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Utah Jazz 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Utah Jazz.

Basketball Insiders

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After a strange and ultimately disappointing regular season followed by a definitively successful offseason, the Utah Jazz enter perhaps the toughest leap spot for an up-and-coming team. Now, it’s time to make the jump from “next up” to actual contention.

Besieged by injuries and depth concerns for much of the 2015-16 season, the Jazz could be in for a stark contrast during the upcoming campaign. Trades for George Hill and Boris Diaw plus the free agent signing of Joe Johnson suddenly add three players to their rotation without subtracting anyone of consequence. Also, Alec Burks and Dante Exum are set to return after missing most or all of last season, respectively. A team stuck relying on fringe NBA talent for important minutes last year could turn around and find themselves with more quality rotation options than they know what to do with in a big hurry.

While it’s pretty safe to assume an overall improvement from the Jazz – possibly a large one – precisely forecasting this team involves more variables than nearly any other group in the NBA. So many of Utah’s projected rotation pieces are still young enough to have some level of development left in them, and even guys squarely in their primes like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors will be playing alongside real veteran savvy and depth elsewhere on the roster for the first time since they emerged as team leaders. The baseline is higher for this group, but exactly how high it can get will depend in large part on how each detail shakes out.

With that in mind, let’s preview the 2016-17 season for the Jazz.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Jazz missed the playoffs last season, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about this team. The Jazz already feature a strong core of young players that has grown together for a few seasons and is now more familiar with head coach Quin Snyder’s offensive and defensive systems. I really like the additions of solid veterans like George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, all of whom address a specific need and should help take this team to another level. Let’s hope the Jazz have better luck with injuries this year and can display just how much talent and versatility they have. The Northwest Division is up for grabs, but I think the Jazz have as good a shot as anyone at taking one of the top two spots this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s difficult to imagine the Jazz not improving this season after adding a nice trio of veterans in Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw. Individually, none of the three are going to be competing for an All-Star berth, but with them added to a core that features a ton of nice players, the present seems fairly bright in Utah. With Kevin Durant gone to Oakland, I really believe that the Northwest Division will be a three-horse race. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will battle for supremacy at the top, while the Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves engage in an exciting battle of the new teams on the block. I think the Jazz finish up third in the division and will have a legitimate shot of qualifying for the playoffs. The other reason these guys will be worth watching this season? Dante Exum. I have long been enamored with his potential and am interested to see how he bounces back after missing the entire 2015-16 season.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The time is now in Utah. Period. Now, we’re not talking title contention, but this is the year where a playoff appearance should be viewed as the bare minimum when it comes to evaluating this team’s success. The Jazz bolstered their roster with veterans such as Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw this summer in order to navigate the rough patches that typically ail younger teams (which led to the Jazz missing out on a playoff trip by one game last season). Utah is led by promising forwards Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, with an emerging center in Rudy Gobert anchoring the interior defensively. All aboard the Jazz playoff train!

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Many of Utah’s young players have already have established themselves as talented NBA players, which isn’t always the case with up-and-coming teams. Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles and Dante Exum represent an incredibly exciting core that is now being supplemented with veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. That’s an insanely deep and experienced team that mixes youth with experience about as beautifully as any team in the NBA. These guys are going to be a pain in the tail for every team they play, and while they may be ranked here behind Portland and Oklahoma City, it’s hard to see those deficits being particularly large ones.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Northwest Division is one of the tougher to predict in the NBA. I believe that the Jazz, Thunder and Blazers will finish within a few games of each other, which means unpredictable factors (such as injuries) may ultimately determine the order of the top three teams. I love Utah’s core and they had a very strong offseason that wasn’t talked about enough. With that said, I have the Jazz ranked third behind Oklahoma City and Portland. But, like I said, I believe all three teams will make the playoffs and finish very close in terms of win total.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Gordon Hayward

The team’s unquestioned face and leader, Hayward is among the most versatile offensive wings in the league. He runs frequent pick-and-rolls, can isolate any defender in the game and is an above-average jump shooter both off the bounce and in spot-up situations. He easily led yearlong Jazz rotation players in percentage of possessions used while on the floor last season, even within a Quin Snyder system that calls for lots of ball sharing.

Utah’s depth infusion, particularly ball-handlers like Hill and Johnson, could easily lead to the double positive for Hayward this season: A slight reduction in overall workload, but a potential uptick in efficiency. Hayward no longer has to be the every-possession safety valve for an offense that was often helpless when he wasn’t directly involved in the play last season. He’ll see more open looks generated by others, and hopefully far fewer instances where the onus is purely on him to create a chance as the shot clock winds down.

