When you have a little spare time one day, go take a look at Rudy Gobert’s Twitter account.
It’s mostly innocuous, but a close enough look reveals a unique personality. A few weeks ago, Gobert turned the Jazz’s “#takenote” hashtag into his own slightly R-rated “#takefnnote” slogan, one that’s been picked up by Jazz fans everywhere. Two days later, he sent the “face with tears of joy” emoji to the NBA’s official account in response to a top defensive plays of the week video, which audaciously had left each of his roughly dozen swats on the cutting room floor.
For the best stuff, though, you’ve got to click on Rudy’s “Likes.” He mostly hits the heart button for a combination of diametrically opposed tweets: Those praising his prodigious accomplishments and, more tellingly, those slighting him in any way. Some are both simultaneously, in a way, and devoted Jazz Twitter-ites have long learned that informing Gobert of any diss he may not have been aware of could earn a heart.
The liked slights have become fewer and further between over the years, and the praise more common. Maybe Gobert himself would tell you it’s a result of a diligent Jazz PR staff looking to keep him within a generally conservative and understated fold in Utah.
Squint hard enough, though, and maybe it means something else entirely. Maybe this kid who once felt he had so much to prove has grown into a man who knows his play has done more of the talking (clicking?) than he ever could. Maybe whatever motivation Gobert finds from proving his doubters wrong just isn’t always as necessary anymore, replaced by organic success and a growing Jazz core around him. Maybe tiny changes over time on an ultimately silly social media tool are the perfect microcosm for this young career.
Gobert’s 21st birthday came the day before the 2013 Draft, but the next night in New York was a pretty lousy present.
He was a consistent lottery presence in DraftExpress mock drafts all through his 2011-12 season, and even rose to a top-five slot for over half of his pre-draft season in late 2012 before his slide began. Team workouts were the biggest issue, per scouts, including one in Oklahoma City where fellow center prospect Steven Adams was rumored to have dominated Gobert in a one-on-one setting. DraftExpress had him sliding all the way to 26 by the big day, one spot before he’d eventually be selected.
From Utah’s perspective, though, it felt like Christmas in June. The Jazz originally held the 14th and 21st picks in 2013 before trading both to move up to ninth and pick point guard Trey Burke. Gobert was squarely on their board at No. 14 while they still held the pick.
Jazz scouts saw a raw prospect, but one who had no bad habits and several good ones. Gobert seemed to genuinely enjoy beating slower big men up and down the floor, and this extended to several of the more grimy areas that every big man says they love to work in, but fewer actually do with any real enthusiasm.
They weren’t as worried about any workout concerns, mainly because they saw the ways this sort of player would be underrated by that environment. Take any version of Gobert, from draft day to present, and put him in a closed-gym, one-on-one workout with a scout who has never seen or heard of him before – here’s $5 to yours that the scout will naturally underrate his NBA success. Workouts are meaningful, but they struggle to pick up many of Gobert’s biggest strengths.
Once Utah’s trade to select Burke was finished, their eyes moved squarely to Gobert as he continued to fall down the board. There had never been much dissent in the Jazz’s draft room regarding their feelings on Gobert overall, but any doubt was removed as soon as he fell into the 20s. A hard worker with historical measurables, already capable of blocking shots and finishing dunks and without any major bad habits? It was a no-brainer for Utah, and the biggest hurdle at that point was finding the right trade partner.
Gobert chose No. 27 as his number, a constant reminder of how many teams looked past him. In retrospect, it was a pretty perfect introduction.
The NBA game has a habit of overwhelming young big men, and Gobert was no different. A preseason injury to Marvin Williams forced Rudy into immediate action, including nearly 23 minutes in his first ever NBA game. His physical ability was evident, but he struggled with the same leap in overall athletic quality that many young guys do.
“When I got in the league, the game – everything physically, in terms of speed and strength – I was surprised,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I was excited, I was motivated, but it was tough.”
A player very used to making a constant impact on the game wanted to do the same right away in the NBA. Gobert’s hyper-activity wasn’t something anyone had to teach him along the way, and it got him into trouble at times as a rookie. Guys couldn’t be moved as easily at this level with a little sheer physical domination; those extra beats of open space that led to dunks in Europe were replaced by bodies and an unforgiving whistle.
His rawness translated into offensive mistakes that were pretty glaring to even the casual eye, but this may have given a false impression. Gobert saw the game well on both ends, but he needed much more time for his processing skills (and his limbs) to catch up to his raw basketball IQ.
“I think I was going too fast,” Gobert recalls.
That 22:54 he logged in his first NBA game would be the high water mark for Gobert on the calendar year of 2013, with his minutes decreasing and even disappearing for games at a time once Williams was back in the lineup. His first big change came when he was sent to Bakersfield in the D-League in mid-December.
“I hadn’t played for, like, two months,” Gobert said (not technically true, but Gobert had indeed been seeing DNP-CD designations for about half his games from then-Jazz coach Ty Corbin over the prior month or so). “And then I started playing in the D-League, and I was feeling way stronger, I was feeling way better. I dominated in the D-League.”
He’s not exaggerating at all. His first game in Bakersfield was a 16-point, 14-rebound, six-block showing in 32 minutes. He followed that up with a 16-point, 14-rebound, four-block performance.
He capped things off with 23 points and 14 rebounds in just 30 minutes in early January, finishing his eight-game D-League stint with a PER of nearly 28 and a field-goal percentage of nearly 75 percent. Gobert also shot 70 percent from the line, the first sign that he could make teams pay from the stripe when he was comfortable. He had been well under 50 percent in the NBA to that point, albeit on a tiny sample size.
Gobert rejoined the Jazz within the first month of 2014, and minute consistency continued to be a struggle. It’s no secret within the organization that Corbin’s priorities didn’t align with a player like Gobert, and perhaps not with the team’s timeline either. With an expiring contract that pretty obviously wasn’t getting renewed, Corbin was auditioning for the next stop. Gobert is diplomatic about it in retrospect, though.
