The Brooklyn Nets are coming off a wildly successful season, relative to the season prior. They increased their win total by an impressive 14 games, eclipsing .500 and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
But instead of seeing an organic rebuild through, the Nets identified an opportunity to put their rebuild into hyper speed. And they took it – signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to max contracts. And while it’s become incredibly commonplace for stars to change teams and pair up, the Nets are in the unusual situation of being without one of their new stars – Durant – for what will probably be the entire 2019-20 season.
While the Nets still have more than enough talent to improve on their 2018-19 win-total without Durant, the increased expectations and extra hoopla that goes along with playing in Brooklyn may result in those within the organization feeling added pressure to achieve success sooner than later. So what do the Nets need to happen for 2019-20 to be considered a success?
Before we dive into the keys to success, it’s worth noting that while — as said in the Nets’ 2019-20 Season Preview — this year should be viewed as an opportunity to build a foundation. We can assume that the Nets will instead be judged harshly almost immediately — and even more so when they inevitably struggle. Therefore, the Nets will need a lot to break their way to receive praise from outside the locker room.
So what, pray tell, do the Nets need to go right in order for 2019-20 to be deemed a success? The following is a list of three things that could greatly improve the Nets’ in 2019-20 – none of which are moonshots, but none are guarantees, either.
Uncle Drew Stays Injury-Free
The first thing that must be in place is a healthy Irving. Irving’s impact on the game is obvious. He can score from almost anywhere on the floor, breakdown defenses off-the-dribble regardless of who’s defending him and create for teammates like few others can.
But in order to affect the game, he must remain healthy. Irving hasn’t played in 70 or more games since 2016-17. In fact, Irving has only played 70 or more games in three of his eight professional seasons. And he’s played in less 60 games in three separate seasons, too.
Irving has suffered from numerous ailments throughout his NBA career (and even before). including an injured toe/foot in college and a concussion early in career. He also sprained his shoulder, strained his hip (twice) and broke his hand, finger and jaw – just to name a few. He was also famously shut down following Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals (broken knee cap) and for most of the second-half part of the 2017-18 season (knee soreness resulting in surgery) – the latter also caused him to also miss the entire 2018 NBA Playoffs.
To say that Irving is injury prone may be a stretch, but there is a clear history – especially with his knees. And what’s more concerning, Irving already suffered an injury in his first season with the Nets – before the calendar even turned to October; he suffered a facial fracture – which is nowhere near serious enough to force him to miss time, but it will force him to wear a mask. So as much as the Nets’ roster, organization and coaching staff will look to Irving to lead the way on-the-court, he must be available to do so. And staying healthy is a big part of that equation.
Kyrie Irving Takes Charge
The second thing the Nets must have break their way to reach their full potential in 2019-20 is for Irving to grow into a leadership role. Historically, Irving’s leadership style has left much to be desired. He seems to disengage from teammates and rub them the wrong way when he’s needed most.
To his credit, Irving owned up to his past transgressions at the Nets 2019-20 media day.
“A lot of those battles I thought I could battle through (in Boston’s) team environment, I wasn’t ready for,” Irving said. “And I failed those guys. I didn’t give them everything I could have during that season. In terms of me being a leader and bringing everyone together, I’ve failed.”
While it’s nice to see Irving taking responsibility, a plan to improve is equally important. Irving also alluded to not taking the “necessary steps to get counseling or therapy” in past seasons, and specifically while dealing with various stressors in Boston.
Irving also said that he didn’t let others (teammates) close because, “a lot of the joy I had from basketball was sucked away from me.”
Irving is a smart and savvy individual, and he understands that interacting with the media is all about sincerity. Hopefully for Irving and the Nets, Irving’s statements were entirely genuine – and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. But more importantly, he’s hopefully put a support network around him – especially if he recognizes that professional situations have become overwhelming in the past. The Nets badly need an engaged and team-centric Irving to set the tone for their roster in 2019-20. And it’s pretty clear that – at least at times – Irving is the only guy capable of slowing himself down.
