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Sacramento Kings 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues our season preview series with the new-look Sacramento Kings.

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The Sacramento Kings are in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought, which is very unlikely to end this upcoming season. Last season’s team was built around DeMarcus Cousins, a lot of veterans and a few younger players – a group that was not talented or deep enough to have a realistic chance of earning a playoff seed in the deep western conference. Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball operations and general manager of the Kings, traded Cousins during All-Star weekend to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder.

Now that the Kings have moved on from Cousins, the team can start focusing on bolstering and developing its younger players. The Kings signed veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to significant contracts, who will likely serve as the team’s veteran leaders. The team is also bringing in De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson and Bogdan Bogdanovic. However, despite adding a lot of young talent and quality veterans, the Kings are still a long way from being a true playoff contender.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

I like the Kings a whole lot more than I did a year ago, but that still doesn’t change their standing in the Pacific Division, apparently. No rebuilding team makes a massive jump in the first full year of the rebuild, though, so some growing pains are to be expected from what is pretty easily the slickest batch of rookies in the league this year outside of Philadelphia. There are vets on this roster, too, which should help stack a few more wins on the season, but they aren’t ready for the playoffs just yet, no matter the injection of talent. Check back in two or three years.

5th Place — Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The Kings have quietly done a solid job of reassembling their core in their post-DeMarcus Cousins days, and they could also quietly be in line for a few more wins this year than we normally expect from a Sacramento franchise. Solid core pieces like Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere are joined by Kentucky standout De’Aaron Fox plus UNC upperclassman Justin Jackson – and on top of that, the Kings went out and got veterans in George Hill and Zach Randolph. Combine all these with some decent role players like Garrett Temple, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kosta Koufos, and at the very least it seems like the Kings won’t be in direct contention for the cellar in their division or the conference. How many games they win will depend in part on the health of guys like Hill and Randolph, and on whether they’re in a position to tank later on in the season, but they seem like a near-lock for third in the Pacific Division for the third straight year.

3rd place — Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

For as long as we can remember, all the Kings seemed to have going for them was DeMarcus Cousins. In their first full season without him, it’s almost impossible to think that their prospects could be better than they ever were with him. Call it crazy, but I like what I see in Sacramento. I’ve been high on Buddy Hield for a long, long time and have similarly high expectations of De’Aaron Fox.

Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill are a trio of veterans that will fit in nicely with a group of youngsters that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Justin Jackson. If Harry Giles becomes an everyday contributor, the Kings just might be in business.

Even without Chris Paul, the Clippers should be able to keep a hold on the second spot in the Pacific Division. The Suns will likely pick up the rear while the Kings and Lakers battle for the third and fourth spots. At this point, I’d give the benefit of the doubt to the Lakers, only because I think they have the more talented players of the bunch. However, I do think that the days of the Kings being a laughingstock are over. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and surprisingly, it looks brighter than it ever did with DeMarcus Cousins.

4th Place — Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

Generally depicted as the laughingstock of the NBA, the Sacramento Kings actually have some promise heading into this season for the first time in a long time.

After hitting what appear to be home runs in June’s draft with De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, the Kings have a slew of youngsters with big time upside. Their 2017 draft haul, which also includes former Naismith Player of the Year Frank Jackson, accompanies the likes of Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein as under-25 talent on their roster.

However, even with the signings of proven veterans like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, the Kings won’t be much more than regular season feisty this season. Barring some rapid progression amongst their young guys, Sacramento will be on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. But, the old heads should do their part in helping bring along what appears to be a large batch of young talent for the next era of Kings basketball.

Next season still appears to be pretty dim in Sacramento, but the long-term future looks bright.

3rd place — Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Kings finally decided to move on from DeMarcus Cousins and, surprisingly, the long term future suddenly looks rather bright in Sacramento. De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein make an interesting mix of young talent that should improve with the guidance of veterans like Hill, Carter and Randolph. The Kings made an interesting move by bringing in three expensive veterans. Sacramento could have brought in solid veteran personalities who cost less and wouldn’t require as much playing time, which would have allowed the Kings to maintain more financial flexibility. The young players would have had more time on the court and the Kings could have extracted extra assets from teams looking to dump salary. However, the Kings did well to bring in more veteran leaders and could ultimately move them in deals if contending teams are looking for that last piece to get over the hump. This year’s Kings aren’t going to make the playoffs, but the future is brighter than it has been in some time.

