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The Genesis of Mike D’Antoni’s Gravity-Based Offense

Ben Dowsett goes one-on-one with Mike D’Antoni on the genesis of gravity within his offenses over the years.

Ben Dowsett

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The term “gravity” in basketball may have been born of analytically-inclined thinking, but at its core it speaks to one of the simplest basketball themes imaginable. In the broadest possible sense, gravity is really just any force that helps pull the defense to a certain place – from the offense’s perspective, hopefully to a place that proves undesirable for defending and makes it easier to score.

To watch the modern NBA, and particularly some of the most potent offenses in the game, you’d assume this kind of basic understanding has been present for decades.

Teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs base much of their offensive philosophy around manufacturing ball and player movements that will force certain reactions from the defense, then exploiting those reactions. They beautifully leverage the all-world talents of their players; just when the opposition thinks they’ve found the formula, the best of them have organic counters in place to keep them guessing. Watching one of these elite teams, it feels almost laughable to go about playing offense in basketball any other way.

Curiously enough, though, this hasn’t been anywhere close to the norm for the vast majority of the game’s history. NBA basketball has spent easily the largest chunk of its existence as a game based around mismatches and individual dominance, and huge elements of this approach still pervade the league today. My guy is simply more talented than your guy, the thinking goes; you’re either going to have to bring your guy some help while opening things up for someone else on my team, or I’m going to keep pushing that edge.

This isn’t to say there was no teamwork in prior decades of NBA basketball, or even that those approaches were necessarily bad. As recently as 10 years ago, though, the full power of ball and player movement – from all five guys, not just one or two involved in a given play – wasn’t really understood.

And then along came a guy named Mike D’Antoni.

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As a player in his youth, D’Antoni was part of the formative era of modern basketball. He played in both the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the early NBA during the mid-70s, a period where the ABA was pioneering the use of the three-point line. The NBA wouldn’t adopt the three until 1979, by which time D’Antoni was well into a successful playing career in Europe.

During his American playing days, D’Antoni took note of the way coaches and teams reacted to big structural changes like the three-point line – it was “willy-nilly a little bit,” he says now of the response he saw. Like with any big rule change, it took time for the league’s collective understanding to build about the best ways to exploit the new rules. He saw more of the same once the NBA adopted a three-point line.

D’Antoni made the transition from player to coach in the early 90s, beginning overseas. He hadn’t forgotten the impression those old ABA days had made on him. On top of that, he was influenced by one of the most popular teams in history to that point, the Showtime Lakers – not Magic’s flash or Kareem’s quiet dominance, but rather the raw speed with which the Lakers ran their opponents ragged. The seeds of NBA evolution were being planted.

After some stops in personnel and broadcasting plus a few assistant jobs, D’Antoni was hired by the Phoenix Suns in 2002 as an assistant. Partway into the 2003-04 season, he was promoted to head coach. What would follow would have more of an impact on the NBA and basketball as we know it than anyone could have predicted.

******

We talked earlier about gravity as simply a fancy term for an intuitive NBA concept, and D’Antoni’s offense was the perfect example. Even as they pushed movement and spacing themes harder than anyone in the world had to that point, they weren’t thinking in those sort of terms.

“I’m not sure I ever heard the term ‘gravity’ used,” says Doug Eberhardt, a part time assistant coach and longtime confidant of D’Antoni.

Defining the word in the way it’s used in today’s game, though, is exactly what D’Antoni and his group were getting at.

“You can use all the terminology you want – ‘gravity,’ whatever you want to call it,” D’Antoni tells Basketball Insiders today. “What we just try to do offensively is take all the rules defensively, and go against them… Everything that they preach defensively, we try to do [the] opposite or try and get to a spot they don’t want to be in.”

To accomplish this, D’Antoni drew from his influences: The way Magic and his Lakers kept teams off balance with nothing but sheer speed and decisiveness; the way the entire league was still digesting and processing what the three-pointer was good for.

His system was a hybrid of these ideas, and of other styles. D’Antoni was far from the first to involve multiple players in a given action or use the theme of movement to burn the defense; think of Jerry Sloan’s use of the pick-and-roll in the 90s, for instance.

D’Antoni was, however, one of the very first to realize a concept that seems like grade school stuff to most league thinkers now: If ball and player movement have so much success pulling the defense to places where the offense prefers them, then think about how successful the O could be if the D was never in the right place to begin with.

With that theme in mind, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns were born.

Under D’Antoni, the goal is simple: Put the defense to impossible decisions. Using any and all means necessary, every second spent with the ball in D’Antoni’s system is one where players should be finding opportunities to create two-on-ones that force the opposition to decide between the lesser of two evils.

Much of the foundation for this is in the transition game, which at the time was virtually uncharted territory around the league. Sure, teams would run out on the break if they got a steal up at the top of the key and an easy numbers advantage, or if a rebound bounced long into the perfect place. A few even pushed it further. The majority of NBA offense, though, was played in a set, halfcourt format.

D’Antoni made running the break a cornerstone of his system, and flipped the league’s transition principles on their heads while doing it.

“What’s the natural reaction of the defense when you’re in any transition? You’ve been taught since you’re little that you run to the basket, and protect from the basket out,” Eberhardt says.

Not against D’Antoni’s Suns, you don’t.

“On transition [defense], they want to run back into the paint and pack,” D’Antoni says. “Well, then we’re going to shoot threes.”

Instead of running to the basket in transition, bigs were told to stay outside and keep the lane clear for cutters. Instead of hitting the free-throw line extended and cutting inside for a possible layup or dunk, wings were taught to space directly to the corners – the furthest distance away from where the defense naturally wanted to run. Once teams adjusted to that? Hit them with the counter.