“I think I just wasn’t in his plans, which is not a bad thing, you know, I got drafted 27th,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Derrick [Favors] was playing good and Enes [Kanter], you know, so that was the plan, play those guys.”
Favors and Kanter might have made playing time tough to come by for Gobert under any coach, but the real issue with Corbin’s approach was how it clashed with Rudy’s long-term development. That rookie year is huge even for guys who aren’t seeing consistent minutes, and while no one within the organization will outright say so (burning bridges isn’t this front office’s style, even off the record), it seems fairly clear that bringing along this seven-foot Frenchman who wouldn’t be an integral NBA starter until long after Corbin was gone wasn’t high on Ty’s priority list.
Gobert found an outlet in assistant coach Alex Jensen, with whom he remains close to this day. He would come back to the team’s facility after practice in the afternoons every day and shoot with Jensen, and the two quickly developed a bond. Some in the organization directly credit Jensen for Gobert’s progress in that first year.
“Alex has been great for me since I got here,” Gobert said. “I would say he was one of the only guys that really, you know – not believed in me, I’m not saying Coach Ty [Corbin] didn’t believe in me, but [Alex] was a guy who was really wanting me to play and was working to try to get me on the court. And working with me every day… Even outside the court, he was always talking to me. That was great.”
Gobert found a few more extended stretches of minutes once he was back permanently with the Jazz, but they were mostly with Favors sidelined in January and February. He was on the keen-eyed Jazz fan’s radar, but generally as nothing more than a long-term project.
Corbin’s expected dismissal and all the resulting rebuild-related summer themes drove most of the summer narrative. The team was focused on a coaching search and Quin Snyder’s eventual hiring, two first-round picks and a roster configuration clearly aimed at handing the kids the keys.
Soon, though, Gobert started making his own noise. He started five games at Orlando Summer League, posting a 22 PER and a 10 percent block rate (a ridiculous figure he’ll never approach during normal NBA play, and few have ever accomplished).
Then suddenly, in the usual NBA September down time, Gobert burst on the national scene for the first time during the 2014 FIBA World Cup. His defensive showing against the Gasol brothers raised eyebrows as France upset Spain in the quarterfinals, eventually finishing third.
Gobert counts the experience as a big moment, and it gave him momentum heading into training camp. He had spent the rest of his non-playing summer building strength, especially in his legs, and he was ready for the longer run the team’s youth movement seemed destined to bring him as an intriguing third big. Training camp would unite him with Snyder and a whole new outlook on player development, and the ball was rolling.
There was something different right away with Snyder and Gobert. Guys don’t make the NBA without working hard, but Snyder was impressed by how Gobert’s on-court competitiveness carried into urgency in practice and even film sessions (which isn’t always a given).
“There may not be a more competitive guy, as far as how he approaches his work,” Snyder said of Gobert.
The two developed a bond immediately. Snyder is a details guy, and that’s exactly what Gobert’s game needed. This wasn’t a blank canvass of a player; Gobert’s biggest skills were already NBA-level, plus he’d already been honing the margins of his game with Jensen, who was retained on Snyder’s staff.
Hands were a bit of an early issue, an expected one for most given his size – but not expected for Gobert.
“I don’t think I ever had bad hands,” he told Basketball Insiders. “I think I was maybe a little nervous, and when you’re nervous, I was kind of surprised sometimes when I was getting the ball.”
“I never had problems catching the ball when I was younger,” he reiterated. “I just think it was physical, and the speed of the game.”
He also wasn’t exactly in the ideal environment to build his confidence catching the ball as a rookie. Those 2013-14 Jazz gave the bulk of the ball-handling duties to a rookie in Burke and several 23-or-under guys who, outside Gordon Hayward, pretty clearly weren’t ready to initiate an NBA offense yet. Their only veteran ball-handlers were John Lucas III and Jamaal Tinsley, two journeymen who combined for under 300 NBA minutes after that season (all from Lucas).
Gobert dropped his fair share of gimmes, but he was also trying to build up his confidence on a steady diet of unhealthy looks.
Gobert also lacked one big fundamental skill that may seem simple, but can flummox plenty of big men for most or all of their careers: He couldn’t keep the ball high. It’s a natural movement to bring the ball down to your chest or even lower to gather for a shot, even most dunks, but Gobert was getting into trouble as a rookie when he’d keep the ball too available for reaching hands.
Whether it was a Snyder or Jensen emphasis or something else entirely, though, that summer between his rookie and sophomore years seemed to rid a lot of those issues from his game. Gobert’s strength work also played a big role.
“The main thing was also getting stronger, getting my legs stronger, be able to not get pushed around as much,” Gobert said. “And be able to make my move and slow down.”
They were subtle differences. He was still seeing his share of low passes, but he was catching them more effectively and doing a much better job getting the ball back up where quicker hands couldn’t interfere.
Rudy’s turnover percentage dropped nearly seven full points between his rookie and sophomore seasons, and he shaved over a full cough-up from his per-100-possession averages.
Fast forward that to this season, and the progression of a hard-working big man becomes evident. It was second nature for Gobert to bring that ball all the way back down before he re-gathered as a rookie; a few thousand reps later, it would feel foreign for him.
Here’s the lowest point the ball ever reaches on that put-back layup against the Kings from earlier this year:
Compare that to where the ball was right before Gobert gathered to go back up during his rookie year:
With that big confidence boost came trickle-down to the rest of Gobert’s game, on both ends of the floor. His smoother hands meant he could be more of a factor offensively, especially in the pick-and-roll game, a realization his teammates came to quickly. Gobert received more passes by the end of November in his second season than he did for the entirety of his rookie year, per SportVU data (in barely over half the equivalent minutes), and was finishing assisted baskets at nearly double his rookie rate.
“I always wanted to build that connection with my teammates,” Gobert said. “I think [I] had a great connection with Dante [Exum] in my second year. He was finding me a lot, and giving me a lot of confidence.”
Exum, fresh into his own new role as a starter early into his rookie year, assisted on more Gobert baskets than any other Jazz player that season. The young Aussie started finding Gobert at angles where other guys previously hadn’t been considering him an option.
