Throughout the past decade, no team in the NBA has summed up basketball purgatory quite like the Sacramento Kings. They currently own the league’s longest playoff drought at 12 years. For all that time they’ve been in the lottery, they seemingly have very little to show for it. There was a time when the old Arco Arena was among the most feared arenas in the league for opponents. Now the Kings home arena is more of a place where visiting teams can pencil in an easy victory.
All is not lost, however. It does appear that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. The Kings enjoyed a great free agency period last summer when they managed to sign three of the most respected veterans in the league in George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Two of the three have since moved on, but the fact remains that those guys were willing to come to Sacramento. Now, with a few recent draft moves, it appears that the Kings are finally headed in the right direction.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Kings can always be counted on to zag where most other front offices would zig, and they did exactly that once again to begin the 2018 offseason. In drafting Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, Sacramento passed on a guy many considered the single can’t-miss prospect of the draft – and no one is going to forget about it anytime soon if Doncic becomes a star while Bagley, as some worry he will, becomes mostly an empty stats guy. Elsewhere, it was another roller coaster summer for the Kings. They made a huge restricted free agent offer to Chicago’s Zach LaVine, a smart move given the cap situation around the league, but the Bulls matched. After a curious trade that sent Garrett Temple out for a reunion with Ben McLemore, the Kings are left with a guard and wing group that’s pretty thin after young core pieces De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, plus swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic. They’ve still got several intriguing frontcourt pieces even beyond Bagley, including Skal Labissiere, Harry Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein, but will there even be enough court time for all these guys to develop? They’ll have to fight for minutes with guys like Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos and newly-signed Nemanja Bjelica – none of whom are good enough to anchor a playoff-caliber frontcourt at this point. It could be another head-scratcher of a season in Sacramento without some moves made, even if Fox or Hield takes some real steps forward.
5th Place – Pacific Division
The Sacramento Kings are a tough organization to figure out. Each season the team makes head-scratching moves that come off as just random and without much purpose. This offseason, the Kings Signed extended a four-year, $78 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Zach LaVine, which the Chicago Bulls matched. I just don’t see LaVine as the missing piece that Sacramento desperately needed, especially with other young guards already on the roster. Despite the constant head-scratching moves, the Kings still have some interesting prospects on the roster, including De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Marvin Bagley III. While the team has some nice young talent, it is nowhere near playoff contention in the Western Conference and still seems to operate without a long-term vision in mind.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
There isn’t much else to say about the Kings that hasn’t already been pointed out. Their roster all in all is a mess. They have too many bigs and guards, but not enough wings. They have vets with no place on the roster and no one knows exactly what they’re doing. In other words, they’re still the Kings. They do have a solid youth movement on their hands led by the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles. For the next couple of years, they’ll have to decide who they want to stay long-term as they rebuild. For now, expect Sacramento to be among the bottom dwellers.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Matt John
It’s going to be a joy to watch head coach Dave Joerger maintain the development of his younger players. He could have a three-headed monster in the making if things go the way they’re supposed to. De’Aaron Fox showed flashes last season in the clutch. Now, he’ll get not one, but two new, talented rookie teammates in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles, who missed all of last season. Buddy Hield is flying under the radar as the sharpshooter most of us predicted he’d be in the pros as well. As much as they’ll likely be fun to watch grow together, there will be ups and downs.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
Zach Randolph and Iman Shumpert — those are the Kings’ two highest-paid players. Think about that for a second. The Kings have almost no proven veterans; they are team truly built around their youth, and while that youth could be impressive in a few years, this year is going to be tough, especially in the West. The Kings desperately need one (maybe two) of their promising young guys to really blossom for this team to go anywhere significant. Rebuilding is a long and brutal process. The Kings are midway through it with a lot to show for their trips through the lottery, but expecting them to be anything more than a fun young team might be misplaced.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield
As of right now, the Kings’ roster is still taking shape. It’s quite possible that once the season begins, this list may end up being drastically different from what’s being predicted. But with no games having been played yet, based on everything we know up to this point, Buddy Hield is currently the best offensive player on the team.
When he was traded to the Kings during the 2016-17 season, he immediately put up 15.1 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field, and 42.8 percent from the three-point line. His numbers dropped this past season to 13.5 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting, but he did knock down a career-high 43.1 percent from three. Although he came into the league as a four-year college player, he’s just now entering his third NBA season. He’s a great shooter who can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. One area he stands to improve upon is his ability to get to the rim and draw contact. He only averages about one free throw attempt per game. If he can show that part of his game this season, he could be in line for a breakout offensive year.
Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein
Even after three years in the league, Willie Cauley-Stein is still a work in progress. He has shown, however, the possibility of him becoming one of the better interior defenders in the NBA. He’s already become the Kings’ best interior defender, as he showed this past season his shot blocking ability. He also displayed glimpses of being a solid one-on-one defensive player. Defensive rebounding was also a strength of his.
What Cauley-Stein needs to improve upon is becoming a much more consistent defensive player. He’s got all the tools and skills to really become one of the league’s best defensive anchors in the paint. In today’s NBA, big men are earning spots by being able to switch defensively and guard multiple positions. Cauley-Stein has the physical tools to do just that. But even as it stands, he is one of the Kings best defenders.
Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox
As a rookie, De’Aaron Fox immediately emerged as Sacramento’s top playmaker. He may not have had the rookie season that some of the peers did, but he showed enough to warrant the Kings taking him with a top-5 pick. A point guard is an extension of the coach on the floor. A point guard quarterbacks the team and ensures the offense is run to perfection.
Fox was thrust into that role as a rookie and he did very well. He’s already a great player in transition and he displayed a willingness to keep his head up and watch for his teammates in position for easy buckets. Point guard is a tough transition to make from college to the NBA game, but Fox has shown enough glimpses to assure Sacramento that he’s their floor general of the future.
Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox
One area that Fox seemingly excelled in during his rookie season was his clutch performances. There are many players who shy away from big moments late in games, but Fox has proved beyond doubt that he is not one of those players.
Although he was a rookie on a team that had a couple veteran options, he never hid from clutch situations. It was the exact opposite in fact. He relished those moments and his aggressiveness on the court and willingness to take big shots stood out. He actually won a few games for the Kings with his late game heroics, including some game winning shots. That lack of fear in big moments is something that can’t be taught. It’s either in you or it’s not, and Fox proved that he definitely has it.
The Unheralded Player: Harry Giles
Harry Giles had almost become a forgotten name to the general public. There was a time when he was projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft. He was considered the top player in his high school class and a highly sought after recruit. Unfortunately, he was hit with major injuries that ended up affecting his draft stock. The Kings drafted him with the knowledge that he probably wasn’t going to suit up for his rookie season.
The world got their first glimpse of Giles in the NBA when he suited up a couple games for the Kings during summer league. He predictably looked rusty, but he did provide flashes of the player that was once talked about as a potential No.1 overall pick. He displayed potential to become a versatile scorer as well as an elite defender. He can switch between forward spots and he could be able to guard multiple positions. You can laugh all you want, but a healthy Giles will certainly be in the running for Rookie of the Year.
Best New Addition: Marvin Bagley III
Marvin Bagley had plenty of hype entering his senior year of high school. He was widely regarded as the best player in the country. He announced his college decision live on ESPN and his arrival in Durham seemingly guaranteed Duke would make a deep postseason run. Instead, the Blue Devils had a disappointing ending to their season and some of Bagley’s flaws were magnified, causing some to ridiculously assert that he shouldn’t be taken with one of the top picks.
Thankfully for Sacramento, they did not fall for that. Bagley may have struggled somewhat in summer league, but like his teammate Giles, he showed enough in the limited games he played to justify the Kings taking him with the second overall pick. Bagley has an incredibly versatile skill set. He is a big man who can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim as well as shoot from the perimeter. He’s got some semblance of a back to the basket game, but that is one part of this offensive package that he’ll have to improve upon. College isn’t always the best indicator of NBA success, and Bagley’s game is more suited to the pro level. Do not be surprised if the Kings end up with two potential Rookie of the Year candidates.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Justin Jackson
When the Kings selected Fox, Giles, and Justin Jackson all in the 2017 NBA Draft, it looked like one of their best drafts in a very long time. Fox and Giles were definite lottery talent players, but Jackson has the potential to be a very good NBA player in his own right. He had a decent rookie season that saw him play in 68 games including 41 starts. He exploded during summer league, where he showed a versatile scoring package. He will need to improve his three-point shot, and if he can do that, he’ll be the prototypical 3&D player.
2. Frank Mason III
The Kings garnered a lot of praise for their draft haul of Fox, Giles and Jackson. But the one guy who may have looked more NBA ready this past season was second-round pick Frank Mason III. Mason emerged as one of the Kings top contributors off the bench. As a rookie, he helped run the second unit with the poise of a veteran. The Kings did sign Yogi Ferrell in the offseason, but Mason did well enough to prove that he should get first crack in the rotation as the backup point guard.