Caris LeVert’s Time To Shine
The final key to the Nets short-term success is Caris LeVert understanding his role now and in the future. LeVert appeared to be on track for his first All-Star appearance last season, but a foot injury limited him to 40 games in 2018-19. No one is questioning if LeVert is capable of stepping into the side kick role alongside Irving. After all, LeVert has experience playing alongside a high-usage point guard. In fact, the best comparison to what this season might be like for LeVert is probably the end of last season after he returned from injury.
Upon LeVert’s return, teammate D’Angelo Russell had blossomed into something of a star. Russell posted a usage rate of 33.6 in the 2019 playoffs, whereas Irving’s was only 29.8 through the same span (albeit in two series vs. the Nets one). And while head coach Kenny Atkinson was clearly more cautious with a recently healed LeVert than he will be this season, LeVert still averaged 16 points and 4.3 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and 45 percent on three-pointers through the first-round series against Philadelphia — not bad. And after a summer of conditioning and body work, we should only expect more.
But the bigger challenge for LeVert will be the mental side of blocking out the noise about a possible Durant return this season, controlling only what he can, and then taking a backseat to Durant upon his return.
On paper, that shouldn’t be a problem. LeVert is a scorer and slasher who plays well on-and-off the ball and converts effectively from multiple spots on the court – LeVert shot 33.3 percent from three-point land, 40.4 percent from 10-16 feet from the basket, 40.3 percent from 3-10 feet and 59.4 percent at the rim (he surprisingly shot 26.7 percent from 16 feet to the perimeter, which was probably a point of emphasis for him in the offseason).
But the game isn’t played on paper. LeVert is only 25 years-old and might feel he’s ready to take on a bigger role. He may also struggle with shifting to a role that’s predicted on playing off-the-ball even more – especially if he’s forced to do so midway through the season without time to prepare in practices, training camp and preseason exhibitions.
Optimistic Nets’ fans will point out that the third-fiddle role worked out well for Klay Thompson in Golden State playing alongside Steph Curry and Durant. But Thompson’s game is uniquely crafted to complement traditional scorers – remember when Thompson famously scored 43 points on the Knicks last season while dribbling the ball only four times? Very few players have that skillset or the freedom to play that style. And with Durant and Irving (rightfully) dominating much of the ball – and without a motion-heavy offense like Kerr’s to keep the ball and players moving – LeVert may struggle to get touches.
Atkinson will have his hands full in keeping all of his scorers happy, and LeVert could be the odd man out. If LeVert begins looking too far ahead, it could negatively affect both the present and the future equally. However, if he remains in the moment and capitalizes on the opportunities with which he’s presented, the Nets could have an even bigger big three next season than they think they do at the moment.
The Nets are primed for success in 2019-20 and beyond, but their unique situation with Durant and his rehabilitation process means they need additional output from a select few players – namely Irving and LeVert. The team needs Irving to remain healthy and grow into a locker room leader, and Brooklyn needs LeVert to block out rumors about Durant returning this season – which will inevitably swirl in a market like New York – while remaining flexible upon Durant’s return, whenever that may be.
If all of those things happen as prescribed, the Nets could find themselves ahead of schedule and ready to contend as soon as this season.
But if any of the above go awry, the Nets’ dynasty could be over before it begins.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division
Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ The Stretch Run by taking a look at the Pacific Division franchises on the playoff bubble.
Well, well, well . . . we’re now entering the home stretch here, people. With the All-Star break nearing its end, the regular season stakes will intensify exponentially. The losses count for far more now than they did a month ago. The playoff seedings are starting to settle a bit and we’re starting to see a playoff bubble in our midst.
With that in mind, Basketball Insiders would like to introduce a new series titled The Stretch Run. In these pieces, we’ll be looking at the teams from each division to evaluate their ever-growing bubble and the chances of reaching the postseason. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is based on the standings as of now. Needless to say, a whole bunch can change in the 25-and-change games that are left.
Today we’re diving into the Pacific Division — or, otherwise known as the top-heavy division.
There are other top-heavy divisions in the NBA at the moment — just look at the Central — but the Pacific Division is the much polarizing of them all. The best teams in the division currently sport two of the top three records in the Western Conference. The other three? Unfortunately, they hold three of the four worst records in the Western Conference.
