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The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

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 PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline

The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.

Garrett Brooks

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As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.

Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.

If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.

Another Frontcourt Option

The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.

Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.

Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.

Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.

With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.

The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.

Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.

It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.

Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.

Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.

Depth At The Point Guard Position

With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.

After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.

Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.

That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.

That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.

Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.

General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.

We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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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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