fair to place the blame squarely on his shoulders? There are only three genuine contenders for the title of “The Greatest Knick of All Time.” Ewing, Frazier and Reed. The reason Patrick gets the top spot here is because he did the most with the least. Consider this: There were six (yes, SIX) Hall-of-Famers on Willis and Clyde’s legendary championship teams. In 1969-70, three of the Knicks five starters (Reed, Frazier and DeBusschere) each made the NBA All-Defensive First-Team. The 1972-73 Knicks had five players that were eventually named among the NBA’s “50 Greatest Players.” In contrast, Ewing never played alongside a teammate that made more than one All-Star team! Think about that for a second. Patrick Ewing is quite possibly the most underappreciated superstar in the history of New York sports, and the greatest Knick that ever lived.

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

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NBA

The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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NBA

The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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NBA

The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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