So let’s just get this out of the way: Neither Los Angeles-based team is on the bubble. Barring a major meltdown — which is not likely when you have the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George on your squad — both the Lakers and the Clippers are most definitely making the playoffs.
There’s not much cause for concern since both are expected to make deep postseason runs — although you never know with injuries. At this point, however, the franchises may too deep to worry about breaking down, but it’s still worth mentioning. According to Tankathon as of Feb. 18, the Lakers and Clippers have two of the league’s 10 easiest schedules from here on out, so all that has gone well should end well.
As for their other Pacific Division compatriots, well, those three are obviously in different places.
Just to tie up any loose ends before diving in, the Golden State Warriors are out, too. And they’ve probably been out since the day Stephen Curry broke his hand. To recap: The Warriors have the worst record in the league; currently trail behind Memphis by 16.5 games for the No. 8 seed with 27 contests left; Curry’s not expected back until March at the earliest. Hell, when Klay Thompson will make his season debut? Or, better yet, who knows if Klay Thompson will make his season debut at all?
The postseason boat has sailed for the boys in the Bay Area. After back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals, the gang needed a chance to catch their breath. If Curry and Thompson both make it back before season’s end, we’ll get a brief glimpse of Golden State’s new big three plus Andrew Wiggins. That doesn’t breed excitement as much as it breeds intrigue.
Thanks to the updated lottery rules, Golden State can compete at full strength without endangering their odds. Even better, don’t forget that high pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft. The perennial contenders may have had a downer season but, in the long run, this may have been the best route for them.
Therein lies the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. Any postseason hopes are dim but all hope is not lost. First off, although both combine for two of the four aforementioned worst records in the conference, take it with a major grain of salt. They are currently No. 12 and No. 13 in the conference but the Suns are behind the Portland Trail Blazers by only three games for ninth, while the Kings lag the Blazers by only half a game more.
The hard part, however, is that Phoenix and Sacramento are both well behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed — 6.5 and 7 games, respectively.
Again, though, all hope is not lost for them. At least, not entirely as the Grizzlies will have the toughest schedule for the rest of the season. Out of their final 28 games, Memphis faces 16 teams over .500, while 18 of them are against tougher Western Conference foes. Getting past them is doable, but they would have to leapfrog Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the process.
But who is more likely to complete that feat?
If we’re comparing their strength of schedule, it’s Sacramento. The Kings have the 10th-easiest schedule from here on out. Even though they’re facing 18 Western Conference teams of their own over the last 28 games, only 13 are against those over .500.
Phoenix, by contrast, has the eighth-hardest remaining. They may have fewer games in which they face Western Conference opponents — which could work against them seeing how head-to-head record impacts conference standing — but they also play more teams over .500 than Sacramento (15).
The Suns have a half-game lead over the Kings, but the Kings have an easier path ahead opponent-wise.
Unfortunately for both, the franchise with the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season appears to be the young and frightening New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are starting to look like the dangerous sleeper we all thought they’d be now that Zion Williamson has arrived.
Sadly, that could spell doom for the Suns’ and Kings’ playoff hopes,
Both teams have been decimated by player absences — and pretty much from the beginning too. Phoenix lost Deandre Ayton literally one game into the year due to a suspension. Sacramento ended up missing De’Aaron Fox for a long stretch because of an early ankle sprain.
And even though those were the most prominent injuries, they’ve dealt with several others as well. Aron Baynes hasn’t played in a month, while it may be a while longer before Richaun Holmes takes the court again. Even Marvin Bagley III has struggled to stay on the court for most of the season.
As for how they compare for how they’ve done, there’s more evidence supporting Phoenix as the better team between the two, but only slightly. Phoenix has both a better point differential — minus-1.2 to minus-2.9 — and net rating — minus-0.9 to minus-2.6 — than Sacramento does. The Suns are not in a league above the Kings in either area, but the statistical differences would show that the former has played marginally better.
In the end, Sacramento entered this season with much higher expectations following the franchise’s most productive effort since 2006. On the other hand, Phoenix came into this season with the same small-level outlook they’ve held for quite some time.