4th place — Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Zach Randolph

Randolph has been in the NBA since 2001 and is no longer capable of scoring 23 points per game like he could earlier in his career. However, entering his 18th NBA season, Randolph is still one of the most skill offensive big men in the league and is able to score in bunches. From backing opponents down in the post, sweeping across the lane for a hook or knocking down a 15-footer with a hand in his face, Randolph is a versatile offensive weapon that has been tormenting defenders for nearly two decades. Randolph will likely play fewer minutes this season than he has in the past, but he scored 20.7 points per 36 minutes last season – the third highest mark in his career. Unless Randolph loses a significant step this season and someone like Buddy Hield takes a step forward, Randolph should be Sacramento’s top offensive player this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

The Kings have a surprisingly high amount of capable defensive players, but Willie Cauley-Stein has the best tools to be a premier defensive player. At age 24, Cauley-Stein has the length and athleticism to be a high-impact defensive anchor at center. Cauley-Stein’s rebounding numbers are problematic and is something he is certainly going to have to address. But his mobility, timing and ability to even check wing players on the perimeter make him a versatile defender who could hit another stage as he continues to develop and gain experience.

Top Playmaker: George Hill

George Hill has never been an elite playmaker or passer, but he is the best the playmaker the Kings have this upcoming season. Hill is a strong ball handler who can often take his opponents off the dribble and attack the rim effectively. Hill is good at drawing in help defenders and finding open teammates either cutting to the basket or open behind the three-point line. Hill found a nice chemistry with his Utah Jazz teammates, often finding cutters like Gordon Hayward under the basket or bigs like Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors for lobs. Hill has a much different cast of supporting talent to work with this upcoming season, but he still should be able to generate the same kind of opportunities in Sacramento that he did in Utah.

Top Clutch Player: Vince Carter

Vince Carter is now 40 years old and isn’t the high-flying dunk machine he once was. But Carter has aged like a fine wine and is still capable of knocking down three-pointers and hitting big shots in big moments. Earlier in his career, Carter made a number of difficult game-winning shots, including a few incredible dunks. Carter can’t jump over his opponents anymore or create the same level of separation in isolation situations. But if Kings head coach Dave Joerger can design some plays to get Carter an open shot in big moments, that will probably be about as good of a result as the Kings could hope for with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Garrett Temple

Garrett Temple is a solid shooting guard who do a little bit of everything. He is a good shooter who can play off the ball, knock down three-pointers and make crisp passes when he isn’t open. However, if the Kings need him to play the point guard position for a few minutes here and there, he can do that as well. He is also a strong defensive wing that can slow down some of the better wing scorers in the NBA. Temple isn’t going to lock opponents down the way Kawhi Leonard can, but he is an underrated defender and should provide nice wing depth for the Kings this upcoming season.

Best New Addition: De’Aaron Fox

The Kings are bringing in several new players (Carter, Hill, Randolph, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic), but Fox is the most significant addition of them all. Selected with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, Fox is positioned to be the Kings’ point guard of the future. In one season at Kentucky, Fox averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 29.6 minutes per game. Fox was selected to the First-team All-SEC, SEC All-Freshman Team and also won SEC Tournament MVP award.

Fox struggles with his shooting and will need to have a few shooters to space the floor for him in order to make the most of his significant skill set. With the right lineups, Fox could make a nice impact as the backup point guard for the Kings this season. With Hill serving as a mentor, Fox projects to be a big time contributor for Sacramento for years to come.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Skal Labissiere

Labissiere is incredibly raw but has enormous potential. At 6-foot-11 with a huge wingspan, Skal has potential to be an impact player on both ends of the court. He needs to fill out his frame and needs to get a better overall feel for the game, but he has star potential. Worst case scenario, Skal becomes a floor-running big who creates easy scoring opportunities in the open court and off of lobs. Best case, he maximizes his notable skill set and physical tools and becomes a complete player on both ends of the court and a matchup nightmare in general. Nothing is certain with Skal, but his potential is tantalizing.

