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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.

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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.”

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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

Cleveland Cavaliers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be as different as you think, especially with most of their Finals core returning from last season. They may not be contenders, but the question is can they stay in the playoff hunt while their big contracts age off the books? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Cavaliers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own.

With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Losing LeBron James is a tough blow (obviously) but there are still enough solid players on Cleveland’s roster to compete for a playoff seed this season. The main question is whether Kevin Love can recapture his superstar form from years ago when he was playing in Minnesota. It has been a while since Love was the go-to player on a team, so only time will tell if he is able to lead this team to the playoffs. The Cavaliers will also try to get more production out of players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. These guys can produce but were inconsistent last season. My focus will be on the play of Collin Sexton, whom the Cavaliers drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft. Sexton has the attitude and talent to be a quality point guard and could be a nice sparkplug for the Cavaliers this season.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s hard to pinpoint which direction Cleveland is going. They actually did a pretty solid job this summer outside of losing the best basketball player of this generation. Drafting Collin Sexton, extending Kevin Love and adding under-the-radar players such as Sam Dekker and David Nwaba were sensible decisions. Sad to say, their current roster is now only good enough to be conversation for one of the lower seeds in the east. That may not be the best idea since they owe Atlanta a top-10 protected first-rounder this year. Still, there should be plenty of interesting storylines for them this year, which include how well they perform post-LeBron (again), how good of a coach Tyronn Lue really is, and what they have in Sexton.

4th Place – Central Division

– Matt John

Much more prepared for the second time LeBron James left the franchise, the wine and gold are poised to create a team-first environment with a healthy culture in the building. Kevin Love will have to take the reigns and Rodney Hood will be heavily depended on to put the ball in the basket. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be tasked with protecting the paint. Player development is going to be the sole focus, but winning is an absolute priority for the Cavaliers. Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton will have the chance to showcase his skills right away with plenty of young talent surrounding him. They’re not looking to tank as some speculated they would post-LeBron, so we’ll see if it pays off. Considering the Eastern Conference is wide open, there’s still a chance they could sneak into the playoffs.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

In their second go-round after losing LeBron James in free agency, there’s definitely hope in Cleveland that things won’t go quite so poorly for the Cavs. Last time, as many will recall, they went from the league’s best record to its worst in just a single season when The King departed. This time? There’s even playoff hope still abound in Cleveland, though whether it’s realistic or not is up for debate. Much of those hopes rest on Kevin Love, who is now armed with a new extension that’ll keep him paid through 2023. Many forget that Love was once a perennial All-Star and considered a borderline top-five player in the NBA in his Minnesota days – does he still have that level of play left in him as the lead dog? The Cavs still have solid shooting in Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and others, but there are real concerns about whether this roster will have enough playmaking or defense to make any noise. Still, the relative weakness of the East makes a playoff appearance possible.

4th Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Cavaliers are going to take a huge step backward, that’s not news or shocking, but to think the Cavs will fall off the map might be misplaced. Kevin Love is an All-Star, and he still has a lot of proven guys around him. The Cavs draft pick, Collin Sexton, should get all the opportunity to be the next guy and has star potential and Ty Lue is a good player-centric coach. The 8th seed isn’t out of the question for the Cavs, and that’s not bad for a team that lost its franchise player for nothing in return.

4th Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love

The five-time All-Star forward is going to have his hands full. There is no LeBron anymore. There is no Kyrie Irving anymore. Ironically, he is the last man standing out of the former big three and just signed a long-term deal this summer to be “the man” in Cleveland.

For years, basketball fans have been begging to see Love return to the same player as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, he has the opportunity to become that dominant force once again. We all know he’s a double-double machine who can stretch the floor and crash the glass, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the Cavaliers establish him on the block more often.

According to NBA.com, on a minimum of three possessions per game, Love had the sixth-lowest frequency, yet scored 0.98 points per possession in post-up situations. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge were ranked above him in PPP. Last year’s offense was full of isolation and drive-and-kicks, leaving little opportunity for the 30-year-old big man to work down low.

