With the NBA regular season wrapping up in the coming days, much speculation will center on the candidates for end-of-season awards. While so much focus is on the season’s most recognized performers, Basketball Insiders will take a look this week at players, coaches and executives whose contributions and accomplishments have flown under the radar. We’ll start with today’s look at six underrated NBA point guards.
6. Jeremy Lin
While it’s difficult to gauge Jeremy Lin’s value to the Brooklyn Nets since he’s only appeared in 31 games due to injury, his absence has been felt in Charlotte. The Hornets are in imminent danger of missing the playoffs, and the disappointing play of backup point guard Ramon Sessions is an obvious factor. Sessions ranks 67th among point guards in Real Plus-Minus, while Lin ranks 26th for Brooklyn and ranked 32nd as Kemba Walker’s backup last season.
The Nets have gone 10-21 in games for which Lin has been available, and 8-38 in all other games. Brooklyn would still be on pace to miss the playoffs if Lin had been available for all 77 games and the team maintained the same won/loss ratio. A lot of that has to do with an overall talent deficit after the team traded starting power forward Thaddeus Young for the draft pick that was used on promising rookie Caris LeVert. However, Lin remains a legitimate rotation NBA point guard who can help a team if he can only stay healthy.
5. Dennis Schroder
Perhaps the most surprising entry on this list goes to Dennis Schroder, the Hawks’ point guard who allegedly campaigned for Jeff Teague’s starting job and now stands in danger of missing the playoffs, something Teague has never done. With Schroder at the helm, the Hawks went from 22nd in turnover ratio in Teague’s final season to 28th currently. While Teague ranks 12th among NBA point guards in assist ratio for the Pacers, Schroder is tied with Orlando’s D.J. Augustin for 42nd.
Even more infuriating than the endless stream of miscues with the ball has been Schroder’s worse-than-advertised defense. Among 248 NBA players with at least 1000 minutes through March 19, Schroder ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive differential (the difference between a player’s off-court and on-court defensive ratings).
So how can Schroder be underrated if he has stumbled so badly in his first season as a full-time starter? Firstly, it must be understood how thoroughly Hawks coach and GM Mike Budenholzer set Schroder up to fail via last summer’s personnel moves. While Isaiah Thomas is enjoying a career year alongside Al Horford and the Rockets have soared to a top-three record since Dwight Howard departed, Schroder must orchestrate an offense that suffers from too much predictability with Howard on court. In losses since Atlanta traded Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers, the Hawks score 102.7 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the bench but just 93.3 with Howard on the floor, easily a team-worst offensive differential. On top of that, the Hawks entered the season with only two point guards, including rookie Malcolm Delaney. A veteran presence at the position might have smoothed Schroder’s transition to starter.
Secondly, any discussion of Schroder’s ceiling must include an analysis of Budenholzer’s head-scratching lineup decisions during last season’s four-game sweep in the second round to those same Cavs. Schroder was one of only two Hawks with a positive net rating for the series, and yet Budenholzer played him only 80 minutes. In Game 1, Schroder erupted for 27 points on 50 percent shooting that included five of ten three-pointers. For reasons that defy comprehension, Budenholzer played Schroder fewer than 15 minutes in Games 2 and 3. Schroder then scored 21 in 26 minutes in Game 4, but it was too little, too late.
Teague concluded his Hawks career with five points and two assists in 22 minutes in Game 4. He would later claim on Instagram (before deleting the post) that he played the entire 2015-16 season with a torn patella tendon. If Teague was so hobbled, why would Budenholzer play him more minutes than Schroder, who was on fire when given significant minutes? While Atlanta was +4.5 per 100 with Schroder on court in the series, the Hawks were obliterated by 24.4 per 100 in Teague’s minutes. In a series in which the Hawks held fourth-quarter leads in three of four games, this question matters.
4. Elfrid Payton
Speaking of head-scratching coaching decisions, we turn to Magic coach Frank Vogel’s brief demotion of Elfrid Payton to backup point guard. After starting over 60 games in each of his first two seasons, Payton has started only 53 of 77 games so far this season. The other 20 starts have gone to D.J. Augustin, currently 42nd among point guards in RPM. Payton, meanwhile, is 18th among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating and 33rd in RPM, which rates him solidly as an NBA starter.