2. De’Aaron Fox

A crafty point guard with a versatile skill set and decent shooting mechanics, Fox has the makings of a future franchise point guard. He’s too slender to effectively guard the league’s best point guards on a nightly basis, but he should put on size over time. If he straightens out his shaky jumper and becomes an effective floor general, he could be the Kings’ long term solution at point guard.

3. Buddy Hield

Hield has been chastised for being the foundational piece in the Cousins trade, but he came on in a big way at the end of last season. His shooting comes and goes, but when Hield is on, he’s a tough cover. He’s not an elite athlete, but seems more than capable of using his size and craftiness to create space from some of the better wing defenders in the league. Hield also has some ball handling skills and can offer up some spot minutes as a playmaker. Hield may never get to the point where he should have been the foundational piece in a trade for Cousins, but that’s not the standard he should be held to. If Hield can become a lights out shooter and consistent defender, he will be a valuable long term member of the Kings.

4. George Hill

Hill comes at a steep price, but he is a very solid veteran point guard who can guide Fox in his development. Hill has some injury concerns, but if he stays healthy and plays up to his usual standard, he could become nice trade bait at some point in the future. The Kings invested a great deal into Hill, which limits what they can do with their cap space in the short term. But if Hill becomes a unifying leader for the Kings, that will be more significant than whatever he may produce on the court in the short term.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Kings invested in George Hill, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic with most of their cap room. Bogdanovic is the third-highest paid player on the team, earning roughly $9 million a season for three years. Sacramento still has up to $4.3 million in cap space along with their Room Exception for another $4.3 million, but the roster is currently full with 15 guaranteed players.

Assuming the team picks up options on Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere before November, the Kings can get to roughly $29 million in salary cap space next summer, provided Kosta Koufos and Garrett Temple out of their contracts prior to July of 2018.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Youth. The Kings suddenly feature one of the more interesting and talented young cores in the NBA. Some of these prospects may fall short of expectations, but if even a few of them come close to maximizing their potential, big things may be in store for the Kings in the not so distant future.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Institutional stability. The Kings front office, including owner Vivek Ranadivé, have made some questionable decisions over the last few years. Between the draft and bringing in some talented veterans, it could be argued that the Kings’ front office is showing signs of progress. However, if Hill, Randolph and Carter fall short of expectations and have no tangible impact on the team’s culture or the young players’ collective development, we may start wondering whether the Kings were better off saving that cap space to opportunistically acquire more assets.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will The Kings Stay The Course With This Young Core?

We’ve seen teams in the past enjoy their own unexpected success a bit too much, which led them to trading off key young pieces for veteran talent in an attempt to expedite their rebuilding process. The Phoenix Suns did this not too long ago and are still toiling in an extended rebuild. If the Kings win more games than most people expect, will they mortgage their future by shipping off young core players in exchange for more veteran depth? Doing so would be a mistake that could have long term consequences. The Kings had an encouraging offseason. Now it’s time to see if they have the discipline to stay the course.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ The Stretch Run by taking a look at the Pacific Division franchises on the playoff bubble.

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Well, well, well . . . we’re now entering the home stretch here, people. With the All-Star break nearing its end, the regular season stakes will intensify exponentially. The losses count for far more now than they did a month ago. The playoff seedings are starting to settle a bit and we’re starting to see a playoff bubble in our midst.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders would like to introduce a new series titled The Stretch Run. In these pieces, we’ll be looking at the teams from each division to evaluate their ever-growing bubble and the chances of reaching the postseason. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is based on the standings as of now. Needless to say, a whole bunch can change in the 25-and-change games that are left.

Today we’re diving into the Pacific Division — or, otherwise known as the top-heavy division.