With his improved hands came improving footwork, a combo that made Gobert into an offensive threat simply by putting him in the right places and daring defenses to leave a single guy trying to jump higher than him for the ball. He was always an eager screener as a rookie – sometimes a bit too eager, perhaps.
As the game slowed down, though, Gobert found his literal and metaphorical footing. He learned how to properly vary his screen-and-roll game – when to slip the screen for a quick rim run, when to hold long enough for contact, when to re-position and set another pick.
The ball-handler and roll man in pick-and-roll are engaged in a constant ballet, where one affects the other’s timing and vice versa. Gobert found ways to make himself more presentable by timing his runs better, and mastered the pivot-and-turn that’s often necessary for the big man in these sets.
“Rudy puts pressure on the rim,” Snyder said. “It’s ironic, but he actually really affects your spacing. By rolling to the rim, he impacts your spacing, because people have to come in [and help]. So really I should say, impacts the effectiveness of your spacing.”
That impact has been evident in the numbers. This is now the second straight year the Jazz have been a much better three-point shooting team with Gobert on the floor than with him off, despite the fact that he hasn’t attempted a single triple himself in this time. They’re a borderline top-five three-point shooting team this year by accuracy with him, and a borderline bottom-five outfit when he sits.
Footwork was vital for Gobert on the other end of the floor as well. SportVU data tells us that once he got there to contest, he was an elite rim protector from the moment he stepped foot on an NBA court as a rookie. The 42.2 percent he’s allowing this year is the league’s stingiest mark among volume defenders, but it would actually be his highest mark allowed in four full seasons if the year ended today. Smart teams have long stopped going at him in the post, where he’s allowing 35 percent from the field over the last two seasons, per Synergy Sports. He’s at a gross 27.5 percent allowed as the primary post defender this year.
The rub for Gobert, though, was striking the right balance as a help defender. Early on in Snyder’s tenure, he’d either be too aggressive or too timid – and the two relate.
“There [were] times where he’d kinda hug his man,” Snyder said. “We’re all human. Rudy looks up, and he’s come over to help, and all of a sudden his guy’s got 10 points and six rebounds because he’s leaving him, and he’s not getting help, and he’s more reluctant to leave.”
The best coaches in the world can scream themselves hoarse around skills like these; some guys are going to pick them up, and some guys just aren’t. There’s no set checklist for when these feel elements really click. Snyder never worried much about Gobert becoming one of those physical specimens who never puts it together, though.
“He pays attention to everything,” Snyder said. “He’s very aware. It’s probably one of the reasons he’s such a good shot blocker. There’s an awareness, an alertness and an urgency to who he is as a person, and that fuels him.”
Slowly but surely, Gobert started to fine-tune his instincts. His per-minute rim contests dipped between his first and second seasons as he flushed some of his over-pursuits and focused on staying home, then dipped even further during his 2015-16 season – a reality likely influenced in large part by a midseason MCL injury.
“I don’t think I was 100 percent when I came back, but I gave it my best,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. ”I’ve never had knee problems, so I was kind of scared when I came back. Especially me, I move everywhere, I like to jump, like to push.”
Now, with another summer of strength work and work around the margins, Gobert hasn’t just found his happy medium – he’s begun to push the boundaries of how widely an interior big can impact the game, especially in today’s modern, pace-and-space world. He remains an uber-elite rim protector by percentage allowed despite being present to contest more per-game shots than anyone else over a full season in the public SportVU database. The Jazz play at a bottom-three pace, making this even more remarkable, and these numbers are barely even the half of it.
Take a late November game against the Houston Rockets. With the Jazz leading by 12 points at the half, Snyder did something very few coaches have ever done against this Rockets team: He invited Houston to play two-on-two with James Harden in the pick-and-roll.
Harden is probably the most devastating pick-and-roll player in the game with his array of floaters, foul-draws and exquisite passes, but Snyder was confident. With extremely limited team help, he stuck George Hill or Rodney Hood on Harden, Gobert on the roll man (both Clint Capela and Nene for stretches), and let the chips fall.
The Rockets attempted just nine threes during Gobert’s time on the floor during this second half, a per-minute rate over 25 percent lower than their league-leading figure. Snyder’s gambit worked in that department: Several of these were long, contested threes up against the shot clock.
Meanwhile, Harden got just enough of his to make his stat line respectable in the half – but nowhere near enough to call Snyder’s bluff. It took him 13 shots to get to 16 points, and he had just three assists to two turnovers. The discerning statistician questions whether Gobert was truly the chief cause; anyone who watched the game has no such concerns.
Know that there are maybe two or three other players in the game capable of doing what Gobert did here to block that Harden layup – and maybe none. His awareness is second nature at this point, and he knows Hill is going to slide down and give Capela a little nudge, so he stunts quickly at Harden to prevent him from taking the open midrange J.
Then he recovers, and note again: This is a full bore two-on-one to the basket, featuring MVP frontrunner James Harden and one of the better rim finishers in the league in Capela. Gobert has both options contained at the same time, and look where Utah’s three-point defenders are able to stand because of it.
Finally, it’s too late – even if Harden wanted to loft the lob to Capela, how exactly is he making that happen?
A defender is never complete at this level, but it’s a tempting designation for Gobert after a long journey. He sits near or atop every major defensive catch-all metric, and he wears the crown as the league’s best interior defender until someone takes it from him.
“His focus is so, so consistent,” Snyder says. “And when that happens – for any of us – you just become much more formidable. You don’t take plays off, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing some more maturity, and I think it will continue.”
The focus on Gobert has shifted recently.
No one takes his defense for granted, per se, but it’s less of a surprise than ever. You hear more about the other side of the ball, and these days you hear talk about which league-wide award he should be in the running for.
Both are justifiable topics. An offensive surge may seem unexpected to the naked eye, but it’s a clear product of that work on his hands, feet, timing… and most of all, confidence. It’s this last element people around the team claim was bolstered even more than the average guy by a new mammoth extension signed this offseason.
