Basketball Insiders continues its series of ranking the top 10 players at each position. So far this week, we’ve looked at the top 10 point guards and top 10 shooting guards. Without further delay, here are our top 10 small forwards entering the 2016-17 season:
1. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
You may love LeBron James or you may hate him, but there’s no debate: he is currently the top small forward in the NBA. Nearing the age of 32, James has a ton of miles on his body. With some nagging injuries over the years, some suggested that he has lost a step, isn’t the same player he once was or can’t dominate the way he used to. Well, James sent a big statement to his doubters in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, when he averaged an incredible 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game over the seven-game series. James led his team back from a 3-1 deficit and in Game 7, he logged 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to post a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He also had a key block on Andre Iguodala with less than two minutes to go and the game tied that was instrumental in the Cavaliers pulling out the win.
It’s true that James can’t put out the same level of physical dominance as consistently as he could earlier in his career. But James proved that when his team needs him to be the best and most dominant basketball player on the planet, he can still deliver. Whether he is chasing down a block on the break, locking down a perimeter scorer, guarding someone in the post, working as a top-level playmaker or zoning in as a scorer, James is still a one-man force and the best small forward, if not the best basketball player, on the planet.
2. Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
Yes, Kevin Durant now has to share the ball with three other All-Stars, which could bring down his box score averages. It doesn’t matter; he is still the second-best small forward in the NBA. Durant is probably the still the best pure scorer in the NBA and is a matchup nightmare. The question now becomes how well he fits with the Golden State Warriors.
Under head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors run a pass-happy, motion-based offense where players consistently pass up open looks for even better scoring opportunities for teammates. Durant now steps into the starting small forward position in place of Harrison Barnes, who mostly was looked to for spot-up shooting and the occasional drive to the basket. Durant is capable of much more in terms of scoring, shooting and playmaking. Durant may ultimately score less in isolation and rack up more assists with elite shooters around him. Whatever Durant’s role ends up being, he will still be the most talented small forward in the league aside from James and will make an already dominant Warriors team even better. This is especially likely if he can build off of his impressive defensive performance throughout the playoffs last season, where he looked like a light version Draymond Green.
3. Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
Over his five seasons in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard has turned himself into one of the most well-rounded and best players in the NBA. Leonard has earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, edging out defensive savant Draymond Green and the league’s elite defensive centers. Leonard’s dominant defense is instrumental for his team’s success, and he is eager to lock down the best opposing scorer each and every night. Whether it’s jumping a passing lane that leads to an open layup in transition, forcing an elite scorer into a poor shooting night or guarding bigger players in the post, Leonard is the most versatile defender in the league aside from Green.
In addition to his defense, Leonard is a handful on offense and last season turned himself into an elite shooter from three-point range. Leonard had never shot better than 37.9 percent from distance until last season, when he shot an impressive 44.3 percent from beyond the arc. The Spurs’ offense generates open looks from deep consistently, so Leonard surely benefits from getting plenty of open catch-and-shoot opportunities every night. However, Leonard has also improved his ability to score off the dribble and is now a threat to take the ball into the midrange area and do damage from there as well. The next step for Leonard is becoming a better playmaker for his teammates, which may happen now that the Spurs will need to adjust their offense with the retirement of Tim Duncan. If Leonard improves that area of his game this season, he will take another significant step forward and could start pushing Durant and James for one of the top two spots in these rankings.
4. Paul George – Indiana Pacers
NBA fans were happy to have Paul George back on the court last season after he battled back from his devastating leg injury in 2014. Then, not only were they thrilled just to see him healthy, they were amazed to see him playing the best ball of his career. Over 81 regular season games, George averaged 23.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.9 steals, while shooting 37.1 percent from distance and 41.8 percent from the field. George’s efficiency dropped in some areas, but that’s partially because he had to shoulder so much of the responsibility on offense, acting both as a primary scorer and playmaker.