There are other top-heavy divisions in the NBA at the moment — just look at the Central — but the Pacific Division is the much polarizing of them all. The best teams in the division currently sport two of the top three records in the Western Conference. The other three? Unfortunately, they hold three of the four worst records in the Western Conference.

So let’s just get this out of the way: Neither Los Angeles-based team is on the bubble. Barring a major meltdown — which is not likely when you have the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George on your squad — both the Lakers and the Clippers are most definitely making the playoffs.

There’s not much cause for concern since both are expected to make deep postseason runs — although you never know with injuries. At this point, however, the franchises may too deep to worry about breaking down, but it’s still worth mentioning. According to Tankathon as of Feb. 18, the Lakers and Clippers have two of the league’s 10 easiest schedules from here on out, so all that has gone well should end well.

As for their other Pacific Division compatriots, well, those three are obviously in different places.

Just to tie up any loose ends before diving in, the Golden State Warriors are out, too. And they’ve probably been out since the day Stephen Curry broke his hand. To recap: The Warriors have the worst record in the league; currently trail behind Memphis by 16.5 games for the No. 8 seed with 27 contests left; Curry’s not expected back until March at the earliest. Hell, when Klay Thompson will make his season debut? Or, better yet, who knows if Klay Thompson will make his season debut at all?

The postseason boat has sailed for the boys in the Bay Area. After back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals, the gang needed a chance to catch their breath. If Curry and Thompson both make it back before season’s end, we’ll get a brief glimpse of Golden State’s new big three plus Andrew Wiggins. That doesn’t breed excitement as much as it breeds intrigue.

Thanks to the updated lottery rules, Golden State can compete at full strength without endangering their odds. Even better, don’t forget that high pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft. The perennial contenders may have had a downer season but, in the long run, this may have been the best route for them.

Therein lies the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. Any postseason hopes are dim but all hope is not lost. First off, although both combine for two of the four aforementioned worst records in the conference, take it with a major grain of salt. They are currently No. 12 and No. 13 in the conference but the Suns are behind the Portland Trail Blazers by only three games for ninth, while the Kings lag the Blazers by only half a game more.

The hard part, however, is that Phoenix and Sacramento are both well behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed — 6.5 and 7 games, respectively.

Again, though, all hope is not lost for them. At least, not entirely as the Grizzlies will have the toughest schedule for the rest of the season. Out of their final 28 games, Memphis faces 16 teams over .500, while 18 of them are against tougher Western Conference foes. Getting past them is doable, but they would have to leapfrog Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the process.

But who is more likely to complete that feat?

If we’re comparing their strength of schedule, it’s Sacramento. The Kings have the 10th-easiest schedule from here on out. Even though they’re facing 18 Western Conference teams of their own over the last 28 games, only 13 are against those over .500.

Phoenix, by contrast, has the eighth-hardest remaining. They may have fewer games in which they face Western Conference opponents — which could work against them seeing how head-to-head record impacts conference standing — but they also play more teams over .500 than Sacramento (15).

The Suns have a half-game lead over the Kings, but the Kings have an easier path ahead opponent-wise.

Unfortunately for both, the franchise with the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season appears to be the young and frightening New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are starting to look like the dangerous sleeper we all thought they’d be now that Zion Williamson has arrived.

Sadly, that could spell doom for the Suns’ and Kings’ playoff hopes,

Both teams have been decimated by player absences — and pretty much from the beginning too. Phoenix lost Deandre Ayton literally one game into the year due to a suspension. Sacramento ended up missing De’Aaron Fox for a long stretch because of an early ankle sprain.

And even though those were the most prominent injuries, they’ve dealt with several others as well. Aron Baynes hasn’t played in a month, while it may be a while longer before Richaun Holmes takes the court again. Even Marvin Bagley III has struggled to stay on the court for most of the season.

As for how they compare for how they’ve done, there’s more evidence supporting Phoenix as the better team between the two, but only slightly. Phoenix has both a better point differential — minus-1.2 to minus-2.9 — and net rating — minus-0.9 to minus-2.6 — than Sacramento does. The Suns are not in a league above the Kings in either area, but the statistical differences would show that the former has played marginally better.