It’s not the dollar amount, really; Gobert is anything but a money-grubber. Folks in the know say Rudy’s loyalty to the franchise stretches back to that fateful day in June 2013, and that in some ways his big extension was a confirmation of that loyalty from both sides – one that freed up any little lingering pressure Gobert may have felt heading into this season.
Suddenly, he’s making on-the-run catches he couldn’t have dreamed of while standing still as a rookie… and dunking on guys whose physicality might have given him pause before this year.
Gobert is shooting his highest mark from the line in his career, pushing 65 percent on nearly six freebies a night.
“He’s going to shoot our technicals soon,” Snyder joked pregame recently.
The Jazz have started using him as more than just a dive man, too. Teams exploited Utah’s Gobert-involved pick-and-rolls in previous years by blitzing ball-handlers, daring the Jazz to get Gobert the ball in space and counting on his limited off-the-dribble skills to make their gamble worthwhile.
Now, the Jazz are bypassing the trap altogether. They’ll position another wing as a safety valve for the original ball-handler, and if teams leave Gobert a lane, he’ll simply ram his ass into his man, seal him down low and say thank you for the easy points.
Remember how Gobert used to love to beat other bigs down the floor in transition as a youngster in Europe? He still does, and now those are more free points with a similar seal concept when all that’s left is a smaller guy.
We’ve barely blinked, but now there’s a case for Gobert as one of the top two-way players in the NBA. He’s in the league’s top 15 for Offensive Win Shares, an admittedly flawed stat that nonetheless still manages to include many of the league’s consensus best attackers (the 12 above him, in order: Harden, Butler, Lowry, Durant, Thomas, Paul, Antetokounmpo, Lillard, Curry, Leonard, James, Westbrook). Utah’s offense goes from a borderline top-five unit with him on the floor to bottom-10 when he sits.
This is the narrative now, and the whispers about the All-Star game and potential consideration for a couple end-of-year awards are growing to a hum. Gobert made waves when he said he thought he was the best center in the NBA recently; no one around him was all that shocked. He’s just being honest.
“When you ask him if he’s the best center in the NBA, he can’t say, ‘We’re the best team in the NBA,’” Snyder said. “He’s a sincere guy. His answers, often times, maybe aren’t as measured. Some of that’s just who he is, and personally I like it.”
Suddenly, you don’t have to search Gobert’s Twitter likes for a snapshot of his self-confidence. Media can’t get the questions out quickly enough, and the guy isn’t going to stand there and lie.
Snyder likes the confidence in doses, and in the right situations. The line between self-motivation and self-sabotage can be very thin in this league, and Gobert has toed it, especially when it comes to starrier names at the center position. His passion for dominating an individual matchup has occasionally gotten the better of him in the past.
“I’m still like that sometimes,” Gobert said with a laugh. “But I put the team first – I feel like if we win the game, to me, we win the matchup. I feel like if I do the best for my team, and if I stop the guy, it’s going to be good for my team too.”
At this point, there’s little else for a constantly diligent coach like Snyder to focus on. Gobert has mastered more details than even a details guy could have hoped; his developmental curve hasn’t stopped pointing squarely up since Snyder came to town. If he’s stopped using his slights as motivation, it’s only because there are hardly any left to choose from.
“I don’t want him to compare himself to other people,” Snyder said. “That’s the part of Rudy that I want him to continue to understand is unique: He’s Rudy. He’s not DeAndre Jordan, he’s not Hassan Whiteside, he’s not Marc Gasol, he’s not Hakeem Olajuwan. He’s himself. And I think that’s what he’s beginning to understand.”
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Pacific Division
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Pacific Division.
In less than a month, the NBA is set to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida. And, in just a few short days, teams are set to report for an abbreviated training camp. With that in mind, we started a new series here at Basketball Insiders.
With basketball seemingly at our doorstep, we’re taking a look at some of the more pressing issues each team are set to face as they either make the trek down to Florida or wait at home for an abbreviated offseason. We’ve already covered the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions and, today, we’ll go over the Pacific.
The Golden State Warriors are the lone team that isn’t set to take the trip to Orlando. That said, they have plenty on their plate, as do the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. Let’s get into it.
Golden State’s Draft Decisions and Andrew Wiggins Future
If the season does in fact resume without any COVID-19 interruptions, the 2019-20 playoffs are going to feel different without the Warriors. The team that has represented the Western Conference in the past five NBA Finals was dealt a major blow with injuries to both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They spent much of the season trotting out young players and funky lineups, winding up in a good position to take home the No. 1 overall pick for their trouble.
Of course, what to do with that potential pick is the issue they must address. Both Curry and Thompson are expected to return to the court next season and the two of them, paired with a motivated Draymond Green, should find themselves in the midst of postseason contention. So, do the Warriors draft a player who they’ll potentially have to wait on to develop, or do they trade the pick, perhaps a veteran that could contribute right away?
The incoming rookie class is looking relatively top-heavy draft, with the potential to nab a possible star with a pick in the top five. Make the right pick, and Golden State could set themselves up for seasons to come. And, considering the franchise’s success with the draft (Curry, Thompson and Green were all drafted by the team), it’s easy to envision them making the right pick. That said, would they sacrifice that long-term success for a more immediate impact?
Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins is another matter the Warriors may have to address. In somewhat of a shocking move, the Warriors traded away D’Angelo Russell after only half a season and got Wiggins in return. Wiggins is a talented player, albeit one that hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations as a former top pick and has seen continued criticisms of consistency.
That said, Wiggins is perhaps one of the keys that could accelerate the Warriors’ path back to contention. He’s a talented scorer and should prove a better fit with the team than Russell had and, with Curry and Thompson set to shoulder the offense, they won’t need him to do too much to return to prominence. But, his contract could become cumbersome — how long are the Warriors going to pay Wiggins’ salary for production that may prove no better than Harrison Barnes’ during his time with the team?
