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The Big 3: Lowry, West 8-Seed and Play of the Week

This week’s Big 3 features Kyle Lowry, the “race” for the 8 out West and an instructive Play of the Week.

Ben Dowsett

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Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three, where we canvass the league for a few big themes from the week that was. We’re back from a brief holiday break – let’s get started!

This week’s column features an under-the-radar MVP candidate, one of the weirdest races for the eight-seed we’ve seen out West in decades, and a Play of the Week that helps illustrate a new defensive trend sweeping the league. All statistics are prior to Saturday’s games.

Kyle Lowry, Legit MVP Candidate

The MVP debate always starts out with a relatively wide net, typically led by a few frontrunners, before it narrows to include just those frontrunners plus a couple of fringe candidates. We’re roughly reaching that point this season: James Harden and Russell Westbrook appear to have distanced themselves in most conversations, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and perhaps a guy like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard dotting the margins. If the vote was today, it’s likely we’d see Harden and Westbrook split the majority of first-place nods.

Based on all the past indicators of MVP success, though, we need to be adding another name to the list: Kyle Lowry.

It seemed to many (this pen included) as if Lowry had hit a bit of a plateau last year during his age-29 season. After all, he set career highs in virtually every major efficiency-related category while leading the Raptors to the most successful season in franchise history. However, there were hints of potential regression in his game.

So much for that. Lowry set his own career high in True Shooting percentage last year with a .578 mark, but he’s blasting that to smithereens so far this year – up to .642, the highest figure in the league for a guard (per basketball-reference.com). He’s finishing at the rim more effectively than ever before in his career, lighting nets on fire from floater range and sitting in the league’s top 10 for three-point shooting despite a ridiculous average level of difficulty.

In fact, Lowry’s shooting this season is eerily similar to the two-time defending MVP who has become synonymous with difficult shot-making. Lowry isn’t approaching Stephen Curry’s legendary 2015-16 campaign, of course – there’s a strong chance no one ever will – but take a quick gander at a comparison of their shooting metrics and you’ll see he’s right on par with Curry’s first MVP season:

Curry 2014-15: 48.7% FG, 44.3% 3P, .638 TS%, 42.0% on pull-up 3-pointers (per SportVU data)

Lowry 2016-17: 47.7% FG, 44.5% 3P, .642 TS%, 41.7% on pull-up 3-pointers

Curry’s 2014-15 numbers were on a bit more volume and perhaps a higher degree of difficulty, but those are nearly identical shooting figures.

Lowry currently sits fourth in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, trailing only Chris Paul, Antetokounmpo and James. The Raptors’ offense sputters and dies when he leaves the floor and his bench mobs that open the second and fourth quarters of most games are a big reason the Raptors still sit within shouting distance of the Cavs for the top overall seed out East. Lowry deserves to at least be on the margins of the MVP conversation and more of this over the next couple months could even get him up there with the main guys.

West 8-seed, Anyone? Going Once…

As of this writing, the Portland Trail Blazers – they of the glamorous 16-22 record, for a .421 winning percentage – sit in the eighth seed in the West. They’re jockeying with fellow sub-.500 teams for that final spot and a huge line of delineation seems to have been drawn between the eight-seed and the top seven teams in the conference.

Folks familiar with how dominant the West has been in recent years will recognize this as a rare occurrence, but perhaps won’t be aware of exactly how rare.

There have only been two teams in the last 20 years who have finished even directly at .500 and made the playoffs in the West: Houston last season and Minnesota during the lockout-shortened year in 1998-99. It was a full two decades ago that anyone got in at below .500 – three teams actually all did in the same year in 1996-97.

The West’s general dominance over the East hasn’t let up, by any means; the West is still 109-94 against the East on the year. But this is a rare gap in power structure we haven’t really seen since the current chasm between the conferences developed. With four teams in the West currently winning over 60 percent of their games (and the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies right on that line as of this writing), it’s looking like things have gotten even more top-heavy than usual – and the Warriors, driving that top-heaviness in large part, are in line for a historically weak first-round opponent if current standings hold.

Play of the Week

NBA offense and defense are in a constantly evolving chess game, only if just the top 30 grandmasters in the world played each other over and over and all 28 others sat and watched every game. Little tweaks that work make their way into other playbooks, sometimes immediately or sometimes over a few months or an offseason.

As the NBA’s rise in pick-and-roll play has spread, one of the counters that has eventually manifested has been switch-everything defenses to prevent damning rotations. For teams with multiple talented screener options, the next logical chess move has been to search for the best potential switching mismatch available, then go at that repeatedly while avoiding where the switch the defense “wants” to go to.

During set play moments at the end of big games, though, defenses have found a new counter. Many offenses are pretty transparent about their desire to run pick-and-roll during these moments and defenses who know it’s coming have started dictating some of their own action guarding screens.

The Warriors with Draymond Green in the 2016 playoffs were among the first teams to pull this trick out, though it’s possible someone else was the true innovator. In this example from the Oklahoma City Thunder late in an eventual loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, see if you can spot what Oklahoma City does. Pay special attention to Russell Westbrook, initially positioned at the top of the screen on the right.

As the play begins, note how Westbrook is mostly hanging a bit higher than usual in the middle area between his man on the baseline and ball-handler Kemba Walker (and note how Andre Roberson is doing the same on the other side of the court, in case the pick comes from there).

As the play develops, it turns out that Steven Adams’ man, Frank Kaminsky, is coming up to set the pick for Walker – not Westbrook’s man, Marco Belinelli. But that doesn’t matter to the Thunder. Their primary goal is making sure they have a guy who can switch the upcoming pick and take over on Walker without giving up a huge edge.

Westbrook executes the switch and the Thunder get what they want: Walker gets the ball out of his hands. He passes to Belinelli and while the Hornets do end up getting free-throws out of this, it still has to count for a process win for Oklahoma City. Belinelli isn’t a particularly creative dribbler, and while he’s certainly quicker than Adams, he’s a far better option than Kemba in that same situation. Also, by forcing the pass away from Walker and wasting a couple extra seconds, the Thunder have run the shot clock down below seven – they can give Adams solid help if he gets beat.

They didn’t execute it perfectly here, but a careful eye can see how useful this tactic can be. Teams can designate a “roll man defender” like they did with Westbrook here, knowing that they’ll have a good matchup on the primary ball-handler they’re honing in on. If the offense wants to exploit a mismatch, they’re forced to do so using a secondary playmaker who probably isn’t as talented or experienced going one-on-one in these big situations. Otherwise, they won’t be able to create any major creases in the defense.

Of course, know that the best offensive coaches are out there scheming the next counter here. Maybe teams fake a screen from one man and run it with another in a way that frees up an open rim run, or maybe they slip the pick more quickly and catch the switchers napping. If we see the next variation, we’ll update it here.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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