In the end, Sacramento entered this season with much higher expectations following the franchise’s most productive effort since 2006. On the other hand, Phoenix came into this season with the same small-level outlook they’ve held for quite some time.

So even though the Suns have exceeded expectations and the Kings have fallen well short, the two sides find themselves virtually tied.

Given the deep holes they’ve dug themselves heading toward March, however, it seems more than likely that the Suns and Kings will be spending the playoffs from their couches.

At this point, both franchises are in a newly-found position of promise but that still does not guarantee a postseason berth. Despite the valiant efforts, Phoenix and Sacramento will have the same closing remark when the season closes out: Better luck next year.

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NBA Daily: In Context: The Elam Ending & The 2019 NBA Finals

The “Elam Ending” brought more excitement to the NBA All-Star Game, but how would it affect games that matter most? Douglas Farmer takes a look at the 2019 NBA Finals through the Elam lens.

Douglas Farmer

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For all those bothered that Sunday’s All-Star Game ended on a free throw, let’s not remind them of the 2019 NBA Finals. Let’s not remember that — with less than a second remaining on the clock — Kawhi Leonard hit three free throws to turn a one-point lead into a four-point victory and a Toronto Raptors-winning championship.

Of course, if the “Elam Ending” had been in place for that Game 6, some different choices would have been made. That disclaimer aside, Leonard’s final free throw gave the Raptors what would likely have been the target score in that hypothetical. In fact, four of the six NBA Finals games ended on the likely target scores, anyway, while the other two never reached it.

Before walking through those scenarios, a quick description of the Elam Ending for those who did not follow Sunday’s exhibition: With a predetermined amount of time remaining, the clock is turned off; the game ends when a team reaches a “target score” established by adding a set number of points to the leading team’s score when the clock turns off. In the All-Star Game, the clock turned off for the entire fourth quarter, adding 24 points — a Kobe Bryant tribute — to the leading team’s score. For a more practical setting, it would be far less time and far fewer points.

Developed by a University of Dayton professor, Nick Elam, the well-named Elam Ending — which has been featured in the enormously-popular The Basketball Tournament over the last few years — adds eight points to the leading score at the first dead ball after the four-minute mark. If used in the NBA, Elam has suggested adding seven points at the last media timeout, coming at the first dead ball after the three-minute mark.

His rationale for seven stems from dividing typical full-game scoring rates by 16, but that fails to factor in late-game urgency and the inherent skewing to such a sample size. In short, the first three minutes will have less average scoring than the last three minutes simply because a bucket at the 2:59 mark is more likely than one a second into the game, not to mention a shot at 0:01 is more likely than one at 9:01.

Thus, many have settled on eight — potentially another Kobe Bryant tribute — as the likely additional number if ever considered in the NBA. While the ending intends to remove any logic to intentionally fouling in late-game situations and thus preserving a truer state of the game we love, its effects go much further into strategy, lineup rotations and redefining the idea of “clutch.”

What it does not do, however, is shorten the game, at least in terms of points, as many incorrectly assume it does. Consider last year’s NBA Finals …

GAME 1: Raptors win, 118-109
First off, if we are to use the All-Star Game version of this drama-inducing ending, only two of the six Finals games would have reached the third quarter-dependent target score. Playoff games grind through the fourth quarter — but again, that was a gimmick for the exhibition contest. Any practical usage would have included a shorter ending.

The first dead ball after the three-minute mark in Game 1 came at the 2:35 mark with the Raptors leading 110-101, just after a Stephen Curry three-point play. Adding eight points to that 110 gives the final winning total, a number reached when Toronto guard Kyle Lowry hit a 28-foot three-pointer with 30 seconds left. At that point, it was essentially considered icing on the cake, turning a 115-106 lead into a 12-point margin — but in this theoretical, it would have been the game-winning shot.

Any 28-footer is dramatic, but that would have been quite the scene to start the Finals.