So even though the Suns have exceeded expectations and the Kings have fallen well short, the two sides find themselves virtually tied.
Given the deep holes they’ve dug themselves heading toward March, however, it seems more than likely that the Suns and Kings will be spending the playoffs from their couches.
At this point, both franchises are in a newly-found position of promise but that still does not guarantee a postseason berth. Despite the valiant efforts, Phoenix and Sacramento will have the same closing remark when the season closes out: Better luck next year.
NBA Daily: In Context: The Elam Ending & The 2019 NBA Finals
The “Elam Ending” brought more excitement to the NBA All-Star Game, but how would it affect games that matter most? Douglas Farmer takes a look at the 2019 NBA Finals through the Elam lens.
For all those bothered that Sunday’s All-Star Game ended on a free throw, let’s not remind them of the 2019 NBA Finals. Let’s not remember that — with less than a second remaining on the clock — Kawhi Leonard hit three free throws to turn a one-point lead into a four-point victory and a Toronto Raptors-winning championship.
Of course, if the “Elam Ending” had been in place for that Game 6, some different choices would have been made. That disclaimer aside, Leonard’s final free throw gave the Raptors what would likely have been the target score in that hypothetical. In fact, four of the six NBA Finals games ended on the likely target scores, anyway, while the other two never reached it.
Before walking through those scenarios, a quick description of the Elam Ending for those who did not follow Sunday’s exhibition: With a predetermined amount of time remaining, the clock is turned off; the game ends when a team reaches a “target score” established by adding a set number of points to the leading team’s score when the clock turns off. In the All-Star Game, the clock turned off for the entire fourth quarter, adding 24 points — a Kobe Bryant tribute — to the leading team’s score. For a more practical setting, it would be far less time and far fewer points.
Developed by a University of Dayton professor, Nick Elam, the well-named Elam Ending — which has been featured in the enormously-popular The Basketball Tournament over the last few years — adds eight points to the leading score at the first dead ball after the four-minute mark. If used in the NBA, Elam has suggested adding seven points at the last media timeout, coming at the first dead ball after the three-minute mark.
His rationale for seven stems from dividing typical full-game scoring rates by 16, but that fails to factor in late-game urgency and the inherent skewing to such a sample size. In short, the first three minutes will have less average scoring than the last three minutes simply because a bucket at the 2:59 mark is more likely than one a second into the game, not to mention a shot at 0:01 is more likely than one at 9:01.
Talked about this with Professor Elam and he made the point that starting the “ending” portion too early will wear everyone out, which is why his proposal is add 7 to high score at first stoppage under 3 minutes. https://t.co/GndXjOhyRz
— Anchorage Man (@SethPartnow) February 17, 2020
Thus, many have settled on eight — potentially another Kobe Bryant tribute — as the likely additional number if ever considered in the NBA. While the ending intends to remove any logic to intentionally fouling in late-game situations and thus preserving a truer state of the game we love, its effects go much further into strategy, lineup rotations and redefining the idea of “clutch.”
What it does not do, however, is shorten the game, at least in terms of points, as many incorrectly assume it does. Consider last year’s NBA Finals …
GAME 1: Raptors win, 118-109
First off, if we are to use the All-Star Game version of this drama-inducing ending, only two of the six Finals games would have reached the third quarter-dependent target score. Playoff games grind through the fourth quarter — but again, that was a gimmick for the exhibition contest. Any practical usage would have included a shorter ending.
The first dead ball after the three-minute mark in Game 1 came at the 2:35 mark with the Raptors leading 110-101, just after a Stephen Curry three-point play. Adding eight points to that 110 gives the final winning total, a number reached when Toronto guard Kyle Lowry hit a 28-foot three-pointer with 30 seconds left. At that point, it was essentially considered icing on the cake, turning a 115-106 lead into a 12-point margin — but in this theoretical, it would have been the game-winning shot.
Any 28-footer is dramatic, but that would have been quite the scene to start the Finals.