He’s coming off his best perimeter-shooting season since 2010-11, too. It might take a few games to get re-acquainted to being the go-to guy without LeBron there, but Love will now have the chance to remind everyone that he is one of the most forceful inside-outside threats in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.

The 2017-18 Cavaliers were an abysmal defensive team. Whether it was a veteran-heavy roster failing to get their legs under them, poor effort, flawed schemes or too much miscommunication on switches—it was not pretty.

With that said, there was a small silver lining in that ugliness, and it was Nance Jr. From challenging bigs at the rim to moving his feet and making it tough on guards, he immediately made an impact as a versatile defender when healthy. Per Cleaning The Glass, with Nance Jr. off the court, Cleveland allowed 9.9 points per 100 possessions more. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage also increased by 4.5 percent as well.

Entering his second season with the wine and gold, Nance Jr. is going to play a huge role in forcing turnovers and making it hard on his assignments. The more floor time he receives, the better he will get.

Top Playmaker: Collin Sexton

A label held by LeBron for the past four years will be taken over by a rookie. There is no replacing the best player in the world in any way, shape or form. It’s all about creating a new star, and that’s what the Cavaliers are planning on doing with Sexton.

You will find no shortage of confidence or explosiveness watching the Alabama alum play the game. Not to use NBA Summer League as the best of examples, but just go back and look at his body language during that tournament, especially against Josh Hart and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a surefire competitor, which is exactly why Cleveland selected him with the eighth overall draft pick.

He’s able to make things happen for both his teammates and himself. Sexton can change speeds quickly and get to the rim with conviction, pass on the drive and kick and get out in transition. Getting used to the speed of the NBA level will take some adjusting, as will playing with new teammates and learning their tendencies, but the man dubbed “Young Bull” is poised to have a breakout debut year.

Top Clutch Player: Kyle Korver

Who takes the big shot at the end? Who gets the big stop? Who makes the game-altering pass? All of these questions were answered with “LeBron” in the snap of a finger before. The question now is who will assume that responsibility.

At the moment, it’s a collective team effort. One night it could be Love, another it could be Sexton. Maybe Rodney Hood even gets the ball from time-to-time in a late-game situation. The point is, we don’t know the answer quite yet.

Purely based on who had the second-highest net rating in clutch situations to LeBron in a minimum of 30 games played in crunch time, Korver gets the nod here. The veteran sharpshooter’s offensive rating and true shooting percentage were both the highest on Cleveland as well. If you get the 37-year-old the ball on the outside, he’ll likely knock down a big bucket.

The Unheralded Player: Cedi Osman

When you look at the Turkish swingman’s statistics from last year, you’ll probably question what the fuss is all about and why he is getting invited to private workouts with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s why: He has the desire to play the game the right way.

Osman is only 23 years old. He already has the potential to be the perfect glue guy in his second season at the NBA level. Something about his game just provides a spark. It might be the energy he brings to the floor, or maybe it has to do with how aggressive he is on both sides of the boards.

Playing for his country in FIBA, there’s already been an improvement with his jump shot. He’s been drilling threes, specifically on off-the-dribble and pull-up attempts. Remember, he did work with Korver last season often. Maybe the veteran’s pointers will pay off for Osman.

Best New Addition: Collin Sexton

Cleveland desperately needed to add a playmaker to the roster. They severely missed that last year without Kyrie Irving. The 19-year-old rookie is going to have his ups and downs, but more importantly, he’ll be fun to watch develop. Learning under a veteran like George Hill could do him some good, regardless of whether or not the seasoned guard finishes the year out there.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Rodney Hood

It was a difficult second half for Hood last year. Being traded to the Cavaliers at the deadline, some thought he could just fit right in and score 17 points per game as he did with the Utah Jazz. But unfortunately, the league isn’t a 2K simulation where teams can just plug and play with no issues. It took time for him to learn to play off LeBron. His usage was down nearly 10 percent as well. Year two in The Land should allow him to get back to his usual confident self. Tyronn Lue thinks the world of him, so we’ll likely be seeing a lot of trust put into Hood.