GAME 2: Warriors win, 109-104 
The final minutes of this became a slog, so a more inspired conclusion would have been appreciated by all. A total of 3:18 passed between buckets from the 4:26 mark to the 1:08, keeping the score at 106-98 at the needed dead ball. Golden State added only an Andre Iguodala three-pointer with seven seconds remaining to stymie a Toronto charge that would’ve brought them within two. If the Warriors had needed to get to 114, it seems borderline-likely the Raptors would have pulled off the win and swept the series, considering that those were the only points Golden State scored in the final 5:39.

GAME 3: Raptors win, 123-109
Toronto led 115-103 at the last media timeout, while a Marc Gasol three made it 121-107 with 1:07 left before a Pascal Siakam layup reached the possible target score with a 14-point lead. Golden State was not coming back, so an Elam Ending would have at least expedited the ending. Jacob Evans may have been most appreciative of that as he missed two field-goal attempts after Siakam’s decisive points. Regardless, not much in the way of drama here.

GAME 4: Raptors win, 105-92
Again, it is hard to envision the Elam Ending changing much about this game — even with the inherent strategic shifts to it. Toronto led 99-89 with 2:48 left, but neither team exactly stressed in the final minutes. Curry turned a three-point play and the Raptors hit a trio of mid-range jumpers. Toronto did not reach the presumed 107 target score, but another mid-range shot from Siakam — who hit two of the aforementioned three — would not have taken long, and Golden State would not have rattled off 15 points before he hit it.

Both in real life and in this exercise, this blowout was the point in the series everyone began to realize what the Raptors really were about to do.

GAME 5: Raptors win, 106-105 
As much as the Elam Ending was designed to eliminate an influx of free throws, it also puts an impetus on making shots. That might not sound revolutionary but, as often as not, games are determined by misses. Toronto led Game 5 by a score of 103-97 at the 2:59 mark when Draymond Green fouled Leonard. From that point on, the Raptors went 1-of-6 from the field.

Sure, Golden State hit a trio of three-pointers to take the lead and the game, while the Raptors struggled to get the ball anywhere near the hoop. But as impressive as the Warriors’ barrage was, wouldn’t everyone have preferred Curry or Klay Thompson to hit two more and break 111?

GAME 6: Raptors win, 114-110, and clinch the series
Here is where the Elam Ending would have provided a championship-worthy moment. In literal terms, Leonard’s three free throws with hardly any time remaining gave Toronto the 114 target score necessitated by a 106-101 lead at the 2:49 mark. For practicality, Golden State probably would not have melted down with back-to-back technical and personal fouls when they collectively realized a full-court, miracle three-pointer would be needed to win the game.

Instead, Iguodala would not have fouled Leonard at all — let alone earned the technical. The Raptors would have clung to a one-point lead, needing just three more to win the title.

The Elam Ending does not bring about the end of the game any faster in basketball terms — in real-time, though, the dearth of fouls unquestionably speeds things up — but it largely brings the dramatic moments we remember.

Of course, Anthony Davis’ clinching free throw was not all that abnormal. 

Still, in the context of a recently-thrilling NBA Finals, it’s easy to see why the Elam Ending has people hyped to talk about basketball nuances again — naturally, however, it does not guarantee drama.

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NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle

When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook last summer, they had to embrace him, warts and all. Matt John goes into what the Rockets have done to achieve just that and how their most recent deals could net them the most efficient Westbrook they could’ve hoped for.

Matt John

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Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what you call him, whether a high-usage, low-efficiency chucker, an anti-spacer that clogs the lane, or an empty stat-chaser. To Westbrook, it’s all the same: noise, especially if you are focused on Basketball Betting.

And, no matter what you may think of him, nothing is stopping Westbrook from playing at his own pace: fast (to say the least).

Westbrook’s style is so lively, so twitchy, that it’s hard not to it in just about everything he does on the court. While it’s certainly contributed to many of his flaws, the aggression he’s played with, the bounce in his step, has helped him rack up the accolades and eye-popping stats that he has throughout his career.

As a basketball player, Westbrook is the quintessential perfect storm; a tornado of fire, accolades and counting stats.