Kelly Oubre’s Future in Phoenix
When the Suns make the trip to Florida this month, they’ll be without one of their key players in Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre, who went down with a torn right meniscus just before the NBA’s pause in March, will spend his time at home, recovering from said injury.
The 2020-21 season is going to be a big one for him, however.
Set for the final year of his contract and based on his play, Oubre would appear to be in line for a nice payday. Prior to the injury, Oubre was in the midst of a career year: 18.7 points per game, 45.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.2 percent shooting from the three-point line. It would seem to be a no-brainer to keep Oubre, who is only 24, as part of this young core.
The only thing that may complicate that a bit is the emergence of Mikal Bridges. In his second year in the NBA, Bridges impressed as he moved into the starting lineup and is poised to take advantage of Oubre’s absence from Orlando. And, next summer, just as Oubre is set to hit the market, Bridges will be eligible for an extension.
With Bridges in line for a rise, would Phoenix also pay Oubre to play much of the same role? The team re-signed him last summer to just a two-year deal, rather than something more long term and, next summer, they could risk losing him if they offer significantly less than some other teams are willing to pay.
Sacramento’s Push Forward
The Kings have been synonymous with futility for nearly a decade — lottery finish after lottery finish and they have almost nothing to show for it. They’ve been hampered by poor decision roster management. Their decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over say Luka Doncic is still up in the air, although many would tell you that it was a horrible choice.
What the team and fans can, and should, take to comfort however is that they are one of the teams being selected for the Orlando restart. When the NBA season was put on temporary hiatus, they were only a mere 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They have a potential franchise cornerstone in De’Aaron Fox. They must do everything in their power to ensure that he stays a King. They ran DeMarcus Cousins out of town, they cannot afford to do that with Fox.
Whatever happens in Orlando, they need to continue their push forward, to maintain an upward trajectory. If they lose Fox, they may never recover as a franchise. They need to ensure that the franchise has nowhere to go but up, or they may risk losing the team to somewhere else entirely.
Lakers Championship Window and Anthony Davis Free Agency
When the Lakers signed LeBron James two years ago, there was little question that they were looking to get back on track as a championship contender. After a few years of lottery-bound teams and high draft picks, they managed to package those assets and bring in Anthony Davis to pair alongside James last offseason.
And, while James has shown no signs of slowing down, at 35 years old and with two more years left on his current contract, there are questions as to how open the Lakers’ potential championship window is. Had this season been scrapped altogether, that would’ve been another year lost for the Lakers and James.
What complicates matters further is the fact that Davis is set to hit free agency this offseason. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was adamant about his decision not to sign a contract extension and allow himself to become a free agent. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense for him to do so — he can re-sign with the Lakers and earn even more money in the long term. But, if the Lakers fail to take home the title, could Davis turn into a potential flight risk?
Logic would say no, as the teams that stand to court Davis can’t offer nearly as much as the Lakers. But, if Davis doesn’t believe the roster can support him and his championship aspirations in the long term, anything is possible.
It may be unlikely, extremely so, even. But stranger things have happened, and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Clippers Championship Window
Who would’ve thought we’d ever say this, but the most pressing issue facing the Clippers is the exact same one as their across the hallway rivals, how big is their potential championship window? Injuries have been a bit of a concern for the Clippers this season, with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing time for various reasons. Both have dealt with major injuries in the past and the “load management” the two may require going forward should be at least mildly concerning.
They also face the same scenario as the Lakers in that, were the season to be scrapped, 2020 would be another year down the drain, a year of health (something that is never a given in the NBA) wasted. And, aside from the injury possibility, both Leonard and George can enter free agency next offseason.
Both players have options on their contract, so the Clippers would probably like to take advantage of this restart and push for a title as quickly as possible. If they fail to win either this season or next, then the possibility of Leonard and George reevaluating their options could become a likely scenario.
If for some reason, the NBA is forced to scrap their plans for the season resumption, each of these teams will be affected. Perhaps none more than the Clippers and Lakers who, due to roster makeup, have to push for a title run as soon as possible.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Atlantic Division.
The NBA’s return grows nearer, but new doubts bubble up each day thanks numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 tests and surging virus numbers in numerous states — including Florida, where games will be hosted. Regardless as to whether or not we all agree with its return, we are fewer than 30 days away from NBA basketball. With that in mind, we at Basketball Insiders are going through each division and identifying “6 Situations” we feel are worth keeping an eye on. We’ve wrapped up work on the Northwest, Southwest and Central. Today, we get to the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division is unique in that it’s the only division with four teams currently seeded in the NBA Playoffs (and one of three divisions with four teams returning for the final eight games). Still, many of the Atlantic Division’s major plotlines are rooted in the future and not the remaining eight games or the playoffs. There’s a lot of questions surrounding roster composition, coaching staffs and draft picks. So without further adieu, let’s explore the most compelling situations the Atlantic Division has to offer.
Knicks face another pressure-filled draft
The Knicks really, really need to make the right pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily need to win the draft lottery, but they must add another cornerstone player. They missed out on the opportunity to land a guaranteed star last year when they fell to the third overall pick in 2019 despite owning the worst record in the entire league — and that draft featured really only two sure things. They had almost as bad luck in 2018, when they won only 29 games (in 2017-18) and finished with only the ninth-worst record in a relatively star-studded draft. And so on and so forth.
But it’s not as if the Knicks are starting from scratch. There’s Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, who has exceeded any and all expectations set for him. There’s also RJ Barrett, who looks the part of at least a legitimate NBA starter – and maybe even, dare I say, a star. But that’s about all they can count on. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are promising, but possess red flags that hurt their standings with New York and their trade value around the league.
Much of the Knicks’ 2020 draft will be luck. They have the sixth-worst record in the league, so they possess only a 9% chance of winning the lottery and a 27.6% chance of landing a top-three pick. As much as “best player available” is an overused cliché (to the extent that it actually describes a bad strategy almost as often as it’s good), the Knicks should adhere to it. After all, they have so many needs and there’s really only one guy they’d prefer over everyone else (LaMelo Ball). Assuming they aren’t lucky enough to draft him, there’s still Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin — of whom plug into the Knicks lineup nicely. Even James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards would be nice additions, although their fit is redundant with Robinson and Barrett already in two, respectively.
