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Set Up Well For The Future: Western Conference

Benny Nadeau looks at three Western Conference teams with some of the league’s brightest futures.

Ben Nadeau

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At this point in the year, every NBA franchise is now firmly separated into one of two camps: pushing for the playoffs or looking toward the lottery. And unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets, who are neither here nor there and do not own their own likely No. 1 overall selection, then your favorite team falls into one of these categories. While most of the Western Conference is captivated by a three-way battle for MVP between Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook (joined by LeBron James from the East), there are a few teams that have set themselves up for a bright future even without the playoffs on the near horizon.

For those on the outside looking in, which teams in the Western Conference might be ready to take the next step in 2017-18?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coming into this season, there was no franchise more hyped than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by the maturing talents of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, anchored by the once-in-a-generation Karl-Anthony Towns and coached by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, many were predicting a playoff berth for one of the league’s youngest teams.

Of course, the torn ACL for LaVine quickly complicated things, but the Timberwolves struggled defensively against their elite competition for much of the season. The Wolves’ current defensive rating of 108.3 slots them in at the 7th-worst mark in the league, and they kept their opponents under 100 points just six times before January 1. For all the team’s potential, Minnesota has posted a poor 7-17 record against the current playoff field out West.

Even with their playoff hopes fading by the day (6.5 games back, 9 games remaining), the Timberwolves won’t end the season far from their predicted 8th seed. Which is to say, all in all, there’s plenty of room to grow in Minnesota.

The combined age of their starting lineup is just 23.6 (Gorgui Dieng leads the way at a ripe 27 years old) and Kris Dunn, perhaps this year’s most disappointing rookie, has loads of basketball ahead of him. As of today, the Timberwolves have a 72.5 percent chance of landing the No. 8 overall pick in a stacked class and can add another top prospect to the puzzle. Should they draft a stretch forward like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen? Or could they target an eventual Ricky Rubio replacement in North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr.?

For the Wolves, their drafting options will be endless.

Still, they’ll need to improve defensively, but there’s no better place to start than with Thibadeau. The former head coach of the Chicago Bulls was a dream fit for this athletic but untrained Timberwolves team. Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010-11, and his Bulls ranked in the top five in DRtg in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). While those teams were led by stalwart stoppers in Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, there’s no reason to think Thibodeau can’t mold Wiggins and Towns into similar-like defenders. Defensively, Rubio and Dieng are already above average contributors at their position, so a healthy season and fleshed out bench should help Minnesota reach some of their unfulfilled potential.

So yes, this season was ultimately a disappointment for the Timberwolves, but their window is truly just opening. With a core set for the immediate future and the addition of another top ten pick this June, this Thibodeau-led franchise will start making playoff appearances sooner rather than later.

Phoenix Suns

After the Phoenix Suns landed forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender last summer, the franchise found themselves in an interesting position. Even with a healthy Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, the Suns were always anticipated to fall short of the playoffs this season, but could anyone have predicted this? Now they’re now neck and neck with the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 2 overall selection, winners of just four games since the All-Star break.

In fleeting moments, these Suns were as electric as advertised, in part thanks to their budding core of youngsters. Chriss has shown real potential as a forward able to run the floor on one end then spot up for a three-pointer during the next possession. And, of course, there’s Booker, the sweet sharpshooter that dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last week, and his continued growth, upping his points per game average to 21.6 from his rookie season mark of 13.8.

Those two alone get the Suns in the conversation automatically, but strong periods of play from Alan Williams and Tyler Ulis have helped as well. Ulis has come on strong over the last month and, in March alone, he’s tossed seven or more assists in eight of the Suns’ 15 games. The best month of his professional career was highlighted by his 20-point, 5-assist and game-winning effort against the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas. As for Williams, the Suns’ backup center has quietly loaded up on minutes since the All-Star break. In his second NBA season, Williams has provided some quality minutes for Phoenix off the bench, racking up double-doubles in all but five of the games he’s played in March.

Admittedly, Bender has been a slow burn at times, but he’s a match for the new prototypical NBA big man as a stretch forward that’s agile enough to keep up with most opponents defensively. Although he’s been out since February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Bender is just 19 years old and should pair nicely with Chriss for many years to come.

If the Suns decide to part ways with Bledsoe, 27, or Knight, who is in the second season of a 5 year, $70 million deal, then they’ll hope to use their pick on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz or Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, three guards that sit at the top of this class. Pairing Booker with one of those NBA-ready talents could be the key to an all-out onslaught on the Western Conference for years to come.

However, if the Suns don’t wind up with their choice guard, they could easily hold onto Bledsoe’s remarkably reasonable contract at $29.5 million over the final two years of his deal. With just T.J. Warren and Derrick Jones Jr. taking up time at the small forward position, Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum would certainly be fantastic options there as well.

Long story short, the Suns already have Chriss, Bender and Booker locked in and the rest of the roster is (nearly) lean and flexible. We’ll just have to wait for the ping-pong balls to fall before the Suns decide how to proceed next.

Los Angeles Lakers

Finally, there’s the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following the retirement of Kobe Bryant last season, the Lakers quickly got to work and identified Luke Walton as the head coach of the future, snagging him away from the 73-win Golden State Warriors. After a solid 10-10 start through November, the wins started slipping away, so Walton trimmed the rotation and handed the reins to his younger players, a move that former head coach Byron Scott notoriously refused to make.

Elsewhere, after one of the strangest sagas in NBA history, franchise legend Magic Johnson took over as president of basketball operations in February. While there’s little evidence to believe that Johnson will be immediately successful in his first front office opportunity, the fit is a relatively perfect one and he’s got a wide margin of error for now.

In the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell pairs with Jordan Clarkson to form a dynamic, offensively-inclined duo. Although Russell’s numbers have nominally risen to 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game during his sophomore season, Clarkson has replicated his strong output from 2015-16. While both need to improve defensively, it’s a good start to keep pace with the NBA’s guard-focused, offensively powered league.

Even in this weak rookie class, the lengthy Brandon Ingram struggled to leave his mark for much of the season. He’ll benefit greatly from a full offseason in Los Angeles, but he’s shown promise as a two-way player in the second half of this season. From October to January, Ingram scored in double figures just eight times, but following the New Year, the small forward has racked up 10 or more points in 22 of the Lakers’ 36 games. The No. 2 overall selection has a long way to go before reaching his lofty Duke expectations, but he’ll only be 20 years old in September, so there’s plenty of room to build from here.

And then there’s Larry Nance Jr., a former late first rounder that has shown flashes of strong play throughout the season. An injury forced Nance Jr. out for a month in December, but he’s been a consistent member of the rotation since then, supplying just a little bit of everything on the statistical end. The walking one-man highlight reel is averaging 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on a solid 53.7 percent mark from the floor.

Other than the odd signings of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, moves that’ll cost the Lakers about $34 million per year until 2020, it’s safe to say that the new era of basketball in Los Angeles is off to a solid start with Walton at the helm. Now losers in 15 of their last 16 games, the Lakers have made a legitimate push for the NBA’s second-worst record along with the previously mentioned Suns.

Adding another top prospect in June — whether that’s Ball, Fultz or Jackson, it hardly matters — is the next step for Los Angeles this offseason. They’ll be sweating the draft lottery to ensure they retain a pick with which to do so.

While an NBA Championship is still far out of reach for these three franchises, there’s plenty to be excited about in Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles. From high draft picks to blooming stars, these teams have the structure, coaches and potential to make some serious strides toward reaching the postseason once again.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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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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NBA

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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