“They don’t want to be out hugging the three, because then you give up layups,” D’Antoni says. “They don’t want to be not giving up layups, because then you’re giving up threes. We’re trying to make it so where they have no choice but to not have an answer.”

They may not have been using the term, but think back to our broad definition of gravity – isn’t that exactly what it’s getting at? The fast break is the easiest way to force a defense into a numbers disadvantage; a numbers disadvantage is the easiest way to force the defense into a decision with no good answers. As Eberhardt puts it: “The gravity comes when you realize who the guy is that you have to cover.”

At first, things may have been a tough sell. Not only were D’Antoni and his staff preaching new concepts, they were the type that required both a physical and a mental commitment. Guys were running more than they ever had before, and while they did it they were being asked to remember principles that ran directly contrary to what many had learned coming up.

Superstar Steve Nash quickly bought in, something D’Antoni credits to this day for helping bring things along. But he readily admits the idea wasn’t universally popular – even certain assistants on his own staff were doubtful.

It’s much harder to argue with results, though, as he quickly found out. In his first full season at the helm, the Suns started a blistering 31-4. They averaged an unbelievable 110 points per game during this stretch, a mark they’d maintain for the full season while just five of the 29 other teams in the league would even crack 100.

“It made it an easy sell at that point,” D’Antoni reflects. “‘Hey, this works.’ And then the players were excited, all of them were averaging career-highs and stuff. So it sold itself in that sense.”

When the pure transition opportunities weren’t there, the layers of D’Antoni’s offense kicked in. The Suns’ secondary transition game may have been just as vital to their success as the actual fast breaks themselves, in fact – they actually never led the league in fast break point metrics, a distinction that was always reserved for the Nuggets and their high altitude back then.

With most other teams at that point, though, a fast break that didn’t materialize led to a reset, then a halfcourt play. For the Suns, there was no reset. The speed and decisiveness of the offense continued to flow.

A big piece of this secondary transition was the drag screen, or a pick the big man sets immediately upon entering the halfcourt (remember, D’Antoni’s bigs were told to stay out of the lane in transition to keep space open). Instead of coming up from behind or to the side of his target from his post down inside the paint, the big man would run the floor and, if the Suns’ transition attack hadn’t already generated a bucket, he would often immediately set a high pick for Nash or another ball-handler before ever entering the key.

Once again, the prevailing theme is keeping the defense off balance. Imagine you’re Nash’s defender, and you’ve just sprinted back down the court and narrowly prevented an easy look in transition. You don’t get a rest: Boom, before you’ve even set yourself and found everyone’s place on the court, you’re running into a seven-footer’s chest and Nash is walking into another deadly two-on-one.

Teams just weren’t ready for this sort of decisiveness. The Suns were playing at a speed that’s fast even for today’s game, which has mostly incorporated D’Antoni’s transition principles – per the tracking site inpredictable.com, they averaged a league-low 13.5 seconds elapsed per offensive possession in 2004-05. That’s a big difference from the league average of 14.8 seconds in 2016-17 and actually dead even with the 16-17 Warriors, the league’s fastest offensive team. If it wasn’t the fast break itself that killed you, it was the secondary action that flowed directly from it.

Even the possessions that mostly resembled traditional NBA halfcourt sets were littered with bits of D’Antoni’s dogma. He ran startlingly few actual diagrammed plays, with a much larger emphasis on the kind of heady “flow” that’s become more and more popular today.

“In the old NBA, a lot of times you just called plays out like, ‘Okay, we’ll call 44 because it’s time John touches the ball,’ or ‘Now we’re going to run 65,’” D’Antoni says now. “How that became the old NBA mantra – I hated that. Players would say, ‘I’m not getting any touches.’ I hate that.

“By having energy, we would tell the guys: ‘If you have energy, you run the floor, you cut at the right times, all that, the ball will find you and you’ll have a career-high.’”

D’Antoni’s battle cry in the locker room while hammering home these principles was simple: “The ball will find energy.” He didn’t teach plays; he taught concepts, then he trusted the best in the world at their craft to execute them.

One such concept is the “bottom-side screen.” Big men in pick-and-roll plays have their own form of gravity – the way they roll to the hoop, the threat of the lob or the layup, and perhaps most importantly in D’Antoni’s eyes, the way they set their screens.

“We really emphasize the energy that the big puts in the last three steps going into a pick-and-roll,” D’Antoni says of a screening scheme that continues to this day. “Where he hits the defense on the pick-and-roll – it has to be the bottom side. You want the defense to go over the top and start chasing the point guard.”

What happens when the defense goes over? You guessed it, another two-on-one. More decisions for the defense, and no great answers. “We’ve got guys good enough that it’s, ‘Once you give me a half-step, I’m taking it. I’m gone,’” D’Antoni says.

The emphasis on screen-setting was never about the action itself. Rather, it was about the speed, the precision and the ultimate result of what you were being asked to do – how your pick spatially influenced the defenders in the play to the benefit of the offense.

“The old sayings, you know, ‘Hold your pick, hit the guy,’ all that – we tried to discourage [that],” D’Antoni tells me. “We put more emphasis and more premium on, how do you get into the pick? The speed. How fast do you get out of the pick? And then the angle that you set it.”

******

As D’Antoni moved through further coaching spots over the years on his way to his current job in Houston, these kinds of little details became more important to maintain an edge. The NBA has long been a copycat league, and others had quickly begun to pick some of the lowest-hanging fruit from D’Antoni’s general theme. Teams ran in transition a bit more opportunistically, looking for chances to catch the defense off-balance. When they played a D’Antoni squad, they were more prepared for what was coming.