3. Bogdan Bogdanovic
Bogdan Bogdanvoic didn’t come over to the NBA until a year after he was drafted, but he was immediately the Kings’ best rookie last season. He was NBA ready right from the start and was named MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. He can shoot, he can pass, and he’s got good size for a guard. He should be a starter level player in the NBA for at least a few more years.
4. Wenyen Gabriel
Wenyen Gabriel was signed to a two-way contract with the Kings, so it’s likely that he’ll spend most of the season with the Stockton Kings, Sacramento’s G-League affiliate. He had two so-so years at Kentucky before going undrafted and ending up on the Kings summer league team. He showed some glimpses in Las Vegas and he’s only 21 years old. He’s already got a nice shooting touch from outside and he’s in the mold of an interior shot blocker. He should get some nice time to develop in the G-League and could be a player to look out for in the future.
Their young core. It appears as if the Kings’ trips to the lottery have begun to yield results. Perhaps all of their futility the past decade will finally pay off. Fox, Giles, Jackson and Mason was a great draft haul. Fox, Jackson and Mason have already displayed NBA readiness while Giles is a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. They still have Skal Labissiere, who exploded after the DeMarcus Cousins trade. He came back down to Earth last season but he’s just scratched the surface of what he could potentially develop into. And then there’s Bagley. Bagley’s got all the tools to be a superstar in the NBA. The Kings are certainly hoping that’s what he becomes.
A losing culture. Constant losing can be devastating in the NBA, especially with young players. That’s the risk you take when you end up tanking or just flat out being bad. Just like how a culture of winning can take place, the opposite is true as well. Losing becomes the norm and that’s what fans and players alike come to know and expect. The Kings have a long way to go to get back to respectability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s got to start somewhere. The Kings really need to show the world this season that they no longer are a pushover. They don’t need to win so much as they need to be competitive. A bunch of losses by one point is better than a bunch of blowouts.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Kings make the playoffs?
As the current owners of the longest streak of missing the playoffs, the fans up in Sacramento have got to be anxious for something good. The bad news is the Kings are nowhere near ready to compete for a postseason berth, not in the Western Conference. The good news is that they may finally have the foundation to eventually reach that goal. It’s baby steps, and to borrow a phrase from the Philadelphia 76ers, they need to “trust the process.”
NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston
Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.
James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.
But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.
Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.
Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.
At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.
According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.
With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.
Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.
Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.
Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.
If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.
Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.
We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.
This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?
Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.
Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.
There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.
Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.
Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.
Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.
Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.
With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.
This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.
Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.
The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?
NBA Daily: The Wizards Have Been Reborn
Despite John Wall’s season-ending injury, the Wizards have somehow risen above in their darkest hour, which could do wonders for them for what’s left in the season, writes Matt John.
Ever since the season began, we all wondered: if Washington wasn’t going to blow it up, what exactly could they do to right the ship?
They were obstinate in keeping Scott Brooks as head coach, and to be fair, they shook a few things up. They traded Austin Rivers, who was not fitting in, and Kelly Oubre Jr. – who they didn’t want to re-sign for luxury tax reasons – for Trevor Ariza, a veteran that John Wall and Bradley Beal respected during his previous stint on the team.
Blowing it up seemed like an elephant in the room they were going to have to confront at some point, but not anymore.
We were wondering what on earth was going to fix Washington’s problems, and now we may have our answer: Take John Wall out of the equation.
Since Wall went down for the season to remove bone spurs from his heels, the Wizards have gone 5-4, good for slightly above average, but when you consider that they are currently 18-26, they should take any victory they can get.
Also, take a look at who two of those wins came against: Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Perhaps just a fluke, but Sunday, they pushed Toronto to the brink in double overtime. All three of those teams are at the top of their class in the Eastern Conference, and all three of them are trying their darndest to get home court advantage over each other, so they would not take any game against inferior opponents lightly.
Even if this wasn’t the solution Washington was hoping for, it seems that in a time where the doubt placed on them is stronger than ever, the team has finally found a spark. How have they gotten themselves back on course? For a few reasons.
Bradley Beal’s superstar play
Is it too late to throw Beal in the MVP conversation?
Since we’ve entered the halfway mark and at this point, it’s a two-man race between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, yes. Not to mention it’s only been nine games, but holy schnikes this nine-game stretch has got to be the best of Beal’s career.