GAME 2: Warriors win, 109-104
The final minutes of this became a slog, so a more inspired conclusion would have been appreciated by all. A total of 3:18 passed between buckets from the 4:26 mark to the 1:08, keeping the score at 106-98 at the needed dead ball. Golden State added only an Andre Iguodala three-pointer with seven seconds remaining to stymie a Toronto charge that would’ve brought them within two. If the Warriors had needed to get to 114, it seems borderline-likely the Raptors would have pulled off the win and swept the series, considering that those were the only points Golden State scored in the final 5:39.
GAME 3: Raptors win, 123-109
Toronto led 115-103 at the last media timeout, while a Marc Gasol three made it 121-107 with 1:07 left before a Pascal Siakam layup reached the possible target score with a 14-point lead. Golden State was not coming back, so an Elam Ending would have at least expedited the ending. Jacob Evans may have been most appreciative of that as he missed two field-goal attempts after Siakam’s decisive points. Regardless, not much in the way of drama here.
GAME 4: Raptors win, 105-92
Again, it is hard to envision the Elam Ending changing much about this game — even with the inherent strategic shifts to it. Toronto led 99-89 with 2:48 left, but neither team exactly stressed in the final minutes. Curry turned a three-point play and the Raptors hit a trio of mid-range jumpers. Toronto did not reach the presumed 107 target score, but another mid-range shot from Siakam — who hit two of the aforementioned three — would not have taken long, and Golden State would not have rattled off 15 points before he hit it.
Both in real life and in this exercise, this blowout was the point in the series everyone began to realize what the Raptors really were about to do.
GAME 5: Raptors win, 106-105
As much as the Elam Ending was designed to eliminate an influx of free throws, it also puts an impetus on making shots. That might not sound revolutionary but, as often as not, games are determined by misses. Toronto led Game 5 by a score of 103-97 at the 2:59 mark when Draymond Green fouled Leonard. From that point on, the Raptors went 1-of-6 from the field.
Sure, Golden State hit a trio of three-pointers to take the lead and the game, while the Raptors struggled to get the ball anywhere near the hoop. But as impressive as the Warriors’ barrage was, wouldn’t everyone have preferred Curry or Klay Thompson to hit two more and break 111?
NBA, change the rules, make every fourth quarter like that fourth quarter…
— Bill Plaschke (@BillPlaschke) February 17, 2020
GAME 6: Raptors win, 114-110, and clinch the series
Here is where the Elam Ending would have provided a championship-worthy moment. In literal terms, Leonard’s three free throws with hardly any time remaining gave Toronto the 114 target score necessitated by a 106-101 lead at the 2:49 mark. For practicality, Golden State probably would not have melted down with back-to-back technical and personal fouls when they collectively realized a full-court, miracle three-pointer would be needed to win the game.
Instead, Iguodala would not have fouled Leonard at all — let alone earned the technical. The Raptors would have clung to a one-point lead, needing just three more to win the title.
The Elam Ending does not bring about the end of the game any faster in basketball terms — in real-time, though, the dearth of fouls unquestionably speeds things up — but it largely brings the dramatic moments we remember.
Of course, Anthony Davis’ clinching free throw was not all that abnormal.
Still, in the context of a recently-thrilling NBA Finals, it’s easy to see why the Elam Ending has people hyped to talk about basketball nuances again — naturally, however, it does not guarantee drama.
NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle
When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook last summer, they had to embrace him, warts and all. Matt John goes into what the Rockets have done to achieve just that and how their most recent deals could net them the most efficient Westbrook they could’ve hoped for.
Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what you call him, whether a high-usage, low-efficiency chucker, an anti-spacer that clogs the lane, or an empty stat-chaser. To Westbrook, it’s all the same: noise, especially if you are focused on Basketball Betting.
And, no matter what you may think of him, nothing is stopping Westbrook from playing at his own pace: fast (to say the least).
Westbrook’s style is so lively, so twitchy, that it’s hard not to it in just about everything he does on the court. While it’s certainly contributed to many of his flaws, the aggression he’s played with, the bounce in his step, has helped him rack up the accolades and eye-popping stats that he has throughout his career.
As a basketball player, Westbrook is the quintessential perfect storm; a tornado of fire, accolades and counting stats.