But because his warts — his sans-Kevin Durant postseason success, his paltry shooting numbers (particularly this season) — are as obvious as his talent, nobody seemed enthralled when it was announced that Westbrook was set to rejoin James Harden, this time with the Houston Rockets. Dating back to Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, there has arguably never been as little fanfare concerning two former MVPs joining forces.

There was one silver lining, however: in his new home, Westbrook would be surrounded by shooters. Better yet, shooters that would prove consistently reliable on the defensive end. In Houston, Westbrook wouldn’t have to be Mr. Do It All. But would it be enough?

No was the early, and loud, return. Through the season’s first two months, the Rockets were 23-11, a strong record, no doubt. But fans couldn’t help but wonder if Westbrook had helped, or hurt, their cause. By New Year’s Eve, Houston was plus-3.9 with Westbrook on the floor, but were somehow better — plus9.5 — with him off.

The Rockets may have managed with Westbrook, but he wasn’t making them better. Of course, in that time, Westbrook had carried his weight as Houston’s no. 2 — 24.2 points and 7.1 assists — but his efficiency was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. His 43/23/80 splits, while also coughing the ball up 4.4 times a game, had Rockets fans in shambles, the 23 percent from three-point range especially glaring as Westbrook was taking nearly five a game.

Making matters worse, Chris Paul, whom Daryl Morey traded for Westbrook, was not-so-quietly having his healthiest, most productive season since 2016 with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. On top of Westbrook’s struggles, Paul’s resurgence made it seem as if Morey had made a terrible mistake.

But, Westbrook seemed to turn a corner in the new year. In January, he averaged 32.5 points on 52/25/76 splits, while the Rockets were plus-2.5 with him on the court and minus-0.9 with him off. While that was an improvement, Houston went 7-7, though Westbrook missed four of those games. Even if he was technically better, he still served as the scapegoat.

Something was holding both the Rockets and Westbrook back.

That something, in Westbook’s case, was the Rockets. Morey and Co. had asked Westbrook to play their style, which meant spot-up threes — not exactly Westbrook’s forte — and a slower pace. In essence, it was the complete antithesis of Westbrook. In time, it became clear that, if Morey’s experiment was ever going to work, Houston would have to adapt to Westbrook, not the other way around.

And, because Morey would do anything and everything in his power to win, the Rockets did just that. By trading Clint Capela, who, while a young, proven and still promising big, was a poor fit with Westbrook, for Robert Covington, Houston embraced small-ball and, in turn, embraced Westbrook’s ability and game to the fullest extent.

Relying on Covington, Danuel House Jr and PJ Tucker to hold their own against much bigger frontcourts will be an interesting sight come playoff time. And trading Capela — a young, high-upside and cost-controlled big — is certainly a gamble. But this version of the Rockets may arguably be the closest thing we ever see to the “perfect team” around Westbrook, and it may just be Houston’s best bet to win a title.

Now, the lane is completely free. Westbrook will be playing with shooters virtually non-stop. That means fewer threes on his part, driving to the basket with no one to get in his way, opening up more room for those shooters. And, while Westbrook’s perfect team does not equate to the perfect team period, it could equate to a deeper playoff run.

Since Houston’s shift, the returns have been promising. Post-Capela (his last appearance was Jan. 29), Houston has played six games and gone 4-2. And, minus their stinker against Phoenix, another game in which Westbrook did not play, each of those games has provided ample proof that an entire small-ball squad can be viable. Houston came out the victor against two of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and another team with plenty of size, the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Rockets have also averaged 115.9 points per game, while Westbrook has led the team with 34 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field. So, in other words, he’s being efficient. Just don’t ask about his three-point shooting.

A “sample size” disclaimer will probably haunt the Rockets between now and the postseason, but the headline here is that thus far, it’s working. It’s not all because of Westbrook — through this stretch, Houston has been a plus-0.9 when Westbrook’s hit the bench — but he’s not hurting them as he did before.

In due time, we’ll see if Morey’s latest experimental maneuvering will pay off. But it’s clear that, if they go down, they’ll go down with Westbrook, rather than against him. They’ll be confident for sure, because, come the postseason, Westbrook will hit the court as he always has: full throttle.

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