Since Wall went down, Beal has been putting up 30.2 points on 47.2 percent shooting from the field, including 41.3 percent from three. Along with that, Beal is dishing out 6.4 assists a game, grabbing 5.4 rebounds a game and averaging 2.4 steals a game.
His scoring numbers were bound to go up with him being the primary focus. It’s his all-around game that’s really opening some eyes. Beal’s never averaged more than 4.5 assists or 4.4 rebounds in his career. Seeing him run the point while demonstrating a better nose for the ball has been a revelation.
Since the Wizards have been playing better because of this, Beal’s uptick in his stats all-around shows that it’s not a fluke. We knew Beal was a great player, but did anyone see him playing at this high a level?
Beal finding another gear unfortunately also makes a fair case that Wall may have been holding him back. The only way we’ll know for sure if he sustains this for the rest of the season.
Otto Porter’s return to form
Despite being one of the premier three-and-D players in the league, Porter’s numbers have been down this season.
This season, Porter is averaging 12.6 points on 48.2 percent shooting including 39 percent from three. Those are some pretty solid numbers, but compared to what Porter’s been able to put up in the past – He’s averaged between 13 to nearly 15 points a game to go with 50 to 51 percent shooting from the field (including 44 to 45 percent from three over the last two years) – that’s a step back. That’s not good when you’re getting paid over $26 million.
Since coming back from his most recent injury, Porter is showing more signs of his old self. His field goal percentage still isn’t quite as good as the precedent he’s set for himself, but Porter is shooting 45 percent from three in this span, which has definitely played a part in him averaging 16 points per game.
The most encouraging stat from Porter is plus-minus, where over these past seven games since his return, he averages a plus-8.3. If Porter’s field goal percentages can return to form, then the odds of the Wizards keeping this up will end in their favor.
The Rotation Guys are stepping up
That, of course, had to be a given with Wall being out. Tomas Satoransky is putting up solid all-around numbers in these last nine games, averaging 11 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists. Since he filled in well for Wall when he went out last year, seeing him do that again shouldn’t be shocking anyone in DC.
Trevor Ariza has been okay. He’s averaged 14.5 points in these last nine games, but on 36.8 percent shooting including 30.6 percent from three. His average plus/minus has been -0.9.
It’s really been the offseason additions that have filled in quite well.
Who would have guessed that in an offseason where the Wizards added players with higher profiles like Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard that their most fruitful additions came from the likes of Jeff Green and Thomas Bryant?
Forget this nine-game stretch in regards to Jeff Green. Did you know, according to Basketball-Reference, that he’s putting up some of the most efficient numbers of his career this season? He’s posting career highs in effective field goal percentage (.557), true field goal percentage (.607) all while having the lowest usage rate in his career (16.9 percent). Green may have found a permanent home in the very city he grew up in.
Bryant has become one of the growing feel-good stories of the season. After his 31-point/13-rebound performance against the Suns, Bryant has established himself as a solid fill-in at the starting center position since Wall’s departure, averaging 13.3 points on 64.9 percent shooting from the field while also averaging 7.8 rebounds a game. Not bad for someone who was cut by the Lakers last summer.
In retrospect, perhaps we should have seen this coming. According to NBA.com, the Wizards are a minus-6.8 with Wall on the floor this season. Last season, when Wall went out with a knee injury back in February, the team went a respectable 14-12, which is not fantastic, but respectable.
The question worth pondering is whether they should keep this going. The Wizards are currently two games in back of Charlotte for the eighth seed in the east. On the one hand, getting a low seed in the playoffs isn’t exactly much to be excited about since the top of the east is actually quite strong this season. On the other hand, according to Tankathon, Washington has the third easiest schedule in the league going by strength. If this strong play proves to not be a fluke, the Wizards may prove to be the one team nobody in the east wants to play.
Then there are the impending returns of both Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris. Morris’ numbers have taken a hit both this season and the season before. With Wall out and other players stepping up their games, viewers should focus on how Morris plays without Wall since he’s in a contract year.
Putting all of the gossip surrounding Dwight off the court aside, Howard was the biggest prize of the offseason and came at a discount compared to what he can do on the court. According to Basketball-Reference, the Wizards are currently 28th in rebounding average with 40.7 per game. Howard has still been one of the league’s best rebounders so he could give a monumental boost in that department.
The Wiz may have some hope after all in spite of Wall’s injury appearing to signify their demise, which is something absolutely nobody believed at the start of the new year. Whether they truly are better without Wall really depends on how they perform for the rest of the season.