George took things to another level in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, where he averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two steals, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three-point range. George couldn’t lead the Pacers to a series victory, but he proved that he is still one of the best overall players in the game. Additionally, his defensive impact continues to be one of the best of any player as he consistently locks down opposing scorers. George may not be on Leonard’s level as a defender, but he isn’t too far off either. With more talent around him for this upcoming season, George may be able to lead the Pacers to a deep playoff run in the Eastern Conference.
5. Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony has been one of the best scorers in the NBA since entering the league in the 2003. However, last season Anthony focused less on scoring and became a better playmaker, averaging a career-high 4.2 assists per game. This is a significant development for Anthony and the New York Knicks, especially now that he will be surrounded by several talented teammates like Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings. Anthony may never be a LeBron James- or Paul George-level playmaker, but it is important for him to continue expanding his game as he enters his 15th NBA season at 32 years old.
However, despite his age and the miles on his body, Anthony can still produce in a big way. Last season he averaged 21.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and almost one block per game, while shooting 33.9 percent from deep and 43.4 percent from the field. Anthony will need to bring his shooting percentages up, which seems likely to happen considering he generally shoots better after playing with Team USA (as detailed by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal) and he now has more talent around him.
It should be noted that Anthony has played significant minutes at power forward and could continue to do so. However, the league continues to move toward position-less basketball and small forwards are playing power forward in certain situations more often than ever before. Anthony may be better-suited to play at power forward at this point in his career, but he will still play significant minutes at small forward this season and he’s still one of the best all-around players at the position in the NBA.
6. Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz
Over his six seasons in the NBA, Gordon Hayward has established himself as one of the best all-around small forwards in the NBA. He may not be the defender that Leonard is, the shooter Durant is or the physical specimen Giannis Antetokounmpo is, but he does everything really well and has no glaring weaknesses in his game. Last season, Hayward averaged 19.7 points, five rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game and shot 34.9 percent from beyond the arc and 43.3 percent from the field. Like Paul George, Hayward’s shooting percentages and efficiency stand to improve, but that deficiency comes as a result of shouldering such a big responsibility for running his team’s offense. A strong ball-handler, underrated passer and skilled scorer, Hayward is arguably the Jazz’s most important player.
Hayward is primed for a big season as he has reportedly spent the offseason working hard to improve his conditioning, strength and overall game. If the Jazz have some better luck with health this season, they could surprise a lot of people and make some noise in the Western Conference. If they do, it will likely be in large part because of Hayward’s considerable nightly impact.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 21 years old, but is already one of the most talented, versatile and unique players in the league. Entering just his fourth season, we have only seen glimpses of what ‘The Greek Freak’ is fully capable of. Last season, Antetokounmpo averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while shooting 25.7 percent from three-point range and 50.6 percent from the field. Antetokounmpo clearly needs to significantly improve his shooting to take another step in his development, but don’t let that shortcoming overshadow the other impressive parts of his game.
As I detailed in this article, Antetokounmpo has already become a very good playmaker from the small forward position. Antetokounmpo was particularly good after the All-Star break and registered several triple doubles throughout the season. Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd reportedly plans on using Antetokounmpo as a primary playmaker even more this season, so we should see him continue to run his team’s offense from the small forward position. If Antetokounmpo can continue improving as a playmaker, shooter and all-around team defender, he could become of the best overall players in the league sooner rather than later.
8. Nicolas Batum – Charlotte Hornets
There’s a reason why the Charlotte Hornets agreed to give Batum a five-year, $120 million contract this offseason. Like Gordon Hayward, Batum isn’t particularly elite in any single facet of the game, but he is a strong all-around contributor who can impact both ends of the court. Last season, Batum averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and nearly one steal per game, while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three-point range. Batum became only the fourth player in the franchise’s history to notch over 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a single season (Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn did so in 2000-01 and Anthony Mason did so in 1996-97).