The exploits became more granular, but they were still there – and they still all traced back to that theme of gravity.

For instance, D’Antoni has often asked that his spot-up shooters spacing the floor do so from several feet behind the three-point line, rather than just a step or two back. The league took notice during his first year in Houston when guys like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson would almost comically exaggerate the gap, but it was actually a well-practiced D’Antoni staple from years prior.

“The original reason Mike wanted them to stop up in that area was so they had the opportunity to catch and step in,” Eberhardt says. When guys like Gordon and Anderson, who can simply make those deep shots at a high clip without stepping in, are on the floor, it’s an even bigger edge. “It makes a huge impact, because the defense has that couple extra steps they now have to close out.”

Another scheme that was present in earlier iterations but really gained steam in Houston is the super-high screen. A common tactic for slowing the D’Antoni transition machine quickly became opponents pressing Nash or other ball-handlers further up the court to disrupt their pace, often a halfcourt press or even further.

When that happened, D’Antoni simply had his screening big come way further out beyond the key to set the pick, even as far as halfcourt. A two-on-one is still a two-on-one no matter where it is on the court, and it’s still going to force exploitable rotations from the defense. Virtually any defense silly enough to press up on James Harden in Houston today is going to get this treatment, and chances are Harden is going to use those couple extra steps to make them pay for it. Even when a team isn’t pressing, the Rockets will sometimes intentionally run high pick-and-rolls that start even further up the floor to give Harden a bigger runway. None of this is going away with Chris Paul, already an elite practitioner of the super-high screen, now in the fold.

Finally, of course, there’s the raw volume of threes being taken in D’Antoni’s offense. His Phoenix squads always took plenty, but perhaps weren’t the outlier many remember: They were actually only first in per-possession three-point attempts twice in his four full years with the Suns, and even these years were by relatively thin margins.

Fast forward to today, and the gap between D’Antoni and everyone else is much larger. His Rockets attempted an incredible 39 threes per-100-possessions for the 2016-17 season, miles ahead of second-place Cleveland at just 34. The Warriors are virtually synonymous with the three in today’s game, but Houston took nearly 33 percent more attempts than them on a per-possession basis.

To hear Eberhardt tell it, though, those same Warriors may have simply galvanized D’Antoni to realize the true destiny of his offensive approach.

“Even a coach like that has second thoughts,” Eberhardt says. It’s easy to second-guess yourself when even your own assistants are doubting you. “[But] with Golden State winning and how the league was bending to his philosophy, now he’s gone full-throttle shooting the three.”

True to form, this isn’t an adjustment where just one part of the equation is considered. Three is more than two, but that’s not the only reason D’Antoni is again the league’s biggest outlier in an important area. Once again, he’s exploiting what he knows the defense’s expectations will be.

Just one NBA team in 2016-17 was in the league’s top five for both shots attempted at the rim and conversion percentage on these shots: The Rockets. And while the credit here often falls to longtime GM Daryl Morey and his Moreyball approach that totally cuts out midrange shots, this interplay is another D’Antoni mainstay.

Think about the trickle-down effect of some of what we’ve talked about: Guys spacing out to several feet beyond the three-point line, then actually making shots from there; D’Antoni’s team firing away threes at a ridiculous rate even for a league that’s historically obsessed with them; wings spacing out to the corner three in transition, rather than running for layups. As a defender going against this attack, what kind of effect does that create?

If you said gravity, good work. All that emphasis on threes and extreme versions of spacing will get you some points organically, sure, but more than that, they’ll pull the defense further from the hoop. What D’Antoni was doing with his seemingly ass-backwards transition spacing in Phoenix a decade ago is now working in reverse – teams are so conditioned to track his team’s threes that they’re willing to leave the vital real estate near the basket wide open.

Another day, another impossible decision for a team facing Mike D’Antoni’s offense. His players won’t always make the shots, of course, and they may not even make the right decisions about which shots to take.

But in a game with thousands and thousands of offensive possessions every year, gravity’s pull starts to make a real difference. No basketball mind has more thoroughly plumbed the depths of this concept, or done so with as much success. You’ll forgive D’Antoni for a singular, fleeting moment of bravado.

“Somebody’s going to be open,” D’Antoni tells me. “If you [do] it right, somebody’s going to be open. We don’t always get it right in a sense of picking out the right guy. But I truly believe: You cannot guard it. Period.”

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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NBA Daily: Why Boston Rebuffed Indiana

Many reports have come out explaining why Boston didn’t trade Gordon Hayward to Indiana when they had the chance. Matt John provides an alternative theory for why Danny Ainge didn’t take Indy’s offer.

Matt John

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Let’s be clear on this: There is some valid intrigue to one Myles Turner.

He is one of the rare hybrid bigs who can block shots (at a high clip) and shoot threes (at an average clip) – and all in a league that values that sort of skillset in bigs now more than ever. He’s a seven-foot rim-runner that jumps like his legs are made out of pogo sticks with arms long enough to make Mr. Fantastic jealous.

Although he hasn’t grown much as a player over the last three years, you can make the case that none of that is on him. The Indiana Pacers outgrew him for reasons out of his control, which, in turn, has limited his effectiveness and made him a little underrated.

And best of all, had the Celtics acquired him for Gordon Hayward, Turner would have strengthened their frontcourt on depth alone. Their frontcourt weaknesses definitely showed itself in the postseason when it mattered the most. Turner was attainable, is a better fit in Boston than he currently is in Indiana and he fits with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s timeline, so why didn’t the Celtics agree to take him from Indiana when they had the chance?

At first glance, the simple answer is that they just didn’t want him that badly. More and more details have come out saying that the Celtics gauged trade interest around the league for Turner and didn’t really get anywhere, so they wanted more from Indiana.