If they prove that they are better off without him, then Wall’s super-max extension that kicks in next season could be a bigger problem than we thought. This writer has an easy retort for that.
NBA Daily: How The Nets Reversed Their Fortunes
After hastily suggesting that the Brooklyn Nets should consider tanking, Ben Nadeau admits that he was totally and completely wrong.
Just over a month ago, one Basketball Insiders writer foolishly suggested that the Brooklyn Nets — despite all their youth, determination and overall grittiness — should strongly consider tanking out for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
At the time, the Nets were floundering without do-it-all playmaker Caris LeVert — holders of a dismal 3-10 record following that gruesome injury, in fact. Between their lingering injuries, the once-neverending on-court debate over D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie and an inability to finish games to the final buzzer, it almost seemed like a no-brainer. After all, losing might’ve resulted in a Zion Williamson-shaped prize headed the borough’s way, coincidently, during the first season in which the Nets have owned their own first rounder since 2013.
Since the original piece was posted on Dec. 8, the Nets have done little beyond rattling off 13 wins in their last 17 contests, becoming one of the NBA’s hottest teams along the way. In a mere instant, Dinwiddie got paid and continued to play out of his absolute mind, Latvian rookie Rodions Kurucs was jettisoned into the starting lineup to great success and even Russell suddenly appeared to approach that metaphorical corner.
As of Friday, Brooklyn has gone from single-digit winners (9-18) to the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed (21-22). So, uh, unfortunately, it looks like a once well-thought out article belongs firmly and totally in the garbage. The Brooklyn Nets are not tanking in 2019 and nor should they be — but just how wrong has that take become over the last 36 days? Well, let’s find out.
Take No. 1: “But with so many crucial, organization-altering decisions on the very near horizon, Brooklyn will need to reevaluate their direction if the losses continue to pile up. At what point does incubating culture come at the expense of missing out on an elite prospect?”
The record obviously speaks for itself — and per Nets PR recently, their 13-4 record over the last month is only bettered by the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers’ three-loss efforts. During that stretch, the Nets have ranked fourth in field goal percentage (47.9), fifth in three-pointers made (12.8) and sixth in points (114.7) per game. The defense is still a work in progress — although Brooklyn been much better at getting crucial stops when they need them — but the offense has hummed like a well-oiled machine.
From Oct. 17 to Dec. 8, the Nets’ offensive rating came in at 107.9, a mark that left them just 17th-best. In the last 18 games, however, head coach Kenny Atkinson has worked his magic touch and elevated his oft-injured roster all the way up to 111.6. Not only does it rank 10th-highest, but it’s additionally better than the Clippers, Bucks, Trail Blazers and Thunder in that time span as well. All of these plaudits have come with the useful Allen Crabbe missing most of the red-hot streak and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the team’s best man-to-man defender, sitting for the last six contests.
In layman’s terms, the Nets have gotten a whole lot better in a hurry, even without their roster at full health.
And on the other hand, it’s not that the Nets have rid themselves of all their important choices — the immediate futures of Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, Hollis-Jefferson and others remain — but they’ve addressed one of their biggest difficulties already. Dinwiddie may not have received his sought-after extension right on Dec. 8 — and he even left money on the table to boot — but the now-financially-secured point guard has been the consistent key and engine behind Brooklyn’s fast resurrection.
Which brings this teardown to the second previous point of conversation…
Take No. 2: “As two of the Nets’ best players, a desire to retain them both is understandable — but unless one is willing to come off the bench for the foreseeable future, it may not be the road the franchise wants to head down.”
Of course, there are some variables left to play out here: Mainly, Russell’s foray into restricted free agency this summer. Even then, the last month of basketball has gone a far distance toward proving that the-one-or-the-other notion may not be the only way forward for Brooklyn. Over the last 18 games, Dinwiddie has confidently poured in 19.3 points and 5.5 assists per game — both upticks on his averages from Oct. to early Dec — even hitting a number of clutch buckets in the process.
Dinwiddie has continued to come off the bench in a hyper-aggressive sixth man role — and may even be the current odds-on favorite to win the annual award come April — but it hasn’t slowed down his backcourt partner lately either.
Amidst this recent stretch, Russell has averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 44.2 percent from the floor. He’s tallied multiple, complete 30-plus point efforts while also distributing the ball seamlessly in a quick-moving offense. Most importantly, the Nets have deployed their promising guard in the fourth quarter at a higher rate as well — he’s no longer just cheering his teammates on through clutch moments, Russell is leading them. Sure, there are nights where Russell still struggles — like his five-point, six-turnover disappointment versus Boston last week — but his improved play has onlookers asking if the fourth-year’s sky-high potential is finally coming to fruition.