Long story short, there are lots of options for the Knicks. New York must: A) not slide down in the lottery, which is out of their hands; and B) avoid making a bad selection. Ultimately, a number of teams will consider trading away lottery picks, and the Knicks have a number of other first-round picks they can pair with their 2020 pick to move up. There are lots of options they can consider. They just can’t mess this one up.
While the draft is only partially in their control, the Knicks must also select the right coach
The Knicks have had five head coaches since Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher in 2014, and they’ve had three team presidents. New team president Leon Rose appears to be fully invested in this coaching search though, lining up a number of interviews with some candidates, some of whom could also be auditioning for assistant roles. There are presently at least eight candidates, but there are clear front runners — and then ones who should remove themselves from consideration fairly quickly. The Knicks should almost certainly avoid chasing gimmicky candidates in hopes of them attracting additional talent — Jason Kidd is a good example. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds great, but the Knicks have been burned chasing star free agents before — and it’s definitely not a reason to hire a head coach. Another candidate the Knicks should probably avoid is Mike Woodson. Woodson is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he’s already led the Knicks. Granted, he led them farther than any other head coach since Jeff Van Gundy; but the Knicks need a coach to come in and motivate and teach their young roster — and while Woodson is seen as being player-friendly, he’s not thought of as a developer of talent.
Kenny Atkinson should get a long look. He was an assistant coach with the Knicks from 2008-2012, and he’s familiar with the pressure that goes along with being a head coach in New York (Brooklyn). More importantly, Atkinson is thought to be excellent at player development, which bodes well for his candidacy. Tom Thibodeau is another candidate thought under serious consideration. His relationship with Rose, his former agent, should make for a warmer interview. The young Knicks are probably not entirely ready for Thibodeau’s intensity, but he would improve team defense, (probably) mold Frank Ntilikina into a DPOY candidate and bring unparalleled professionalism to the locker room.
There are other candidates who deserve a fair look, too – including interim coach Mike Miller, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley and Becky Hammon. There are almost too many candidates, but that’s a good problem to have. Now, all the Knicks have to do is pick correctly.
Can Jacque Vaughn solidify his future in Brooklyn?
The Nets were riding incredibly high this time last year (although we all were, relatively speaking). Now, not so much.
The Nets will return to action as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There was essentially no chance of them leapfrogging Philadelphia, but they’re only a half-game up on Orlando. As much as we in the media built up the idea that Kevin Durant might return, that was always a very long shot. Even Kyrie Irving was unlikely to return given that he underwent shoulder surgery in early March. But still, Brooklyn’s young core could benefit from the opportunity to jell under coach Jacque Vaughn.
But much of what Brooklyn (and Vaughn) hoped to accomplish was predicated on the notion that the team was able to learn its recently appointed interim coach (and vice versa). Instead, they learned about Spencer Dinwiddie’s positive COVID-19 test, which will likely result in him missing the NBA’s return. Their (relatively) newly-appointed starting center DeAndre Jordan also announced that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and that he’ll sit out the remaining games. They also received the unwelcome news that Wilson Chandler was opting out of the remainder of the season. Oh, and rookie Nic Claxton will also miss the rest of the year due to shoulder surgery. So can Coach Vaughn still make a case to return as the Nets head coach next season?
Ultimately, the Nets were never going to advance without Durant and Irving. Will it be even harder for Vaughn to prove his worth now? Maybe. Without Irving and Durant, the Nets were never going to advance beyond the first round, regardless of if they draw the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks. But the Nets front office, led by general manager Sean Marks, has been particularly adept at reading between the lines. They traded for D’Angelo Russell when his value was at its lowest, drafted Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and picked coach Kenny Atkinson. While it’s unclear if Vaughn is the best man for the job, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to make his case for it.
Will the 76ers’ “Process” come to fruition?
After taking the eventual 2019 NBA Champions to the last second of regulation in a game seven, the Philadelphia 76ers were identified as one of a select few teams to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. After a strong start that was solidified with an exclamation point in a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, they lost their way — going 16-16 after the holiday.
Their struggles resulted in (or from) injuries to their two best players — Ben Simons and Joel Embiid, who missed 11 and 21 games, respectively. It got so bad that rumors surfaced about the 76ers potentially moving one or the other as soon as this offseason.
But the play stoppage may result in some positives for Philadelphia. Both Simmons and Embiid had time to heal from their ailments. And while they are in the unfortunate position of being tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker. Fortunately, Philadelphia has a pretty easy schedule with games against San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. They also play Indiana on Aug. 1. So the 76ers control their own destiny, at least as far as securing the fifth seed.
Unfortunately, their consolation prize would be a first-round matchup against Miami. While that’s a tall task for any team outside of the greater-LA area, Philadelphia needs to demonstrate progress. Organizationally, they’ve invested a lot of time in this rebuild. They’d like to see progress. In fact, the fate of this iteration of the 76ers might depend on at least advancing beyond the first round. If they don’t, Embiid and/or Simmons, coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand could all be elsewhere as of next season.
Does a deep run mandate that the Raptors bring back their core, again?
The Raptors have been the biggest thorn in the side of this writer – pretty much all season. I saw a golden opportunity for them to rebuild on the fly. Masai Ujiri knew better. He brought back most of the 2018-19 lineup and, sure enough, Toronto is entering the final eight games as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
That alone is far from a major victory, especially for the defending champions. Expectations traditionally remain high after winning. Even with Kawhi Leonard leaving town, the Raptors were clearly confident they could make a run. Further, there is the financial side of the business that probably factored in – remember, playoff games bring in significantly more revenue than the regular season. While that is in question now with games being hosted exclusively in Disney World, no one could have predicted the arrival of a pandemic when decisions were being made in the summer of 2019. And next year’s finances will present complications, too. Will the Raptors agree to continue spending without the guarantee of revenue? You can bet that the Knicks and Lakers will. Beyond them, nothing is certain in terms of spending.
But regardless if you believe in the direction taken by the Raptors for 2019-20 or not, they’ve out-performed expectations. If they fail to advance past even the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a strong case to be made for a quick rebuild. But if they advance the to the Conference Finals or beyond, can Ujiri convince ownership to get on board with dismantling a team that would have played in at least two straight conference finals and secured its first NBA Championship? In total, the team is only on the hook for about $85 million next year, but Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all enter unrestricted free agency. The Raptors will have to open up their wallets to retain even two out of those three, which would be a necessity if they hope to compete again next season — and that could make their 2020-21 salary untenable.
Another interesting aspect – will Ujiri even return? Rumors circulated – as they always do when New York is involved – that the Knicks were preparing Ujiri a monster offer. But they’ve since moved forward with new team president, Leon Rose. However, there are other high-profile teams that could use his help. Our very own Matt John wrote about a few in his The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference this past March. Philadelphia would be a great fit given how much talent they’re sitting on and their (likely) desire to improve if they don’t at least qualify for the conference finals. The Chicago Bulls are another team that could entice Ujiri to jump ship. Regardless, Toronto faces tough decisions following the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Boston’s present looks great. But what’s next?
Like Toronto, the Boston Celtics are looking down the barrel at some interesting salary cap implications. Boston’s roster looks well-structured considering its relative youth and versatility. But the challenge lies in its future — can Boston add to its core to the extent that it builds a serious contender?
As mentioned above, freeing up the cap space needed to sign another star will be made more complicated by the restrictions that a smaller cap will introduce. Gordon Hayward has a $34 million player option for 2020-21. Prior to the monumental financial challenges presented by COVID-19, this writer expected him to opt-out and sign a long-term deal. But the salary cap will take a significant hit, and the days of teams handing out $30 million per year are probably over for now, at least for players who aren’t major difference makers. So, expect to see Hayward on Boston’s roster next season, as well as on their payroll. Ultimately, the Celtics will have approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary next season, which includes Enes Kanter’s player option and Tatum’s $9.89 cap hit, but not counting any other team options like Daniel Theis ($5 million), Robert Williams ($2 million) or Semi Ojeleye ($1.75 million).
Looking past next season, Tatum will almost certainly sign a long-term extension (this offseason, but his 2020-21 cap hit will be unaffected) that cannibalizes much of Boston’s future cap space. There’s also the new CBA, which will be hurt by COVID-19, and the NBA and Daryl Morey’s dust-up with China, which originated last summer, to factor in.
So that leads us to an interesting question: Are the Celtics good enough to win a championship as is? If they decide the answer is no, they’ll be severely restricted in what moved they can make. Long-term implications are difficult to anticipate; but in the short-term, Ainge and the Celtics should look to add veterans willing to sign lucrative, short-term deals, looking to chase championships. Players like Danilo Gallinari – although many in the know believe Gallinari will sign with Miami – or Derrick Favors would be good additions to the already talented Celtics. They’d add much-needed talent and (hopefully) accept slightly smaller roles for the opportunity to contend. And getting Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to help with recruiting would go a long way.
Like all divisions, the Atlantic Division’s teams possess their share of issues to sort out. No Atlantic Division team is poised to win now, but many are on the right track. If these six situations are handled correctly, all five teams will be in better places in the near future.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Central Division
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by taking a look at issues that teams in the Central Division will have to confront in the near future.
Bringing up situations for the Central Division feels a little more suitable, seeing how three of the eight teams that were left out of the 22-team bubble are from that group of five. 60 percent of the division’s season is already over and looking towards what next year’s plans are. However, that doesn’t mean those in this division whose seasons will continue next month don’t have pressing issues that need to and will be addressed soon enough.
Let’s take a look.
Milwaukee Bucks – Can they convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around?
That’s right, Bucks fans. You’ve probably heard it about a thousand times by now, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more between now and next summer. Giannis’ next deal will be on everyone’s mind for the next year. The Bucks can dominate the regular season all they want. If that dominance doesn’t translate into any substantial postseason success, then that could be all the motive for Giannis to jump ship.
Giannis has pledged his loyalty to Milwaukee on numerous occasions, and the Bucks have built a team that fits around him like a glove. Yet, there still seems to be this stigma that’s making everyone uneasy when talking about his long-term status with the team. Oddly enough, this unease hasn’t stemmed from anything Giannis has done, but from what some of his compatriots have done over the past decade.
LeBron James set the standard for superstar players choosing to leave their original upper-tier teams for greener pastures, and since then, we’ve seen the same happen over and over again with players who followed in his footsteps. Kevin Durant did it. Kawhi Leonard did it. LeBron’s done it twice more since “The Decision.” No matter what Giannis says or how the Bucks fare, no one knows how this will play out until the Greek Freak signs his name on the dotted line.
Of course, if the Bucks win the championship this year or next — which as we all know is definitely in the cards — then all of these concerns most likely will be put to bed easily, but we’ll have to see it first. It won’t be long now before we see if the Bucks can do enough to keep the best player the franchise has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Indiana Pacers – How will they approach the Victor Oladipo contract situation?
This is a potential issue that needs to be brought up more than it has been. Oladipo has been the symbol of the Pacers’ new era of basketball — bedazzling the masses, grinding out the games, and above all else, exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of whether he can be the same player he was before his knee balked may put him at odds with the Pacers when they discuss his next extension.
The ‘Dipo we got from 2017-18 would definitely be worth every penny of a max extension, but the Pacers had that guy for only one season. No one knows if that version of Victor Oladipo will resurface. The playoff bubble will be a golden opportunity for him to show that he can still be that guy, and even if he’s not, he’s got another season to do the same. Come to think of it, there may not have been an individual player who benefited more from this time off than Oladipo did now that he had even more time to rest and rehab his knee.