Not too long after the Hayward debacle, it was announced that the Celtics were bringing in Tristan Thompson – a starting-caliber big who rebounds better, costs half as much as Turner and has championship experience – further reinforcing that Boston just wasn’t that into the center.

That sadly doesn’t really answer the question, since, all things considered, getting someone like Turner surely would have been a better alternative than letting Hayward walk for nothing. Even if the Celtics didn’t have much interest in Turner to begin with, why this route?

Well, maybe it wasn’t about the prospect of getting Myles Turner. Maybe it was more about what kind of asset they were letting go of. Maybe, just maybe, Boston didn’t want to make an Eastern Conference rival potentially stronger than them.

If everything went Boston’s way, Gordon Hayward would still be suiting up for the Celtics. They were willing to pay Hayward upwards of nine figures to keep him as the fourth guy in their pecking order. Evidently, Hayward didn’t want that, and it’s not hard to see why.

Besides getting a bag so expensive that pretty much everyone unanimously agrees that it was a gross overpay, Hayward’s injuries combined with the unexpectedly rapid growth spurts of Tatum and Brown greatly diminished his role in Boston since first joining back in 2017. Remember that when Gordon Hayward signed a max contract with the Celtics, nobody second-guessed it from either side because he was supposed to be a featured player on a team aiming for a title. Subsequently, that went *poof* just six minutes into his first season in Boston.

You know the rest.

Fast forward to the end of this season and it was clear that Hayward wasn’t a featured player anymore and just part of the supporting cast. Being the fourth option has its perks, like not having the pressure to be the guy night-in and night-out. Especially when you’re being paid $30 million to do it. Alas, no player signs a max contract intending to be a complementary piece on a contender. Hayward wanted a bigger role and that wasn’t happening in Boston.

He’s going to get just that in Charlotte, probably would have gotten that in Indiana, and Myles Turner, Doug McDermott and a first-rounder isn’t the worst return for someone who was leaving anyway.

But know why the Gordon Hayward era in Boston turned out to be a dud? Hayward never quite figured out what he was supposed to be on the team. He was the most overqualified fourth option in the league and, yet, never quite ran with that role. Hayward brought more good than bad, but the inconsistency was maddening.

There were moments where the Celtics saw the Hayward of old, but they were flashes in a pan. Upon further inspection, there was a pattern. Almost every time Hayward put on a retro performance, someone else on the team happened to not be playing.

The first one of these performances came during the comedy of errors that was Boston’s 2018-19 season. His first season post-leg injury, Hayward wasn’t exactly the bucket-getter he was during his Utah days. He managed to eclipse the 20-point mark only seven times in the 81 games he played for the Celtics that season – and that included the postseason. So, whenever he had it going, it was safe to say that it was a rare occasion. Such an occasion happened on Jan. 2, 2019.

Hayward’s 35 points off the bench helped the Celtics rout the Minnesota Timberwolves, 115-102. This wasn’t Hayward’s first 30-point performance of the season. Hell, it wasn’t even his first 30-point performance against the Timberwolves that season. What made this even more surreal was that Hayward managed to do this without mercurial star Kyrie Irving. Well, it wasn’t like Minnesota was exactly the team to beat so there wasn’t too much to take from it. But then, on Feb. 12, it happened again.

Gordon Hayward put up yet another excellent performance – and this time against the twice revamped and very legitimate Philadelphia 76ers with Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. Yet again, no Kyrie, no problem. The Celtics won 112-109 going away, and they wouldn’t have done it without Hayward.

Any Celtics fan would tell you that it was a Kyrie thing seeing how badly that relationship ended. In fact, he had his best performance as a Celtic against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 5, 2019, where he hung a career-high 39 points on them.

This time though, there was no Jaylen Brown. Huh. So maybe it didn’t have much to do with Kyrie. Maybe Hayward played better when more touches were available. Hayward never put up a performance quite as strong as that one again – but anytime he had a standout performance, it usually fell under the exact same conditions. If Hayward had a great game it was because a vital player on the Celtics had been absent, and he was good enough to make up the difference.

For instance, on Jan. 28, Boston faced off against their future conference finals opponent Miami HEAT without the blossoming Jayson Tatum – moreover, it was in South Beach, where the home team had lost on their home floor only twice beforehand. Boston prevailed 109-101. How did they do it?

A month later, it happened again. This time against old friend Minnesota and this time without Kemba Walker. It didn’t matter then either. Hayward looked like himself.

Sure, Hayward had some fantastic games when the squad was at full strength and had some not-so-fantastic games when featured players were out, but this didn’t feel like a string of coincidences. At that time, it didn’t seem as evident, but in light of his departure, it stands out more now: The bigger role Gordon Hayward had in the offense, the likelier he was to perform better.

That was the conundrum with sending him to Indiana. Should he have been sent to the Pacers, there would have been more touches for him. Indiana already has some impressive offensive talent between All-Star center Domantas Sabonis and bubble-darling TJ Warren. Even with how good those two have been, theoretically, they wouldn’t have demanded the ball enough to limit Hayward’s role on the team like Boston inadvertently did with the Jays and Kemba.

With the ball in his hands more, the Hayward that showed up oh-so-sporadically in Boston may have been a mainstay in Indiana. That’s not a sure thing, but Ainge may not have wanted to take that chance.

It’s also worth mentioning that with the emergence of Sabonis, Indiana had less and less use for Turner. They’ve tried to make the pair work for the last three years. Their two-man net rating together is plus-2.1, which is fine, but it doesn’t show much progress compared to the plus-2.8 the year prior. With Sabonis’ emergence as their center of the future, it seems much more apparent that Turner is the odd man out.

So if the Celtics agreed to sign and trade Hayward for Turner among others, they’d be doing the Pacers potentially two favors:

1. Giving Indiana the better player and fit who would thrive in a bigger role.
2. Ridding Indiana of an already expendable player, talent and all.

Let’s now point out the obvious. Of course Danny Ainge didn’t want to lose Hayward for nothing. No one in his shoes would. But evidently, he didn’t think acquiring Turner as the centerpiece was worth possibly making the Pacers, an Eastern Conference rival, not only better with Hayward, but potentially better than the Celtics too.

Indiana was a mere 3.5 games behind Boston for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Hayward, even with his injury history, could have conceivably raised their ceiling high enough to supplant Boston. If Boston believed he wasn’t capable of that, then maybe they would have pulled the trigger on this deal – or more definitively, wouldn’t have been offering him $100+ million to keep him around.

Here’s a better way of putting it: The Celtics are much more likely to fear a team with Gordon Hayward if his supporting cast has the likes of Sabonis, Warren and Malcolm Brogdon than they are if his supporting cast has the likes of LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham and PJ Washington.

Optimistically, Hayward makes Charlotte a borderline playoff team. There’s no telling what he could have done for Indiana if all they had to give up was Turner, McDermott and a first-rounder.

Ultimately, too, Hayward was moved by Charlotte’s out-of-the-park mega-offer – and that’s why he’ll be donning a Hornets uniform next season.

In the end, Boston did get something out of Hayward. A league-record $28.5 million trade exception. One so big that it took forking over two second-round picks to get Charlotte to comply. It’s hard to believe that Boston won’t use an exception that large – look at what Golden State just did with the exception they got for Andre Iguodala – just like it’s hard to believe that they’ll get someone of Hayward’s caliber on the trade market. A star is probably out of the question, but a young player with upside definitely isn’t. Someone like Myles Turner comes to mind. As stated earlier, there’s definitely some intrigue to Turner.

Just not enough intrigue to trade Gordon Hayward for – as Boston has made so abundantly clear.

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2020 NBA Draft and Free Agency Roundable

Drew Maresca, Matt John and Steve Kyler discuss winners and losers of the NBA Draft and free agency.

Drew Maresca

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ALERT. ALERT. ALERT. The NBA’s 2020-21 season is scheduled to begin in less than a month.

If it feels like we just crowned the 2020 NBA Champions, that’s because we did. The Los Angeles Lakers secured their 17th championship on October 11, just over a month ago. Still, the new season kicks off in less than a month, on December 22; and the preseason could start almost two weeks earlier (December 11). And while there is much to look forward to pertaining to the new season, there is also much to assess.

November brought us trade season, the 2020 NBA Draft and a flurry of free-agent moves – all of which kicked off within days of one another, beginning on November 16. Basketball Insiders begins its 2020-21 coverage with Drew Maresca, Matt John and Steve Kyler assessing the abbreviated 2020 offseason:

NBA Draft Winners:

The draft had its share of surprises, but nothing outdid Tyrese Haliburton slipping to 12th. Haliburton shot up draft boards since the NCAA season came to an abrupt stop in March. His size and versatility were highlighted over and over again, and he was billed as an ideal running mate to pair with a score-first point guard. It seemed all but certain that he’d be a top-6 pick, with the Pistons at 7 being his assumed floor.

Well, this one was a mind-bender. Not only did he fall past the Atlanta Hawks — who he was linked within the lead up to the draft surprisingly — he was passed up by Detroit (who took another point guard in Killian Hayes) AND New York (who selected the 2019-20 Naismith Player of the Year, Obi Toppin) — both of whom were in the market for a point guard of the future.

But while it’s surprising that he fell to Sacramento, it’s far from a bad thing for Haliburton. He’ll line up next to point guard phenom De’Aaron Fox, who just inked a 5-year max extension. The Sacramento backcourt will look to move the ball up the court (FAST), and Sacramento could have found its backcourt of the future.

And it looks like Sacramento will give Haliburton more responsibility than originally assumed as they opted to pass on matching an offer sheet for shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanović (who will head to Atlanta). Further, guard Buddy Hield has a notoriously tumultuous relationship with head coach Luke Walton, making it look as though Haliburton can begin leaving his mark on the NBA immediately. Keep an eye on the rookie from Iowa State as a dark horse in the rookie of the year race.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

If we’re being completely honest, the fact that this draft wasn’t renowned for its upfront talent and more renowned for its deep pool of solid players makes it difficult to determine who really are the big-time winners of this go-round. So for this year, I think I’ll label the teams that usually get maligned for their draft decisions that definitely made the right choice.

Let’s start with the Charlotte Hornets. Michael Jordan has been routinely made a laughingstock for the moves he’s made for the Hornets, but instead of playing it safe, he went with the high upside pick. Out of all the prospects in this draft, LaMelo Ball arguably has the highest ceiling. There are definitely red flags to his game but the Hornets swung for the fences here because Ball may very well have the best chance at becoming a star. If he flops, he flops but that’s not relevant here. For the Hornets, drafting him at the very least signifies that they really do want to change their fortunes.

Then there’s the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland has made some… interesting draft choices with their lottery picks over the past decade, most recently with their 2019 pick, Darius Garland. This time, however, they actually picked the guy who actually fit with what they needed. Cleveland’s been sporting a piss poor defense over the last few years, so they brought in one of the draft’s most talented defenders. Isaac Okoro’s probably not going to be a star, but he definitely aids a big weakness of Cleveland’s. There just might be a light at the end of the post-LeBron tunnel.

Finally, as Drew pointed out, the Sacramento Kings made the perfect selection with Tyrese Haliburton. The do-it-all guard should be an excellent backcourt partner with De’Aron Fox, and his selection eases the pain of the recently departed Bogdan Bogdanovic. No one exactly knows what to make of the Kings’ current roster makeup with all the personnel and roster shakeups, but Haliburton should be another step in the right direction for them.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

They say the true test of an NBA Draft is not known for two maybe three years, and that likely will be true of the 2020 NBA Draft class. To that end, there were a couple of picks that jumped off the page, so let’s start with LaMelo Ball to Charlotte.

From a talent perspective, Charlotte may have gotten one of the best players in the draft. When you combine Melo’s natural ability with having Michael Jordan in his ear, the Hornets could end up with the top player in the class when it is said and done. The risk on Melo is two-part – first, durability, which we have seen with his brother Lonzo’s NBA career. Melo has played a lot of high-level basketball and his body does not reflect high-level physical development, and that could catch up to him as it did with Lonzo.

There is also a side-show factor.  There are enough things going on in an NBA season, but to have the sideshow that comes with the Ball family in Charlotte is a risk. James Borrego has built a strong foundation for Charlotte’s youth — will the spotlight and the bully pulpit Melo’s father Lavar Ball receives be a distraction? Time will tell, but the pick was an excellent one.

With the 15th pick, the Orlando Magic selected Cole Anthony, and while on the surface Anthony had an underwhelming season at North Carolina, its easy to forget he was one of the top scorers coming out of high school and was, by his own account, playing at 70 percent at UNC. If that’s true and Anthony can rebound to his stature coming out of high school, Orlando may have nabbed exactly what they were looking for — namely, an impact scorer. Time will tell if Anthony can be that guy at the NBA level, but getting Anthony’s offensive punch with the 15th represents incredible value.

With the 20th pick, the Miami HEAT selected Precious Achiuwa out of Memphis. Talk about the prototypical HEAT player. Achiuwa checks so many boxes for the HEAT; they now have interchangeability with Bam Adebayo, as they have similar physical styles of play. Achiuwa is a quality defensive presence that can guard four positions. To get such a perfect fit at 20 is uncommon and for Miami, it could be a nice selection.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

NBA Draft Losers:

Most teams drafted pretty well this year, or they strategically swapped their pick(s). But the Hawks’ selection of Onyeka Okongwu was curious for a few reasons. Before I get into the downside of the pick, let’s make one thing clear — this is no way means I think Okongwu wasn’t deserving of the 6th pick. On the contrary, Okongwu is a long and athletic big man who will probably affect the NBA game beginning on Day 1. But the Hawks didn’t need him. They just completed a trade for an athletic, shot-blocker in Clint Capela in February. Regardless of Okongwu’s upside, the Hawks simply don’t need another starting-caliber center. But they could have used a big, versatile forward like Deni Avdija.

The NBA is moving toward a positionless game. Avdija fits that mold to a T. He is a 6’9″ point forward who can score and create for others. Further, he’s a high IQ player who competes hard, plays on and off the ball and possesses strong defensive fundamentals.

Ultimately, the Hawks set themselves up for the future in free agency, so a wonky – but still productive – draft pick won’t set them back too much. But Avdinja’s upside is substantial. And he could have been inserted into the rotation immediately without stealing too many minutes from major players  (whereas Capela will obviously lose minutes to Okongwu).

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

As I said earlier, a draft like this makes it hard to decide who are the winners, and the same goes for the losers. For example, the Bulls definitely reached when they picked Patrick Williams, but a draft like this was the perfect time to reach for a prospect if you really liked him. In a case like this, if the other prospects aren’t good enough to make you think they’ll come back to haunt you, then go for the guy you like the most no matter what anyone else thinks.

In an offseason where pretty much everything uncharacteristically went their way, the Suns made an odd choice when they selected big Jalen Smith seeing how they already have a talented frontcourt and were perhaps better off with a guard like Kira Lewis or a swingman like Haliburton. However, if they think that developing DeAndre Ayton’s backup is the way to go, then go right ahead! We also have to remember that everyone thought that the Cam Johnson pick was terrible last year, and he made the whole NBA world eat their words.

There are definitely guys picked later in this draft who might wind up being better overall than Aaron Nesmith, but the Boston Celtics needed someone who can help them now. The Celtics’ second unit was desperate for a shooter and that’s exactly what Nesmith brings to them. The guys who could wind up being better than Nesmith will need time to develop, and Boston’s not waiting anymore. Maybe in previous years, but not now.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

There were not a lot of crazy questionable picks in the 2020 NBA Draft. Maybe we had too much time to micro analyze the class, or maybe teams just went more with popular opinion  That said there was one pick that sort of stood out as something of a reach – Patrick Williams at four to the Chicago Bulls.

To be fair, Williams is a quality NBA prospect and he could go on to have a fruitful NBA career; but at four with Killian Hayes and Tyrese Haliburton still on the board (and able to solve more pressing needs), Williams seems to be a stretch.

Every year there is a pre-defined order that most believe the draft will go in, so Williams going several spots higher isn’t out of the ordinary. The question is will Williams be a game-changer for a Bulls team desperate for a player in the draft that really moves the needle?

They say the draft should never be about solving positional needs, rather grabbing the best player available. I’m not sold on the idea that Williams was the best talent available at the four spot, so time will tell.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

Free Agency Winners:

The rich seemed to get richer in the NBA this offseason. Very few elite teams lost marquee players, and many actually added one or more. But one outlier is the Atlanta Hawks.

Atlanta had an impressive offseason, first adding elite prospect Onyeka Okongwu in the draft, and then adding Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanović, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondon in free agency. That’s an impressive haul for any team, but the Hawks just sped up their rebuild considerably, placing themselves squarely in the playoff discussion. Their new additions join an incredibly young core of Trae Young, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela. Rondo will be especially important for Young’s development, as Rondo is known to be an incredibly high-IQ player and cut-throat competitor. Gallinari and Bogdanović add versatility and shooting to a team in need of it. The Hawks were probably going to take a step forward and fight for one of the final playoff spots in the East prior to these signings. They’ll be even better now.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

It’s tough to decide who really are among the biggest winners in free agency because it depends on what the team sought out to do and also because this free agency class was so weak that it was seen as basically the calm before the storm that will be next year’s class. If even. It honestly wasn’t too impressive.

Keeping what goals they had in mind, more teams won than lost. Atlanta got the best pool of players in free agency by a landslide. Houston got the best economic value for the players they added in the offseason. Utah and Miami for the most part ran it back while adding some new faces that should serve to make them better. Those guys were among the biggest winners, but not the winner of free agency. That belongs to the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Not a lot of NBA champions can brag that they got better after winning a title, but the Lakers have definitely been the exception. While it was not perfect, the free agency period went as fantastically as they could have hoped. Signing Wes Matthews was their most key signing of the summer because a. the Dennis Schroder trade makes even more sense now and b. Matthews will do everything Danny Green did for the Lakers at basically 1/5th of the price. Coming in at a close second was re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was brought back at a reasonable deal after an awesome playoff performance.

Honestly, they didn’t have to bring in Marc Gasol, but getting him for chump change, even on the back end of his career, was a steal. They were better off keeping Markieff Morris than letting him walk so they did just that. The one head-scratcher was giving Montrezl Harell the full mid-level exception. On the one hand, Harell’s better than the no-show he put up for the Clippers when they got spanked by the Nuggets, so that might be a good value for the Sixth Man of the Year. On the other, it’s hard to see Harell play in their closing lineups alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis. They learned that the more spacing they had during their title run, the better.

At best, Harell adds second unit scoring to a team that didn’t exactly have a whole lot of that last season, and at worst, he’s an expendable asset to dangle at the deadline. No matter what happens, the Lakers have had one of the best offseasons a reigning champion can have to the point where it’s really not a hot take to say that they are a considerably better team now than they were back in October.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

Free agency winners? The Lakers.

Seriously, to see the 2020 NBA Champions deepen their roster with Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol without giving up anything that truly mattered to their core? That is incredible front office work.

Here are a couple of other situations worth mentioning:

The Atlanta Hawks have completely remade their team and did so without doing anything break the bank silly. The veteran additions of Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell are solid pick-ups and nabbing Bogdan Bogdanović will be a great get, maybe on the high side money-wise, but given his talent so far, it was a solid signing and what you have to do to steal another team’s player.

The Miami HEAT running it back with functionally the same core is smart, too. The HEAT are just scratching the surface of their potential given how young so many of their core guys are. They wisely structured their deals to remain flexible, although the Bam Adebayo extension takes them out of the direct free agent market next summer, they won’t be tied to long-term boat anchor type deals and could always trade into a free agent they covet because of how many great assets the HEAT have.

Overall, all three teams did a really good job in such a compressed chaotic timeframe.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

Free Agency Losers:

To Matt’s point above, winners are tough to crown without seeing a finished product on the hardwood. Losers are a little easier. And there are a few clear losers. But the team that hurt itself the most is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s a weird pick because I do actually like their roster, and I think it’s significantly improved from last year’s team. And the guy that’s most to blame for the Hornets’ hate will probably be their best player in 2020-21, but the Hornets also grossly overpaid to get him.

The announcement that Gordon Hayward was signing with the Hornets took most of the NBA universe by surprise. Hayward waited until (essentially) the last minute to announce he would opt out of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him $34.2 million. It was widely assumed he did so to secure more long-term money, not to essentially duplicate his salary AND stretch it. But that’s exactly what he did.

Hayward ultimately announced his intention to sign with the Hornets for 4 years/$120 million. Now, signing a 30-year-old, former all-star is usually celebrated, but Hayward hasn’t been able to re-establish himself after suffering a brutal foot injury in the first game of the 2018-19 season. He did manage to 17.5 points per game last season, and he averaged a career-high in rebounds (6.7), but he averaged only 2.8 free throw attempts per game (down considerably from what he tallied in Utah). He also suffered more injuries last season, breaking a bone in his hand in November and suffering nerve pain in his foot during the playoffs. So exactly what player are the Hornets getting? And worse still, what will he be in 2023-24?

Numerous reports state that the Hornets and Boston Celtics are still working on a sign-and-trade deal, which could improve the Hornets’ future cap situation. But either way, they’re still on the hook to pay Hayward the entirety of this massive contract — and that’s not ideal.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

If they manage to win the championship anyway, then the following won’t matter, but man oh man, the Bucks really missed out on such a golden opportunity when their sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic fell through.

For a couple of days there, it really felt like Milwaukee had added the last piece of the puzzle. Bogdanovic’s abilities as a combo guard felt like such a perfect fit for what the Bucks are all about. His abilities as a scorer would have taken more pressure off of Khris Middleton, and his abilities as a shooter should have complemented Giannis’ game like a glove. As an added bonus, his 6’6” frame and his playmaking abilities would have further strengthened the Bucks’ motion offense and positionless basketball. This was it. The Bucks were going to be better than ever.

Until the rug got pulled right out from underneath them. The tampering debacle canceled everything, and the Bucks at this point can only wonder what could have been. Failing to acquire a superstar is one thing. Having a superstar then failing to get the guy that definitely would have made your championship aspirations the strongest they’ve been in years is another. That’s why they are my pick for the biggest loser in free agency.