2. David Nwaba

On a one-year deal, Nwaba is looking to prove he’s worth a bigger deal in the long term. He’s only going into his third season, but since making waves a couple of years ago in the Lakers’ G-League system and on the big club, he’s been scratching and clawing his way up. He started over 20 of the 70 games he played in for the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18. He’ll likely play a key role in the second unit., but the more playing time he’s gotten, the better the production has been. Nwaba has athleticism through the roof and is already one of the top defenders on the Cavaliers.

3. Channing Frye

Frye is a fan-favorite and an important part of the team culture Cleveland is aiming to instill in the locker room. He’s the perfect person to loosen things up if they get tense, almost like a player-coach type. On the floor, he’s still going to provide valuable production offensively as a knockdown shooter. Off of it, he’ll be a mentor to his younger teammates and a calming presence to the others. That’ll be necessary for an up-and-down season.

4. Tyronn Lue

With no LeBron around, we’re going to really see what Lue is made of. There were plenty of detractors last season due to the rotations he played and the way he managed minutes. Here’s his shot at proving the doubters wrong. Losing the four-time NBA MVP is going to make life harder on everybody in the franchise, but there’s a free range of what to do with this team now. Versatility and youth are available to him now like they never have been before. The pressure has been lifted a bit with the expectations tampered down a bit. It’s time to see if Lue can walk the walk.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers finally have a chance to focus on the long-term, while addressing the now. General manager Koby Altman said it himself: This organization is getting back in the player development business. With the moves they made over the offseason, that couldn’t be clearer. Players who haven’t gotten too many opportunities—Sam Dekker, Isaiah Taylor, Kobi Simmons, Nwaba—are going to have a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re made of in training camp. The youth movement started early at the deadline last season with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. It’s full speed ahead now.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

This team lost its best scorer, its best playmaker, its best clutch option—pretty much all of the above. Filling the void of LeBron is impossible. In one year without him, it’s not going to be pretty at times. Depending on who is starting these games, you’re going to see errors and mistakes you haven’t seen in a while with the Cavaliers. They’ll show flashes of what they can become in due time, but for the most part, there will be plenty of teaching moments. It’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody involved probably knows, but we’ll see what the reaction is once things are set in motion.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

What is the plan with these veterans and their contracts?

Cleveland has a tall task ahead of them when it comes to shedding salary. We can start off with the $19 million contract of George Hill, followed by the $14.72 million that J.R. Smith is making this season. Both of these veteran guards do not have guaranteed big money next season, though, if waived in the summer of 2019. Only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed until July 1 and $3.7 million of Smith’s deal is guaranteed until June 30, respectively. If these two are waived before said dates, a team would not be on the hook for the last season of their contracts (Hill at $18 million, Smith at $15.68 million). Because of that, those two players would likely be easier to move for the Cavaliers than Tristan Thompson, who has two fully guaranteed years left on the deal he signed before the 2015 season.

Considering the shift in direction that the franchise has made, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least two of these three were moved in the future. Whether that’s mid-season, at the trade deadline or next offseason, we’ll have to wait and see.

– Spencer Davies

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NBA

NBA Daily: Four Trades For Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler has told the Minnesota Timberwolves he would like to be traded. If the team decides to deal, what might they get back in return?

Drew Maresca

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The Jimmy Butler and Minnesota Timberwolves saga feels as though it’s dragged on forever. In reality, it was only 15 months ago that he was traded to the Timberwolves from the Chicago Bulls for what now seems like a king’s random: Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, with the only other asset going back to Minnesota being the sixteenth overall pick.

Regardless of what was given up for him or how long the relationship lasted, it seems as though the two will part ways sooner than later. After a drawn out and fairly public back-and-forth on social media about when and where the two parties would ultimately meet, Coach and President Tom Thibodeau and Butler finally sat down on Wednesday. It was then that Butler informed the Timberwolves he would like to be traded. So much for a happy ending to the Thibodeau-Butler reunion.

But Butler doesn’t simply want out of Minnesota. He wants to be traded to one of three teams: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers or the New York Knicks. Reports have read that Butler will only sign an extension with one of his preferred destinations. The subtext of the leak – regardless of who leaked it – indicates that teams beyond those three need not apply. And in fairness to Butler, he recognizes that he is in the prime of his career and prefers to begin establishing himself in a hand-selected location.

Butler is scheduled to make $19,841,627 this season. Below, Basketball Insiders explores the likely trade packages each of the three teams Butler would like to play for might put together, as well as one additional team that may be able to convince Butler to re-sign. Lots of other scenarios exist, including three-team deals and packages in which Minnesota ships out additional players. But we only focused on two-team deals in which Butler is the only player departing the Wolves roster.

Los Angeles Clippers

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Clippers are the preferred destination for Butler. The Clippers have numerous players with the requisite salary to get the deal done, but little in the way of desirable young players to entice the Wolves.

From a salary standpoint, the Timberwolves would likely have their choice of veterans to pry from the Clippers roster. Danilo Gallinari makes more than Butler and his deal stretches another year after 2018-19. Besides, Gallinari’s age and injury history make him an unlikely candidate. Marcin Gortat is on a $13.565 million expiring deal. But unfortunately for the Clippers, Gortat’s value is relatively low. While the Clippers probably prefer to hang onto Avery Bradley to form a tenacious one-two defensive punch, would be the likely starting point considering his value. But Bradley cannot be traded until December 15. If both teams are willing to wait, then Bradley will likely be the main piece for salary purposes. Otherwise, the Clippers may have to part with one or more of Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson and Patrick Beverley.

But none of the aforementioned veterans would be the centerpiece of the trade. And the Clippers are unable to trade away another of their first round picks before 2022. So the deal is likely to be predicated on the inclusion of either Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jerome Robinson, both of whom were drafted by the Clippers with back-to-back picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. However, the team should think twice before trading both. Other recent trades involving superstars – Paul George –haven’t returned two lottery picks of late. If possible, the Clippers should be steadfast in insisting that only one be included.

The Wolves will likely prefer Gilgeous-Alexander given the buzz that he created in the summer league. If the Clippers are serious about acquiring Jimmy Butler, they should begin rebuilding around Butler before they miss out on him altogether (see the Lakers’ recent failed-before-it-even-started pursuit of Paul George).

Clippers Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jawun Evans

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are one of Jimmy Butler’s (second tier) preferred destinations. On the one hand, the Nets have limited developed talent to pair with Butler in 2018-19. On the other, the Nets open up an enormous amount of cap space next season, allowing them to sign at least two max-level free agents, one of whom could be Butler. If Butler went ahead and included Brooklyn on his list of destinations, then so be it.

Spencer Dinwiddie is an up-and-coming young guard and among the most valuable assets on the Nets roster. Trade discussions would probably begin there. But Dinwiddie only makes $1.6 million this season, the last year on his deal. The recently acquired Kenneth Faried makes a fairly significant $13.7 million and his contract also expires after this season. Throw in a Jarrett Allen for good measure and you’ve got the framework of a deal. In this situation, a protected pick would be needed as well.

Nets Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Kenneth Faried, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and the Nets 2019 First Round Pick (top 8 protected)

New York Knicks

The Knicks held their press day on Monday, at which time team President Steve Mills professed the team’s strategy of avoiding sending out assets for players that are free agents-to-be. If this is actually true, the team will have a hard time blowing the Timberwolves away with an offer.

But the team can still put forth a respectable package, which would begin with a young guard named Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina is an incredible defender who can be the lead guard or play off the ball. He is a 6-foot-6 20 year old with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. Ntilikina is alluring to almost any front office in the league.

Beyond Ntilikina, the Knicks actually have a talented veteran who can fill most of the salary requirements – Courtney Lee. Lee is slightly older than Butler, but can bridge the gap until Ntilikina is ready to take on a bigger role along side Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Timberwolves would probably prefer to net more than just one solid prospect in a deal for Butler, but Butler put them in a precarious situation when he gave them a wish list of preferred destinations. The Knicks would be wise to offer this and no more.

Knicks get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Courtney Lee, Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson

Boston Celtics

Lots of teams will throw their respective hats in the ring on Jimmy Butler. On paper, the Celtics make the most sense given their abundance of young talent and accrued draft picks. And let’s not forget that earlier this summer, rumors began to spread about Kyrie Irving’s desire to team up with Butler.

The Celtics have enough draft assets to swing a deal in which they give up limited players, instead leveraging their future draft picks. Remember, the Celtics not only own their own picks, the team also possesses the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (top-one protected) and the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protected).

But is that the right answer? After all, the Celtics already have a mini-logjam at the wing between Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. But maybe, instead of parting ways with future assets, the Celtics secure Butler and shorten up their rotation, which could potentially disrupt the team’s success into the playoffs with the entire roster entering the season seemingly healthy. Disclaimer — the Celtics would likely seek assurances from Butler that he would be open to re-signing before trading away a young star like Jaylen Brown.

Celtics get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart

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NBA

Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers could end up almost anywhere in the West – their outlook is that unclear. If they can’t be elite, could this be the end of the road for this roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Trail Blazers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many last season when they ended up with the third best record in the Western Conference behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a New Orleans Pelicans team that was probably a bit better than their record and sixth place finish indicated.

Despite that, the Blazers should feel good about themselves. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Sure they may not be on the same level as the Rockets or Warriors, but after that, the West is seemingly wide open. And with a little luck, maybe an injury here or there, anything can happen once the postseason rolls around.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Portland Trail Blazers are a really good team. But being really good in the Western Conference just doesn’t get you very far, unfortunately. Like the Utah Jazz, Portland is a dangerous team that could beat just about anyone on any given night. But I don’t see this year’s team being able to push the elite Western Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are explosive and continue to improve. The Blazers’ role players, like Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, are solid. The team even has some interesting prospects, such as Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Having said that, I think the front office needs to try and make an honest assessment about this team’s ceiling and decide whether it’s time to be aggressive and start making some serious changes to the roster. It’s odd saying that since this is a really good team. However, the goal for Portland is a championship, but I just don’t see this roster having a real shot at that.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Blazers won 49 games last year and return a very similar roster, yet many are picking them to finish outside the playoff picture in the West – and it’s not that crazy to imagine. The conference is just that tough. Last year’s team was pretty similar to the year before: They had one remarkable run in the mid-spring period (a 13-game winning streak from just before the All-Star break through the middle of March), then were roughly .500 the rest of the year. They’re always a threat to explode offensively with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, but it seems pretty clear this group has a limited ceiling that falls well below championship level. It’s also one Portland has a lot of money committed to even beyond this season. Is this the year the Blazers seriously consider making some big moves and resetting things if they aren’t in the hunt among legitimate contenders?

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Blazers have to do something. They may have a fine roster. They may have some excellent players. They may be well-coached. Unfortunately, they just don’t have enough. After suffering that embarrassing postseason defeat, the Blazers didn’t really do anything to improve their team. They are capable of making the playoffs and maybe could win a playoff round if everything goes their way. However, that’s as high at their ceiling gets and that’s if everything goes their way. Seriously, does anyone think they can actually compete with the Warriors or the Rockets? Are they even better than the new-look Lakers? If they don’t change things for the better, then the Blazers may approach the dreaded “treadmill team” label.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

It was a quiet offseason for the Blazers, who are coming off a solid season that abruptly ended in the playoffs against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. The tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is still one of the best one-two punches in the league today. Jusuf Nurkic is continuing to grow and build chemistry with his teammates going into year three with Portland. The loss of Ed Davis will impact the bench unit, but Zach Collins will have an opportunity to expand his role. Guys like Wade Baldwin and Jake Layman could see more floor time as well. While there won’t be a regression, Terry Stotts and company will need to fight tooth and nail in a tough Northwest Division to secure a postseason berth in the Western Conference.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

This has to be the year, right? It has to be the year the Blazers break through and become an elite team or management and ownership has to break it up, right? The Blazers have two elite level guards and a gob of money tied up into the rest of the roster. They have a good but not great head coach, so it either has to click and start to happen or leadership has to make bold changes. Let’s be real, the Blazers have tried to be aggressive, not only in trades but in free agency, so this team isn’t a product of sitting on their hands. But as West has gotten tougher and more developed, the Blazers haven’t necessarily kept up, so it has to happen now and there is a sense the Blazers get that. On paper, this arguably should be the best team in the Northwest Division, it’s just not assured they will be.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

To this point, Damian Lillard has blossomed into arguably a top-ten player in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He’s got unlimited range and is very difficult to stop when he’s attacking the rim. Last season, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game which he converted at a 91.6 percent clip, both career-highs.

The 26.9 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting were both the second-highest marks of his career. At 28 years old, Lillard is right in the prime of his career and a true star. He’s capable of exploding and having a huge scoring game on any given night. Many other teams in the NBA would love to have a player of that caliber. As long as Lillard is in Portland and producing at this level, the Blazers should remain competitive.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu has quietly become the best defensive player on the Blazers roster. He’s a long and athletic wing who can slide between forward positions defensively as well as take on the challenge of staying with some guards. Aminu was a big part of Portland’s strong defense last season. He’s good at transition defense, and he’s good at recovering and helping out when the guards get beat off the dribble. As the season went on, Portland had one of the better defenses in the league and Aminu was a major part of that.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

There isn’t much that Lillard can’t do on the court, and as it stands, he’s their best when it comes to running the offense. As explosive as he is at scoring the basketball, he can be just as deadly carving up a defense and creating opportunities for his teammates.

The 6.6 assists per game that Lillard dished out last season were the second-highest in his career. This was with not having too many offensive options to work with outside of McCollum. The Blazers were last in the NBA in assists per game, largely due to that fact, but Lillard made do with what he was given. He still managed to turn other guys into offensive threats. The Blazers are going to need much more of that this upcoming season.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

With the game on the line and a big shot needed, one could argue that you’d be comfortable with the ball in McCollum’s hands. He can create his own offense and is also a dead-eye shooter from anywhere on the floor. But overall, when a big play is needed for the Blazers, you’d still want the ball to be in the hands of Lillard.

Lillard’s ability to score is unparalleled on the team. He’s more adept than McCollum at getting to the rim in crunch time situations and thus, able to get a better look at the basket or draw contact and get a couple freebies. And when he inevitably draws the defense, his playmaking enables him to set someone else up for a big play.

The Unheralded Player: Al Farouq-Aminu

Al-Farouq Aminu may have emerged as the Blazers best defensive player, but he also might have just become their third best player behind Lillard and McCollum. He doesn’t draw much media and national attention, but he contributes in many different ways that help the Blazers win games.

Since entering the league, he’s improved his offense tremendously. He was always a solid defender, but his offense, in particular his shooting, was a weakness of his. This past season, he knocked down a career-high 36.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range. He also took a career-high 4.9 attempts per game. He’s their perfect 3&D guy. He’s also one of the best rebounders on the team, especially on the defensive glass. He can guard multiple positions. For the Blazers to continue to take leaps in the West, they’ll most certainly need Aminu.

Best New Addition: Seth Curry

The Blazers had a couple of weaknesses last season, bench depth and outside shooting. They’re hoping that Seth Curry can address both of those issues. Sure he owns the distinction of being Steph Curry’s brother, but he’s become a solid NBA player in his own right. He missed all of last season due to injury, but if he’s healthy, he’ll provide Portland with exactly what they need.

During the 2016-17 season, the last in which Curry played, he averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent shooting from the three-point line. The Blazers guard off the bench role was filled by Shabazz Napier last season. Napier did an admirable job but he’s now off to Brooklyn. Curry can help fill that void with a capable ball-handler off the bench. He may even see time in the lineup with either one or both of Lillard and McCollum.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Zach Collins

Portland’s lottery pick from a year ago, Zach Collins was thrown into the lineup as the season went on, and he showed vast improvements. He and Ed Davis became an effective big man tandem off the bench. He’s got range out to the three-point line and he is an effective defensive player. It got to the point where he was sometimes finishing games over starting center Jusuf Nurkic. He allowed Portland to feel comfortable letting Davis walk and allowing Collins to be the primary big man off the bench.

2. Anfernee Simons

It’s tough to envision Anfernee Simons getting minutes right away this season, but there’s no denying the oozing potential he has. For a playoff contender like the Blazers, a draft pick like Simons is a huge gamble. Portland has major playoff aspirations and someone like Simons isn’t going to be ready to contribute now. But his long-term outlook is what intrigues Portland. He is very gifted athletically and he’s already a good shooter. In Summer League, he showed off an ability to create his own shot. If his development goes well, Portland could end up with one of the best players of the 2018 draft.

3. Gary Trent Jr.

His fellow rookie Anfernee Simons might not be able to contribute right away, but Gary Trent Jr is a little more NBA ready. For a team that often lacked bench production, Trent can definitely help in that regard, even as a rookie. Physically, Trent is better adapted to the NBA grind than the slight Simons. He also gives the Blazers some much-needed perimeter shooting. In a recent survey of NBA rookies, Trent was voted by his peers as one of this rookie classes best shooters and most likely to be a draft steal. If he can come in and contribute, the Blazers bench might be very much improved.

4. Caleb Swanigan

A year ago, Caleb Swanigan had a very impressive summer league. He played sparingly for the Blazers this past season, but due to some roster departures, he’s going to be counted on to provide production off the bench. He’s a decent passer for a big man and he can score in the paint. He’s more of a traditional big man, which seem to be a dying breed in today’s NBA, but perhaps with his passing, he can make an impact on the court. With Davis gone, the other bigs on the bench such as Collins, Jake Layman and Myers Leonard, are all better suited to the changing game. But this is going to be an important training camp for Swanigan to prove that he should get a chance to help the team.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense. The Blazers turned into one of the better defensive teams in the league last season. Sure neither Lillard nor McCollum would be confused for All-Defensive players, but even that didn’t matter too much. Jusuf Nurkic is a decent shot blocker, and Collins showed great defensive potential. Aminu is an incredibly underrated defender. And then there’s the enigma known as Moe Harkless. He can either be very good, or non-existent. He’s got the tools to be a superb wing defender. If they want to continue their ascent in the West, they’re going to need to continue to be a good defensive team.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Outside shooting and reliable bench production were two of the Blazers main weaknesses last season. Three of their main contributors from last season’s second unit, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis all signed elsewhere. They’re hoping that a few new roster additions, as well as some internal development, can help alleviate that. Based on the development he showed throughout the season, Collins appears ready to take another step forward. Trent and Curry will help with outside shooting. They’re going to need a couple of these guys to really step up and contribute if they hope to keep afloat in the West.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Blazers continue to take a step forward and become an elite Western Conference team?

Sure the Blazers grabbed a top-four seed in the West last season, but they might be skirting around dangerous territory. Looking at their roster, they might be floating around the NBA’s dreaded no man’s land. That is, a team not bad enough to benefit from a lottery pick in the draft, but not good enough to make any serious noise in the playoffs. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt, and that definitely counts for something. But after that, it can get a bit murky. Their depth isn’t on par with some of the other elite West teams. They’ve got some guys capable of filling those roles, but it’s still a question mark. They’re probably good enough to keep their hold on a playoff spot, but it most likely will be a lower one than where they finished last season.

– David Yapkowitz

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