Make no mistake, though: Hayward remains Utah’s go-to guy offensively. He’ll vie for the team lead in field goal attempts, free throw attempts, points and assists once again after leading each category comfortably last year. He and Rodney Hood form a devastating one-two punch on the wing, forcing all but the few teams with multiple high-level perimeter defenders to live with at least one of them in a plus matchup. Combine this with an overall improvement from his supporting cast, and all the groundwork is there for Hayward’s most productive season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Like many on this roster, 2015-16 was a strange year for the Stifle Tower. He logged just 14 games before being sidelined over a month with an MCL sprain, and spent several weeks or more visibly working himself back to full speed with a notoriously finicky injury (think Steph Curry in the playoffs after his own sprain, only Gobert’s was classified as a more serious Grade 2 compared to Curry’s Grade 1). His absence overlapped with Derrick Favors’ own injury, so the Jazz were without at least one of their frontcourt starters for nearly two consecutive months.

The comings and goings around him were important for a player who relies on at least adequate play from teammates to function optimally. Gobert had an uneven season offensively, with higher turnover numbers and diminishing shooting efficiency, but at least some of this can be chalked up to generally poor team spacing and even worse guard play. Athletic but with a limited offensive skill set, Gobert needs the ball in the right places – and with the right spacing and timing – to make his impact offensively, and this often wasn’t happening last year.

Just like Hayward but in different ways, Gobert could be in for a mini-resurgence with so much more talent and depth now surrounding him on the floor. His chemistry with returning point guard Exum was a real thing when both were last healthy, and Hill becomes easily the most qualified passing point guard that Gobert has ever played alongside. Improved team shooting will trickle down to improved spacing, so look for far more frequent lobs to the rim too.

On the other end, the few weak links in Utah’s defense who occasionally forced Gobert to over-extend himself and cover for mistakes are mostly gone. SportVU metrics have consistently painted him as one of the NBA’s most impactful rim protectors, and flanking him will now be more length than any other team in the league plus strong defenders at the point of attack. He’ll anchor a unit with a legitimate chance to lead the league in defensive efficiency, and he could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Top Playmaker: George Hill

Hayward could also be mentioned here, and could easily still lead the Jazz in raw creation since “playmaking” is more than just assists. Hill, though, adds a new dimension the Jazz have been without for at least a couple years (excepting brief flashes from Shelvin Mack late last season): A point guard truly capable of captaining an offensive attack, both as a threat to set up teammates and to score for himself when circumstance demands it.

He won’t need to function this way all the time, of course, which is part of the beauty of Utah’s newfound depth. Hayward and Hood will handle their share of the load, Favors will eat the occasional possession in the post and guys like Johnson, Burks, Diaw and Lyles will all be involved.

While these other guys are doing their thing, Hill will be the most capable off-ball shooter the Jazz have employed at the point in years. He sank 44.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, per SportVU figures, which was 10th in the NBA among 174 guys who attempted at least 100 of these shots. But he’s more than that, and the other stuff might be even more important. He can ease the burden on Hood and especially Hayward, function as a more talented lob feeder for Favors and Gobert, and perhaps most importantly remove any pressure whatsoever on Exum to play a huge role immediately after returning from ACL surgery. Hill really was the perfect offseason get for this Jazz team.

Top Clutch Playmaker: Rodney Hood

There could be several good answers here: Hayward makes sense for obvious reasons, Johnson has been a consistent clutch performer throughout his career and Favors was quietly Utah’s most consistent option down the stretch when healthy last season (he averaged nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds in clutch minutes on 52.4 percent shooting). One could even make a case for “team defense” as the non-traditional answer, as Utah allowed the third-most per-possession points in the league during clutch time last year (better than only the Suns and 76ers).

Hood began to earn Snyder’s trust in big moments last year, though. Only Hayward appeared in more clutch minutes on the year, and Hood attempted the most per-minute shots on the team during these periods among guys who played most of a full season. He might be even more skilled than Hayward as an individual shot creator, with masterful body control and the height to get his shot off over virtually any defender. Add in the fact that Hayward typically draws the more skilled wing defender while both are on the floor and it stands to reason that Hood could be increasingly featured in the late-game offense.