But because his warts — his sans-Kevin Durant postseason success, his paltry shooting numbers (particularly this season) — are as obvious as his talent, nobody seemed enthralled when it was announced that Westbrook was set to rejoin James Harden, this time with the Houston Rockets. Dating back to Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, there has arguably never been as little fanfare concerning two former MVPs joining forces.
There was one silver lining, however: in his new home, Westbrook would be surrounded by shooters. Better yet, shooters that would prove consistently reliable on the defensive end. In Houston, Westbrook wouldn’t have to be Mr. Do It All. But would it be enough?
No was the early, and loud, return. Through the season’s first two months, the Rockets were 23-11, a strong record, no doubt. But fans couldn’t help but wonder if Westbrook had helped, or hurt, their cause. By New Year’s Eve, Houston was plus-3.9 with Westbrook on the floor, but were somehow better — plus–9.5 — with him off.
The Rockets may have managed with Westbrook, but he wasn’t making them better. Of course, in that time, Westbrook had carried his weight as Houston’s no. 2 — 24.2 points and 7.1 assists — but his efficiency was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. His 43/23/80 splits, while also coughing the ball up 4.4 times a game, had Rockets fans in shambles, the 23 percent from three-point range especially glaring as Westbrook was taking nearly five a game.
Making matters worse, Chris Paul, whom Daryl Morey traded for Westbrook, was not-so-quietly having his healthiest, most productive season since 2016 with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. On top of Westbrook’s struggles, Paul’s resurgence made it seem as if Morey had made a terrible mistake.
But, Westbrook seemed to turn a corner in the new year. In January, he averaged 32.5 points on 52/25/76 splits, while the Rockets were plus-2.5 with him on the court and minus-0.9 with him off. While that was an improvement, Houston went 7-7, though Westbrook missed four of those games. Even if he was technically better, he still served as the scapegoat.
Something was holding both the Rockets and Westbrook back.
That something, in Westbook’s case, was the Rockets. Morey and Co. had asked Westbrook to play their style, which meant spot-up threes — not exactly Westbrook’s forte — and a slower pace. In essence, it was the complete antithesis of Westbrook. In time, it became clear that, if Morey’s experiment was ever going to work, Houston would have to adapt to Westbrook, not the other way around.
And, because Morey would do anything and everything in his power to win, the Rockets did just that. By trading Clint Capela, who, while a young, proven and still promising big, was a poor fit with Westbrook, for Robert Covington, Houston embraced small-ball and, in turn, embraced Westbrook’s ability and game to the fullest extent.
Relying on Covington, Danuel House Jr and PJ Tucker to hold their own against much bigger frontcourts will be an interesting sight come playoff time. And trading Capela — a young, high-upside and cost-controlled big — is certainly a gamble. But this version of the Rockets may arguably be the closest thing we ever see to the “perfect team” around Westbrook, and it may just be Houston’s best bet to win a title.
Now, the lane is completely free. Westbrook will be playing with shooters virtually non-stop. That means fewer threes on his part, driving to the basket with no one to get in his way, opening up more room for those shooters. And, while Westbrook’s perfect team does not equate to the perfect team period, it could equate to a deeper playoff run.
Since Houston’s shift, the returns have been promising. Post-Capela (his last appearance was Jan. 29), Houston has played six games and gone 4-2. And, minus their stinker against Phoenix, another game in which Westbrook did not play, each of those games has provided ample proof that an entire small-ball squad can be viable. Houston came out the victor against two of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and another team with plenty of size, the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Rockets have also averaged 115.9 points per game, while Westbrook has led the team with 34 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field. So, in other words, he’s being efficient. Just don’t ask about his three-point shooting.
A “sample size” disclaimer will probably haunt the Rockets between now and the postseason, but the headline here is that thus far, it’s working. It’s not all because of Westbrook — through this stretch, Houston has been a plus-0.9 when Westbrook’s hit the bench — but he’s not hurting them as he did before.
In due time, we’ll see if Morey’s latest experimental maneuvering will pay off. But it’s clear that, if they go down, they’ll go down with Westbrook, rather than against him. They’ll be confident for sure, because, come the postseason, Westbrook will hit the court as he always has: full throttle.