In all fairness, their offseason wasn’t a total failure for them. In fact, props to them for not stubbornly trying to run it back when it was clear that something had to be done. Jrue Holiday is definitely an upgrade over the likes of Eric Bledsoe and George Hill. Getting a haul of buy-low additions like DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig, and Bryn Forbes will help fill out the bench, but none of those guys compare to what Bogdanovic could have done for them. With what’s at stake, it could very well haunt Milwaukee knowing that Bogdan Bogdanović slipped through their fingers.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

There were a few head-scratchers in free agency…

Not sure what the Detroit Pistons were thinking. They let their best free agent walk in Christian Woods, then turned around and gave a big deal to a slightly-average guy. Jerami Grant is a quality player, but three years and $60 million is a ton.

If the motivation was to go all in for one more run with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, mission accomplished; but I’m not sure that means anything, even in the East.

The Orlando Magic stayed largely quiet in free agency, which was surprising given that it seems the current squad has run its course. The Magic have long valued the idea of growing youth in an environment built around trying to win, but it’s clear that Evan Fournier who opted in to a massive final contract year worth $17 million, is primed to be moved and looks to be in camp next week.

The Magic do have some injury concerns specifically Jonathan Isaac who is recovering from an ACL tear and the questionable outlook of Mo Bamba, who had to leave the Orlando bubble unexpectedly back in August, due to physical struggles related to the Coronavirus.

With so much uncertainty around the Magic’s youth, their lack of movement in free agency was a surprise.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

One Move We’d Like To See:

Kevin Love to the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland enters 2020-21 with a bit to be excited about. They’re looking forward to a full season with Jusuf Nurkic in the middle, they re-signed Rodney Hood and they added a high-ceiling youngster in Harry Giles (as well as Derrick Jones Jr.). But even if they also bring back Carmelo Anthony, they’ll still need help at the forward spot. Enter Kevin Love.

Love is badly mismatched with the rest of Cleveland’s roster. He is 32, whereas nine of their players are 25 or younger. Further, Love is a five-time all-star and NBA champion, whereas the Cavaliers are in a full-on rebuild. It’s not an ideal match, and the Cavs should cash Love in before it’s too late.

Love to Portland makes perfect sense. He hasn’t been seen as a primary option in a number of years, but he still adds incredible value as a scorer, rebounder and passer. And that works perfectly considering Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum appears poised to stick in Portland for at least the next few seasons. Portland could sit tight, but adding Love would put them in the conversation with teams like the Nuggets and Clippers who hope to knock off the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Even if Portland can’t make a deal for Love, they should look to add a versatile power forward like Julius Randle. They can’t rely on Anthony and Giles to hold down the four spot and expect to compete for a championship. But if they maneuver correctly, Dame-time could translate to championship time in the Rose City.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

DeMar DeRozan/LaMarcus Aldridge to the Charlotte Hornets. By drafting LaMelo Ball and maxing out Gordon Hayward, the Charlotte Hornets are out to prove that they really want to be… not subpar! There will be no argument here that Charlotte paid above and beyond for Hayward’s services, but his contract is in the same ballpark as Tim Hardaway Jr’s- As overpaid as he is, he’s not going to take the money and run. He’ll do his best to live up to the deal Charlotte gave him even if it’s not very likely.

Alas, adding Hayward and Ball only puts Charlotte in discussion for one of the lower playoff seeds, and in no way does it guarantee that they’ll get one of them. If MJ and co. truly are serious about getting the Hornets back to the playoffs, what harm could it do to go all in and pry DeRozan and Aldridge from San Antonio? They have the expiring and near-expiring deals to make it work, like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, and Terry Rozier, as well as appealing enough young talent without sacrificing the most appealing assets like Miles Bridges Malik Monk to pull it off. Aldridge’s and DeRozan’s names aren’t as sexy as they were three years ago, and that, along with their contracts expiring, is what makes a possible trade for them feasible. All signs are pointing to San Antonio moving on from both of them, so Charlotte needs to strike while the iron is hot- er, lukewarm in their case if we’re being really honest here.

Those two don’t make Charlotte a contender in the east – again, if it was 2017, it would be a different story – but they do make the Hornets more formidable as a playoff team. If there aren’t many better options for Charlotte, and from the look of things, there really aren’t, acquiring those two at least puts Buzz City back in the postseason, and might just complete the most talented Hornets teams we’ve seen in ages.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

Let’s go with Houston…

When Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey left the Rockets, you knew the clock was ticking. It really hasn’t stopped, the question is when is Houston going to pull the trigger on a Russell Westbrook trade, and how soon after will James Harden follow?

The talk in NBA circles is Westbrook could be headed to Washington in a package for John Wall. Wizards president Tommy Sheppard has said that deal is not happening – that does not mean it couldn’t resurface later.

There was talk of James Harden wanting to be in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but Houston at this point seems set on waiting out the process and seeing if they can get both Harden and Westbrook back on board… How frequently has that worked out? Typically, when guys ask for the door, they usually get it, and the return usually goes down before it goes up.

Trying to move some $82 million in committed salary during the season is nearly impossible. This is why if Houston wants all the Nets’ and Wizards’ cookies, they need to make the move now or risk the offers or even the opportunity to dwindle away fast.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

The 2020-21 NBA season could end up just as chaotic as last season; but looking past the many challenges facing the league’s schedule, player movement has once again shifted the balance of power. There are new favorites this season, and more importantly, there will be surprise teams to look forward to, also. But regardless of which team you root for, NBA fans have much to be thankful for right this holiday season.

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding new voices for the 2020-21 NBA Season, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful.

Please send all of this to: openings2021@basketballinsiders.com

 

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