Payton has certainly had ups and downs throughout his career, but it seems he’s taken a disproportionate amount of blame for Orlando’s failure to meet expectations. Payton is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, PER and effective field goal percentage while his turnovers are a career-low. A better target for that blame would be Orlando GM Rob Hennigan, who traded three rotation players — Victor Oladipo, one of the NBA’s most promising two-way wings; Ersan Ilyasova, who has been among the net rating leaders for the 76ers and Hawks; and 2016 11th pick Domantas Sabonis, who has been among this season’s most productive rookies — for less than a season’s rental of Serge Ibaka.
After shooting an encouraging 32.6 percent from three last season, Payton has plunged below his career average to 26.8 percent this season. The inability to stretch the floor has been a major knock on Payton, and it remains a concern. However, it’s not a sufficient reason to give up on a third-year player who flashes a lot of talent. If Orlando’s front office hadn’t grown impatient and sought a short cut to the playoffs, Payton would have a lot more talent to work with.
3. Patrick Beverley
When the old dog Mike D’Antoni took over as Houston Rockets coach and decided to try some surprising new tricks, Patrick Beverley was put in the position of accepting a demotion for the betterment of his team. After Dwight Howard declined his player option and departed to the Hawks, Houston signed Ryan Anderson to a massive four-year, $80 million contract and committed to the modern era of floor spacing. Lost amidst the fanfare of James Harden’s legitimate candidacy for NBA Most Valuable Player is the story of the player Harden replaced as Houston’s starting point guard.
Beverley, the gritty, old-school, defensive-minded guard who recently decried the practice of resting players, handled the change in role exactly how you’d expect him to: He never complained and continued to give the Rockets whatever was asked of him. While his 9.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game seem solid-if-unspectacular, a deeper look shows exactly what he’s meant in Houston’s ascent to a top-three record. Of the averages mentioned, all but points are a career-high.
Beverley’s 38.5 percent from three trails only Anderson’s 39.7 percent among regulars. Largely thanks to a defensive RPM that ranks second only to Chris Paul, Beverley ranks in the top 10 among point guards in RPM. If his value wasn’t obvious enough, Beverley erupted right on cue for a career-high 26 points with eight rebounds and nine assists to lead the Rockets over the Suns on Sunday as Harden missed his first game of the season due to illness.
2. Patty Mills
The Spurs are a team-best +13.1 points per 100 possessions with Patty Mills on court. With Tony Parker on court, San Antonio is +5.9, the worst net rating of any Spur with at least 500 minutes. Parker’s status as a starter seems like a lifetime achievement award at this point. This summer, San Antonio is going to have to deal with the fact that Mills could start for about half of the league’s teams. He’ll be making something close to starter money next season, even if it’s to continue his role as Parker’s backup.
1. George Hill
Nobody underestimated George Hill more than Pacers GM Larry Bird. Of the three teams that participated in the trade that sent Hill to Indiana, the Pacers and Hawks are in danger of missing the playoffs while the Utah Jazz has gone from the lottery to top four in the brutal Western Conference. Hypothetically, if the Hawks had dealt directly with the Pacers and swapped Teague for Hill, it’s hard to imagine the Hawks being only two games above the lottery line entering the season’s final weeks. Schroder could have used an extra season as an understudy to a point guard of Hill’s talent.
Hill has had his share of injury woes as well, but in 47 games he has started for Utah, the Jazz is 31-16. In games for which Hill was not available, Utah is 16-14. The proof is in the pudding. Hill has been underrated because he spent most of his career in the shadow of Paul George with the Pacers. Being an unselfish player, Hill was willing to run the offense through George and play a more complimentary, less ball-dominant role than we see from many of the league’s lead guards. The result is that we didn’t see what Hill was capable of … until the Jazz gave up a lottery selection to make him Utah’s team leader. The results speak for themselves.
Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders as we’ll be digging into underrated players at other positions — as well as coaches and league executives — throughout the week.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN