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The Next All-Stars: Northwest Division

Ben Nadeau kicks off Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by examining four potential options in the Northwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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Reaching an All-Star Game is no easy feat, particularly so if the world has not crowned you as a unanimously-famous face. Sure, megastars like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving typically have an appearance on-lock as soon as the season tips off, but for others – hello to Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, etc – their worthy and stat-stuffing campaigns are not always enough. When only 12 from each conference can be selected, there will be names left out – that’s a given.

And when the roster omits three or four snubs per season, it becomes even tough to be a Next-Up All-Star. For far too long, Booker fit the criteria as a prolific scorer with a high-profile and a seller of jerseys. But in a stacked Western Conference, it was nearly impossible for him to break in until the 2019-20 season. With Booker no longer in play – who might be next?

CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Incredibly, one of the league’s top-notch Robins has never made the midseason dance and that seems like near insanity. In fact, this year, he wasn’t really close at all despite notching 20-plus points for the fifth consecutive season. Thankfully, McCollum, 28, still has plenty of peak-level basketball left ahead of him so there’s still time to reverse this unexplainable error. Up until the stoppage, Portland had gone a stellar 8-2 when McCollum dropped 30 or more points in a game, while also matching his career-high of 4.3 assists.

It’s possible that playing alongside Damian Lillard has dampened McCollum’s fan vote potential, but that never slowed down other multiple-All-Star-led teams before. Surprisingly, an elevation in league-wide presence didn’t occur for McCollum after his consistency helped the Trail Blazers reach the Western Conference Finals one year ago. At No. 19, McCollum finished with just 174,709 votes and behind Tim Hardaway Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green. Fan voting always leads to shaky-at-best conclusions – but, sheesh, must we start a #VoteCJ campaign in 2020-21?

Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

If McCollum’s first appearance is overdue, then we can only hope that Jamal Murray’s best chance hasn’t just sailed away.

Murray is a 6-foot-4 sharpshooter, one half of a refined two-headed pick-and-roll monster with Nikola Jokic. And although the Nuggets have shot up the conference hierarchy by embracing a team-first style of play, it’s been Jokic, a two-time All-Star, soaking up the individual accolades. Overlooked at times, however, Murray has been a consistent, reliable and healthy contributor to a near-powerhouse.

The Canadian isn’t just a punchy scorer either, and any time he tallied six or more assists in 2019-20, Denver owned a 15-6 record. Better, perhaps: When Murray went for 22-plus points, the Nuggets won 14 games and lost just five. But, like McCollum, Murray will need to make strides in the popularity department, especially if he intends to make headway in a conference that’ll welcome back Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to the fold next fall.

It’s a tight list already – one that fails to mention up-and-comers like De’Aaron Fox, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant – so it’s not impossible to wonder if Murray will always find himself on the outside looking in.

Without question, the guard has the necessary talent, statistical outbursts and team-ready successes on his resume – but will he have the popularity to break into the uber-competitive top 12 during any given season? Let’s collectively cross our fingers because a Blue Arrow hot-streak would be truly wonderful to behold.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

In any serious conversation, Gilgeous-Alexander would’ve been right at home with the younger players listed above…but that would’ve spoiled the surprise down here.

Yes, before you can even blink, Gilgeous-Alexander may just become your next big All-Star Game staple. As a 21-year-old, the former collegiate standout doubled his points (19.3) and rebounds (6.1) while forming a strong 63-game partnership aside Chris Paul, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Mentioned in last week’s column of the Northwest Division’s Most Underrated, Gilgeous-Alexander has a laundry list of blossoming intangibles already going his way – but how high can he go?

To wit, Oklahoma City went 9-1 – including wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz – when the guard scored 25 or more points this year. Moreover, Gilgeous-Alexander ranked first in minutes (35.1), first in points, fourth in field goal percentage (47.3 percent), second in rebounds, third in assists (3.3) and second in steals (1.1) across the entire Thunder roster this year. And that’s for a team that finished the shortened campaign in fifth – and over veteran leaders like Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.

All-Star appearances – yes, plural – are in Gilgeous-Alexander’s near future, but the only thing left up for debate is the total amount.

D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

And then there’s D’Angelo Russell, a technicality, certainly – but an intriguing situation nonetheless.

Last year, of course, Russell earned a well-deserved bid to the All-Star Game…but as Victor Oladipo’s injury replacement. This isn’t to take away from Russell’s breakout season at all – but the remainder of the division is weak outside of the current and multi-year crop of All-Stars.

So Russell, now back in the bigger and stronger conference, remains a compelling case study.

Sadly, Russell only got 12 games with Minnesota this year post-trade deadline but the lefty guard averaged 21.7 points and 6.6 assists on 41.2 percent from the floor. He’ll finally play for a city that has invested in him long-term for the first time ever – his fourth team in five years – and alongside one of his best friends, Karl-Anthony Towns. Needless to say, Russell is primed for an even better 2020-21 and his star status should continue to rise as well.

Russell knocked down four or more three-pointers in 24 games between Minnesota and Golden State this season, even reaching the hallowed 50-point plateau once too. On a league-worst Warriors squad, Russell had more green lights than a NASCAR race track – but there are few that can fill it up like him.

If this partnership between Russell and Towns work out, the pair could make multiple All-Star Game appearances together – just as they’ve always dreamed of.

Reaching the midseason festivities is no easy task and, more often than not, a few big-time names get left off the invite list every year. With unmovable members like James, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry in the Western Conference, earning that honor has never been more difficult. But if a spot opens up via injury, trade or conference vacancy, it’d be wise to bet on McCollum, Murray, Gilgeous-Alexander or Russell to slide on in.

On Basketball Insiders, our team will take a crack at the other division’s up-and-comers – but these four alone will add some much-needed drama to the voting process in the following years.

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

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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