Batum may be somewhat overrated as a perimeter defender at this point, but he is still a very good defender. His length and defensive instincts make him a tough matchup for most wing scorers in the NBA and provides Charlotte with a go-to defender for the toughest opponents. Now Batum can share that duty with all-world defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed the vast majority of last season with shoulder injuries. Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum should make a dynamic defensive duo for the Hornets, though Batum will have a bigger load to carry on offense since Kidd-Gilchrist is still working on his shaky shooting mechanics.
9. Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins is oozing with natural talent, but needs to make the move from volume scorer to all-around contributor. Wiggins averaged 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal last season, while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. Wiggins’ averages are solid for a 21-year-old, second-year player and they are likely to improve moving forward. Specifically, Wiggins needs to hone in on his shooting percentage from three-point range.
With Karl-Anthony Towns likely to draw double-teams consistently, Wiggins will need to knock down catch-and-shoot three-pointers consistently. He also will need to continue improving his game off the dribble. While Wiggins has the athletic ability to execute impressive plays going to the basket, too often he plays out of control and throws up difficult shots. Despite these criticisms, Wiggins has shown an evolving game over his short NBA career, including the ability to score in isolation, in the post, in transition and in cutting to the basket. He also was elite at drawing fouls last season, as he averaged seven free throw attempts per game.
Wiggins also has all the physical tools to be an elite wing-defender. However, Wiggins too often loses focus on defense, misses rotations or looks to make a home run play rather than focusing on smaller things like proper footwork or properly funneling his opponent into a weak side defender. That should change this upcoming season with Tom Thibodeau taking over as the team’s head coach. Thibodeau demands top-level effort and execution from his players, so Wiggins should make strides on the defensive end moving forward.
Once Wiggins adds some more experience and polish to his game and couples that with his elite athleticism, he should become one of the toughest matchups in the NBA.
10. Jae Crowder – Boston Celtics
Jae Crowder makes his way into this top 10 list after putting together a strong 2015-16 season for the Boston Celtics. Crowder averaged a career-best 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds. 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals last season and was instrumental in the Celtics earning a 48-34 regular season record. Crowder only shot 33.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but defenses respected him enough to close in on him when he had an open look on the perimeter.
Where Crowder makes his biggest impact is on defense. Crowder is able to hold his own against the best scorers in the league and isn’t afraid to mix it up with opposing big men either. He is the quintessential Celtic as he does everything he can to help his team win, even if that means playing out of position or playing within a limited role. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has created a culture of discipline and effort in Boston and no one embodies those things quite like Crowder. Crowder may never overtake some of the more naturally talented players on this list, but he certainly deserves recognition for the significant impact he’s had for the Celtics over the last two seasons. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s locked into a bargain five-year, $35 million contract.
NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018
Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.
With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.
Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.
Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.
The Playoff Contenders
Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.
Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.
The Pistons have announced an update on Reggie Jackson's status. He's been cleared to begin light running, shooting and continued ankle strengthening exercises, and his progress will be monitored this week. No timetable for a return to practice.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 21, 2018
Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.
In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.
Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.
Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.
New York Knicks, 24-36
The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.
Chicago Bulls, 20-38
The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.
Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38
While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.
Orlando Magic, 18-40
The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.
Sacramento Kings, 18-40
The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.
Dallas Mavericks, 18-40
No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.
Atlanta Hawks, 18-41
Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.
As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.
Phoenix Suns, 18-41
When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.
Second Half NBA Story lines
With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.
The long winter has ended.
Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.
Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.
Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.
So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.
Houston Rockets can make the Finals
When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.
After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.
But things may be different this year.
The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.
At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.
For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.
Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.
Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.
These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.
LeBron’s new teammates
The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.
Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.
So far, so good.
The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.
But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.
Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.
As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.
Tight Playoff Races
For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.
In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.
Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.
That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.
The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.
Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.
At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.
With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.
In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.
NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
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*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.