Russell turns just 23 years-old next month but if he keeps playing like this, the will-they-won’t-they match debate will disintegrate long before free agency. Needless to say, if this positive turn is a permanent look for Russell, he’ll be staying in Brooklyn long-term. In the course of a month, ultimately, it may be just the road this franchise wants to head down after all.
On a more interesting note, not only have the Nets toyed with playing both Russell and Dinwiddie at the same time, thus eliminating the Sophie’s Choice conundrum between choosing who to sit, but Atkinson has also thrown Shabazz Napier into the mix. A three-guard lineup wouldn’t work for most teams, but the Nets must utilize their talent in any shape or form they can. The electric ballhandlers have both been exceptional as of late, so Brooklyn hasn’t had to worry about taking turns or trying to guess who’ll possess the hotter hand.
Their ability to play together could be a major development as the Nets decide how to ride this rebuild into 2020 and beyond.
Take No. 3: Play the kids, trade the veterans
Last but not least, there was a hope for a youthful jolt of energy to the arm. If the Nets were going to flounder, they might as well do it with some panache, right? Turning the keys to the wobbly wagon over to the kids — specifically Rodions Kurucs, Džanan Musa, Alan Williams and Theo Pinson — would theoretically grant them valuable experience for years to come. Past that, the Nets and the always trade-savvy general manager Sean Marks could then ship off effective veterans on large, expiring contracts for future assets. Instead, almost the opposite has happened.
Obviously, Kurucs’ role promotion been undeniably prudent and invaluable within this Nets mini-run — but after that? Musa, who had averaged 20.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals in 32.4 minutes for Brooklyn’s G League affiliate in Long Island this season, was diagnosed with a left shoulder subluxation in mid-December and has yet to return. Williams, although a G League menace, was released by the Nets on Jan. 2 so the center could pursue a more lucrative contract in China, only to return this week after complications. And despite torching the Maine Red Claws for 43 points on Thursday, Pinson has yet to totally sort through his burgeoning skills at the NBA level.
That lack of consistent in-game burn has allowed the roster’s strong veteran presence to shine on through entirely. DeMarre Carroll was cold in the season’s early aughts, but he’s torched opposing defenses lately with a new-look approach. Last week alone, Carroll dropped 19-, 20- and 20-point efforts back-to-back-to-back on a combined 19-for-33 from the floor. The junkyard dog likely won’t regain his effortless wizardry from his career-best 2017-18 campaign, but this revitalized version — which Carroll chalked up to assistant Jordan Ott — isn’t just expiring trade bait, he’s absolutely essential to the Nets’ successes.
It’s often tough to predict the daily statistical contributions from Jared Dudley — but for what he lacks in big scoring performances, the 33-year-old has been universally hailed for his leadership. Aside from being well-loved, Dudley has started in 25 games for Brooklyn this season, always willing to hit some much-needed late three-pointers and do the dirty work without complaint. While he’s not the future answer at the position by any means, it’s safe to say Dudley is going nowhere during this busy trade deadline season. Without Carroll or Dudley, there’s no way the Nets would’ve stayed this hot for this long — that seems almost certain.
Kenneth Faried is still glued to the bench, but in two of his three appearances since Dec. 8, the Manimal has turned in double-doubles lines. Whether there’s a trade or a buyout on the horizon, something else must be in store for the handy power forward.
At the end of the day, it was too hasty to turn a watchful eye toward Zion Williamson and his killer draft class that early. But after falling prey to a bad 3-10 streak, and without LeVert for the foreseeable future, it looked like a potential route with merit. It’s strange how quickly things can change in the NBA and the Nets, once again, appear to be a shining example of this clause. Thirty-six days ago, the Nets were tumbling down the conference ladder with a bubbling point guard controversy and a glaring need for an exit plan. Now in mid-January, the Nets look wholly competitive despite a slew of injuries, while Dinwiddie and Russell have not only existed in conjunction with each other, they’ve thrived.
Brooklyn won’t be looking for a youth movement to save them, or even see the season out — that’s a strategy for those secret tankers. And although this writer incorrectly doubted the Nets, the franchise never wavered. Not everything has been fixed, handled or dealt with, of course, but it no longer feels like slapping a band-aid on a massive bleeding wound and calling it good enough. These Nets, competitive and scrappy, are here to stay, which is a significant accomplishment considering where the team stood not too long ago.