The team-friendly approach will remain, to be sure, and Hood won’t boast some gaudy clutch usage rate. But he’ll be on the floor – those assuming Johnson immediately steps in and steals his crunch time spot are jumping the gun by several paces – and he could be Utah’s most reliable option to get a much-needed bucket.

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

It’s somewhat understandable with so much else going on within a small-market franchise, but Derrick Favors doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention. He’s fresh off his second consecutive year averaging over 16 points and eight rebounds a night while making over half his shots, all while playing near-elite level defense. Favors’ stat sheet reads like that of a basketball robot; it’s hard to find many players in league history who have improved by such steady, similar increments every single year for their first six seasons.

It’s not just raw stats either, with team metrics consistently marking Favors as one of Utah’s most impactful on-court presences. There are few roll men in the league more lethal once you get them the ball, an element that opens up scoring opportunities all over the floor. He’s made a habit of quietly outplaying more heralded names like Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin in head-to-head matchups over the last couple years. Favors spent long stretches as Utah’s flat-out best player last season, and it will shock no one if he does so again this year.

Top New Addition: George Hill

Much of Hill’s impact was covered above, and he gets the nod here despite two other smart summer pickups. Johnson is a career 37 percent three-point shooter with the size to play both forward positions, and he’ll add shot creation and marksmanship to a second unit that badly needed it while also mixing in with the starters at times. Diaw has shown signs of aging in San Antonio recently, but he’s a crafty and creative reserve big who should function both as a mentor for similarly-talented Trey Lyles and as insurance should Lyles falter in his development.

Johnson isn’t a lock for huge minutes, though, and Diaw even less so if Lyles continues what’s been a speedy pace of improvement. Both will have their moments, and could perhaps be key cogs if injury or bad play strikes, but Hill is a presumed starter who should consistently approach the 30-minute mark.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Dante Exum

Already one of the most intriguing and potentially divisive point guard prospects in the league during his rookie season, Exum’s ACL tear and resulting missed season only added to the murkiness. Exum is a lengthy athletic specimen who had surprising success as a rookie in certain areas (defense and playmaking) along with distinct struggles in others (shooting and overall offensive comfort). His ceiling remains sky high if these latter elements come together, but his floor remains scarily low coming off injury with a full year of potential development down the drain. He’ll be eased back into the rotation behind Hill at the point, with no immediate expectations. His development in the later parts of the year will be important to track, though, as he’ll become eligible for a rookie extension after this third season. Exum could raise the Jazz’s overall ceiling a notch or two if he starts checking some of his advanced boxes sooner rather than later.

  1. Quin Snyder

It’s a huge year for Utah’s bench boss, now in his third NBA season with a fresh contract extension signed. Snyder’s approach in his first two years has correctly emphasized proper habits and cohesive development of young pieces. That isn’t completely finished by any means, but the “execution” stage is clearly here now. There are real expectations on this team in the wins department. Snyder’s new depth plus familiarity and trust from his incumbent players should allow him to be more ruthless from the bench – tighter rotations if guys aren’t doing their jobs, more targeting of opponent weaknesses, better capability to match up stylistically. His command center has more buttons and levers than ever, and how well he utilizes them could go a long way to determining the team’s success.

  1. Trey Lyles/Boris Diaw

One is just creeping up on his prime while the other is leaving his, but Lyles and Diaw are relatively similar players in a broad sense. Both have the ball skills to stretch the floor from the power forward spot: Diaw the crafty veteran with superior passing and guile, Lyles the youngster with better mobility and shooting. Lyles’ next step offensively is improving as a passer, and there might not be a more perfect mentor out there for him than Diaw. If Lyles improves enough – and especially if he develops into less of a liability defensively, never a bad bet for Snyder-coached young guys – the minutes within this “playmaking four” role could tilt heavily in his direction. Lyles is more athletic and was a better shooter from deep last year than Diaw has been over his last couple seasons, which also makes him the better potential fit alongside hybrid starter units looking to inject more spacing. Diaw is a great addition who will play a real role at times, but it would be a disappointment for Lyles if the veteran finished the year with more minutes played.

  1. Joe Johnson

Johnson comes to Salt Lake City after a brief run in Miami where he looked great as a complementary piece plugged into various lineups, which is exactly the role he’ll be asked to play in Utah. He can create his own look out of the two-man game, the post or via simple isolation, all of which he’ll do while combining with Alec Burks to captain primary bench units. He also shot 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year, a skill that will allow him to mix in with starter-heavy lineups and play off the ball as needed. His defense could become a concern at 35 years old and his presence in clutch lineups is nowhere near as guaranteed as many are assuming, but Johnson brings veteran know-how and several much-needed skills to the table.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Jazz are still significantly under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, at roughly $79.4 million in guaranteed salaries. The team has 14 players locked in, with Jeff Withey, Chris Johnson, Marcus Paige and Quincy Ford fighting for one spot. Heading into training camp, Withey would appear to be the favorite to stick. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season – any shortfall will be paid out to Utah’s rostered players at the end of the year.

This is a crucial time for the Jazz. Derrick Favors is eligible to have his contract restructured and extended, which would take about $11.1 million of the team’s available cap space. George Hill is also eligible for a similar deal, although he may prefer to hit free agency next summer instead. Rudy Gobert is eligible for an extension before November, otherwise he will become a restricted free agent when Utah extends a qualifying offer in July.

Also, the Jazz still have their $2.9 million Room Exception, should they get closer to NBA’s salary cap. Looking ahead to next summer, the team could near $54 million in spending power under a $102 million projected cap, but that assumes Gordon Hayward opts out and neither Favors nor Gobert are extended. It also presumes the team takes the rookie-scale options on Dante Exum, Trey Lyles and Rodney Hood by the end of October.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Jazz under Snyder have built their identity on team defense, and nothing is changing this year. A starting lineup featuring an average wingspan of over seven feet sets the baseline, and the Jazz are looking to get back to the historic defensive pace they displayed with a fully healthy group down the stretch of the 2014-15 season. The Jazz have similarly been a top rebounding team each of the last two seasons, and should be again. Depth is also now certainly a strength. Utah has gone from one of the thinnest benches in the league to one of the deepest, which in turn raises their overall margin for error. Spacing and playmaking may not yet be outright strengths, but they’re far from weaknesses either after major improvements.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

This team has plugged nearly all its major holes on paper, but the potential for struggles in a few areas remain. The Jazz were among the worst teams in the league at pursuing and converting transition chances last year, and while they should theoretically improve with more comfort and a couple more ball-handlers, team personnel doesn’t suggest a rapid change. The Jazz have more shooting now, but certain lineups – particularly those featuring both Gobert and Favors, and especially during minutes they play alongside Exum – will still struggle with offensive spacing and bits of shot creation. Additionally, all this new depth and veteran savvy doesn’t come without risks: All the options available to Snyder leave at least a theoretical possibility that he makes the wrong decisions and costs the team wins or vital development, though his track record suggests nothing of the sort. Players must also be willing to make sacrifices when it comes to touches and minutes.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is this team a whole greater than the sum of its parts?

It’s impossible to look at this Jazz roster and miss the outlines of a very good team, if not a great one. Utah has above-average starters at all five positions, one of the deepest benches in the league, a highly respected coach who connects with his players and multiple young guys who could still have developmental leaps left in them.

We’ve seen countless examples through history of on-paper quality failing to translate fully on the court, though. Utah’s quest is to avoid adding themselves to this list. The new additions will need to develop chemistry with mainstays, and previously injured players will need to re-integrate. Ironing out roles and rotations could take some time. There’s a ton of talent on this roster, but they’re still without that ultimate superstar who changes the calculus (Hayward is close), meaning every duty – big or small – is that much more important for each guy.

If this group gels, gets solid coaching from Snyder and perhaps finds one or two small leaps from young guys, a home playoff series isn’t the least bit crazy this season. If they struggle with details and can’t channel their talent into consistency, however, they could find the climb from outside the playoffs to be steeper than expected. Optimism is rampant for the Jazz this year; only the guys in that locker room can determine how much of it is deserved.

– Ben Dowsett

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.

Ben Nadeau

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If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.

After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.

When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.

But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.

“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”

Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.

Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.

As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.

“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”

Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.

Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.

“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”

The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.

Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.

Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.

Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.

But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.

“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”

Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.

“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”

Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.

LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.

“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”

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The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived

It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.

When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.

Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.

Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.

But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.

This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.

With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.

Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.

On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.

Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.

However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.

Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.

Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.

That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.

If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.

This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.

Better late than never.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Are Player Legacies Really On The Line?

How important is legacy in the NBA playoffs? Lang Greene takes a look.

Lang Greene

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As the NBA Playoffs continue to pick up steam, the subject of individual greatness has become the big topic of conversation. Today, we ask the question: is legacy talk just a bunch of hyperbole or are they really made or broken in the playoffs?