Oladipo definitely showed some encouraging signs before the season halted, but what if he doesn’t get back to that level? Do the Pacers give him a max extension on good faith and/or sentiment? Teams have done that, and some came to regret it. It’s worth mentioning that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Oladipo gets back to full health, but is not quite able to get back to where he was. He was an above-average player before his surprise ascension in Indiana. There’s nothing wrong with having a guy like that locked up long-term…at a modest price.
Knowing his story, no one in the world should be rooting against Oladipo rediscovering his old form. We do have to ponder what his and the Pacers’ options are if he doesn’t.
Indiana Pacers – Will they end the Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner pairing once and for all?
All signs certainly point to yes. The two of them have gotten better as a pairing — together they have a plus-2.1 net rating which is a step up from the past — but that may have to do with Sabonis continuing to stake his claim as one of the league’s best young bigs while Turner has stayed the same, give or take. They still aren’t a great duo, and they probably never will be.
So the next move would be to trade one of them, with the odd man out indisputably being Turner. Sabonis has morphed into an All-Star this year while Turner’s progress continues to stagnate. At the same time, it’s a nice privilege to have two young bigs who, even if they don’t play well together, can alter the course of the game with their individual skill sets.
In all honesty, they don’t have to trade either of them if they don’t feel a pressing need to. They have both locked up on reasonable contracts. Neither has expressed any issues playing with one another. They would have to figure who would be better for which matchup, but that’s not the hardest task. Until someone wants out, Indiana can ride this out with the duo intact.
Odds are, Turner probably will get traded in the near future, but it’s not like the Pacers will be beyond desperate to get rid of him.
Chicago Bulls – Is Jim Boylen the next man to go?
Again, the obvious answer should be yes. This season alone, Boylen’s created quite a track record for baffling decisions that have led to a disconnect in the locker room, bizarre choices at the end of games, and of course, another season ending with a sub-.500 record. The only difference between this season and last is that there was quite a bit of optimism coming into this season.
A coach who’s done what Boylen has would usually get the first ticket out of Chicago once the season has concluded. Even with his job security remaining a hot topic for a good chunk of the season, he is still employed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, puzzling pretty much everyone in the NBA outside of Bulls’ ownership.
Chicago has already made some shake-ups in their front office by replacing Gar Forman and John Paxson with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. To some degree, this is tough for the Bulls seeing how they extended Boylen after last season, but this is about team progress more than anything. If the Bulls think Boylen is the man for the job despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, well then that’s their choice.
It just seems like, at this point, they’re being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate.
Cleveland Cavaliers – What direction exactly are they going in?
The Cavaliers were bad this year in general, but strangely enough, there were some signs of encouraging play both early on and at the end. They actually started the season okay — going 4-5 in their first nine games — before the whole John Beilein saga commenced (#SlugLife). Then, following Beilein’s resignation, the team actually started picking it up a bit before their season prematurely ended. Even if they wound up with the worst record in the Eastern Conference — 19-46 — they won half of their last 12 games.
Their outlook for the future is kind of difficult to see. They have a promising arsenal of young talent — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. — and they also have a fair amount of veterans on the team in Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson that makes their roster pretty confusing. Love’s been on the trade market since pretty much the start of last season, yet is still on the team. Then, when the team’s already way out of playoff contention, they go out and get Andre Drummond because… well, why not get Andre Drummond? Especially at the price Cleveland paid?
Now, they are in discussions to extend Drummond and Tristan Thompson’s free agency is coming up. They also have a potentially high lottery pick coming their way. The results J.B. Bickerstaff got as the coach were promising, albeit too short to draw conclusions. So, what exactly is the plan going on in “The Land?” Their roster is full of guys who are on different timelines right now. Are they going to commit to the youth movement, or are they going to cash in to acquire a star or two? Because there are definitely going to be some available this summer.
Even though the Cavaliers have been pretty bad since LeBron’s second departure, since they’ve kept a good chunk of their veterans, they haven’t embraced a rebuild. Perhaps they’re preparing to make a big splash, or maybe they are delaying the inevitable. No matter what, they could be an interesting player in what’s going to be a pretty boring offseason.
Detroit Pistons – What do they do with Blake Griffin?
You know, Detroit definitely has one of, if not the bleakest outlook in the league right now. They only have three players on the roster that have the potential to be more than they are right now: Christian Wood, who they lucked into; Luke Kennard, who they tried to trade(?!); and Sekou Doumbouya, who is largely raw and not much else. Other than that, they have mostly roster filler and veterans whose services would be better used elsewhere in Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway. They paid the price for waiting too long to trade Andre Drummond, and now, they might be stuck with Blake Griffin for the duration of his max contract.
Getting a nice shiny lottery pick will probably help things a bit, but whether prime Blake is coming back or not, he really does not have a place on this roster anymore (not that he really had one before?), and that might be the exact problem in Motown. With all the surgeries accumulating, it’s tough to foresee if we’re going to get the same Blake that we’re used to seeing. Granted, prime athletic Blake will never be back, but the one that accommodated his game because of said lost athletic ability may not be there, either.
If, by some miracle, Blake shows enough to draw interest, Detroit should take the first offer it gets because this team is definitely headed for a rebuild and has absolutely no use for the former MVP candidate. The chances of that happening are not good in the slightest. Blake’s injuries continue to pile up, and that contract is pretty expensive to take on. It would have been easier to take on before Coronavirus got in the way, but that’s like saying a turtle will race better than a snail.
It’s a shame that a great player like Blake Griffin may have to spend the remainder of his prime — if his prime is still here — on a team that has no use for him, but that’s life in the NBA.
Unlike our previous installments, these situations are going to be looked into much sooner than later. Much like our previous installments, none of them have straightforward solutions.
Headlines1 week ago
Report: Avery Bradley to Opt Out of NBA Restart
Headlines2 weeks ago
Sources: Grizzlies, Multiple Teams Interested in Anthony Tolliver
Headlines1 week ago
Sources: JR Smith ‘leading candidate’ to Sign with Lakers for NBA Restart
Headlines2 weeks ago
Sources: Rockets Interested in Tyler Johnson