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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

NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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