To be clear, legacies do matter. Reputations are built on reliability and how dependable someone is throughout the course of their respective body of work. We all have them. They are built over time and it’s seldom they change from one misstep – but they can. Some of the greatest players in NBA history never won a title; see John Stockton and Karl Malone during their Utah Jazz years. Some NBA greats never won a title until they were past their physical prime and paired with a young charge that took over the reins; see David Robinson in San Antonio. Some NBA greats never won a title as the leading man until they were traded to a title contending team; see Clyde Drexler in Houston. We also have a slew of Hall of Famers that have been inducted with minimal playoff success in their careers; see the explosive Tracy McGrady.

So what’s in a legacy? And why does it mean more for some then it does for others?

Four-time League MVP LeBron James’ legacy is always up for debate, despite battling this season to make his ninth NBA Finals appearance. James’ legacy seems to be up in the air on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s because of the rarified air he’s in as one of the league’s top 10 players all-time or maybe it’s just good for ratings.

As this year’s playoffs gain momentum, the topic of legacy has been mentioned early and often.

Out in the Western Conference, the legacy of Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is being questioned at all angles. There’s no doubt Westbrook is one of the best players in the league today as the reigning MVP and coming off two consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. However, Westbrook’s decision making has come into question plenty over the past couple of seasons.

The subject of whether you can truly win a championship with Westbrook as your lead guy serves as the centerpiece of the debate. It goes without saying former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors amid rumors that he could no longer coexist next to Westbrook in the lineup. Ever since Durant’s somewhat unexpected departure, it seems Westbrook has been hell-bent on proving his doubters wrong – even if it comes at the detriment to what his team is trying to accomplish.

The latest example was in game four of his team’s current first-round series versus the Utah Jazz.

Westbrook picked up four fouls in the first half as he was attempting to lock up point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a career night in Game 3 of the series. Westbrook infamously waved off head coach Billy Donovan after picking up his second personal foul in the first quarter. Westbrook was also in the game with three personal fouls and under two minutes left in the first half before picking up his fourth personal.

You can make an argument that this was just bad coaching by Donovan leaving him in the game in foul trouble, but it also points to Westbrook’s decision making and not being able to play within the constructs of a team dynamic. Further, what will be Westbrook’s legacy on this season’s Oklahoma City Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George if they were to flame out in the first round with little fizzle – against a Jazz team with no star power and zero All-Stars? Is discussing Westbrook’s legacy worthless banter or is it a legitimate topic? There is no doubt on his current trajectory Westbrook is headed straight into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. As an individual player there is no greater achievement than to have your name etched in stone with the greats of yesteryear, but the court of public opinion factors in team success and this is where the topic of legacy comes into play.

Say what you will about Durant’s decision to go to Golden State, but his legacy is undoubtedly secured. Durant won the Finals MVP last season in absolute dominant fashion and showed up on the biggest of stages. All that’s left from those that question Durant’s legacy at this point are the folks on the fringe saying he couldn’t do it by himself. But that is exactly the line of thinking that’s getting Westbrook killed as well, because winning championships is all about team cohesiveness and unity.

Out in the Eastern Conference, all eyes will be on Milwaukee Bucks do everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo. After five seasons in the league, Antetokounmpo has zero playoff series victories attached to his name. Heading into the playoffs this season, the seventh-seeded Bucks were considered underdogs to the second-seeded Boston Celtics.

But the Celtics are wounded. They do not have the services of All Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are a team full of scrappy young talent and cagey veterans. Antetokounmpo is clearly the best player in the series and teams with the best player usually fare well in a seven game series. But the Bucks are facing elimination down 3-2 versus Boston. Antetokounmpo has only been in the league half of the time Westbrook has, but the chirping about his legacy has already begun as Milwaukee attempts to win its first playoff series since 2001.

So what’s in a legacy? Are there varying degrees for which people are being evaluated?

Despite James’ success throughout his career, a first-round exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers over the next week will damage his legacy in the minds of some. While others feel even if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were to drop this series against the Celtics, he should be given a pass with the caveat that he still has plenty of time in his career to rectify.

As for Westbrook, there are vultures circling the head of his legacy and these folks feel that a first-round exit will damage his brand irreversibly after 10 seasons in the league

Ultimately, the topic of legacies makes for good column fodder, barbershop banter and sport debate television segments. Because when guys hang up their high tops for good, a Hall of Fame induction is typically the solidifying factor when it comes to a player’s legacy.

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