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Washington Wizards 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The future for the Washington Wizards seems murky at best, however even with the injury to John Wall could the Wizards be a sleeper playoff team with Bradley Beal as its singular star? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Washington Wizards in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards enter next season with a lot of question marks about the present and the future of the team. They have one of the best backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Unfortunately, Wall is out for the entire season due to a tear in his Achilles tendon and will be starting to earn one of the biggest contracts in the NBA. Beal is healthy and was an All-Star last year, but has not signed the contract extension of 3 years/ $111 million offered to him this past summer by the Wizards. Uncertain if Beal will re-sign or Wall will ever get back to playoff form, the Wizards have started developing a solid young core and brought in veterans to help with their development.

The Wizards will hope to follow their newly minted general manager Tommy Shepard’s vision for the future and get back to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the second time in five seasons with a 32-50 record. The question will be: Will the Wizards rely on their old guard, or will the young core show enough to promise to move forward without their dynamic backcourt?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Sorry, D.C. – the Wizards are in for a long season. John Wall is unlikely to return this season, and the Bradley Beal trade rumors are only going to get louder as the losses pile up. Rui Hachimura flashed his potential in summer league and through his first few games with Japan at the FIBA World Cup (not counting Thursday’s game against the Team USA), and Isaiah Thomas should have ample opportunity to prove that he is still a contributor in the NBA. But the Wizards are going to lose a lot of games in 2019-20. Their best bet may be to fully embrace the idea of a rebuild.

5th place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

It’s safe to say Scott Brooks has his work cut out for him. John Wall is sidelined with a torn left Achilles injury and Bradley Beal is about the only aspect of his squad that’s a sure thing. The rest, we’ll have to see. Thomas Bryant won’t be surprising teams anymore coming off a stellar season. There will be a lot asked of rookies Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield – it is beneficial these are upperclassmen coming in – however, the talent level is simply not there as it has been in the past. Isaiah Thomas vying for a comeback would be one heck of a story. Again though, Washington’s year all hinges on luck, quite frankly. Consider this writer pessimistic about the situation in D.C.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Wizards are in a state of flux right now. With John Wall likely out for the entire season, the Wizards aren’t good enough to make a push for the postseason. Bradley Beal’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors, but it doesn’t seem like the Wizards are all that inclined to trade him. That may change as the trade deadline draws closer. It’s in Washington’s best interest to hit the reset button and trade Beal for some young pieces and/or picks if they can. This season should be about playing all the young guys they have and seeing who is worth keeping around for the long haul. If his FIBA play is any indication, the Wizards may have hit the jackpot with Rui Hachimura. He should be given ample opportunity to play, as should players like Troy Brown Jr, Thomas Bryant, and Mortiz Wagner. There really is nothing to lose.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Any analysis of the Washington Wizards must begin with the difficult truth that is John Wall is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and is set to make $38,199,000 this season and $47,366,760 in the 2022-23 season. Ouch. After that, I cannot get past the thought that the Los Angeles Clippers approached the Wizards about trading for Bradley Beal and Washington basically said thanks, but no thanks. Beal is a star guard and moving him in a deal isn’t exactly a no-brainer. However, when you consider what Sam Presti managed to squeeze out of the Clippers in the Paul George trade, it makes you wonder what Washington may have passed up bypassing on any deal including Beal. Moving past this, however, Washington did make some crafty moves. The Wizards did manage to nab Davis Bertans in the Brooklyn Nets’ sign-and-trade of DeMarre Carroll with San Antonio. They also took on Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones from the Lakers essentially for free so the Lakers could clear extra cap space in order to acquire both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard (which didn’t end up happening, of course). Washington also drafted Rui Hachimura, a talented prospect, with the ninth overall pick. Some believe Hachimura is a reach at ninth overall, but I am of the belief it was a solid pick for Washington. Overall, this was an okay offseason for the Wizards, in my opinion. However, the Wall contract is the albatross that will hang over this team for the foreseeable future.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Wizards kicked the tires on splashy options for new leadership but ended up promoting long-time Wizards executive Tommy Sheppard to the senior operations role of the team. Since that decision, the Wizards have made a number of changes in the front office that should better prepare them for the likely and maybe inevitable re-build they will have to embark on. As much as current leadership wants to build around All-Star Brad Beal, it seems unlikely that unless he turns into an MVP caliber guy by himself that the Wizards will have to try and convince Beal he can really win in Washington, which will be pretty hard given the size of guard John Wall’s contract and his uncertain future after an Achilles tear. The good news for the Wizards is they don’t have to cross that Beal bridge this season and, given whats a stake financially with Beal becoming Super Max eligible if he makes an All-NBA team this year, things are lined up for at least one more run with Beal as the focal point and the roster as constructed might be a playoff contender, especially if Beal stays healthy.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Wizards have worked their team salary down to below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Washington is trying to field a competitive team despite having $38.2 million going to John Wall ($171.1 million over the next four years, player option on the final season), who isn’t expected to play this year after an Achilles tear. The big question is Bradley Beal, who can sign an extension through the 2023-24 season for roughly $111 million. His answer sets the course for the franchise. Even though he’s under contract through 2020-21, he could end up on the trade block if he turns down the extension offer.

Additionally, the team needs to pick up the team option on Troy Brown Jr. and Mo Wagner before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal is entering his eighth NBA season this season and delivered the best offensive season of his career by averaging 25.6 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5.5 APG. Even with the Wizards having a down year, Beal was a shining star for the team. During the offseason, Beal was highly sought after because of his scoring ability without having the ball in his hands.

Teams like the Lakers and Rockets perused Beal to be an All-Star alongside each of those teams’ ball-dominant stars. Beal has shown that he does not need to have the ball in his hands to make a strong offensive impact, which has made him such a dynamic star alongside John Wall. Wall requires the ball in his hand to make the most of his offensive abilities. Beal has really benefitted by being a perimeter threat that can finish at the hole if pressed too tightly. With Wall out for the season, we should see Beal being more aggressive and handling the ball more. With Wall out, we saw career numbers from Beal by the end of last year.

Top Defensive Player: Thomas Bryant

Thomas Bryant will become a focal point of this year’s Wizards team on the defensive side of the ball. Despite competing with Ian Mihainmi for minutes, it is looking like he will break the starting rotation and will secure the starting job at Center. Mahinmi will come in to be a defense and rebound specialist, but Bryant has shown that he can be a threat on that end of the court as well. The Wizards looked to rely heavily on Dwight Howard last year to stabilize the defense, but he had to undergo back surgery and only played nine games last season. Instead, the Wizards relied on a tandem of Thomas Bryant and Ian Mahinmi to make up for the loss of Howard. Bryant ended up starting because of efficiency on offense and signed a 3 year/ 25 million dollar extension with the team this off season.

Bryant led the team in defensive win shares with a +2.7 rating, defensive rebounds with 10.8 per game and blocks with 2.7 per game. Bryant looks continue to build on the defensive success by cementing himself as the starting Center by not having Howard on the roster anymore.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

For the 2018-2019 season, Thomas signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards.

At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics and led them to the Eastern Conference Finals by averaging 28.9 points per game. The Wizards brought Thomas and Ish Smith to compete for the starting point guard position due to Wall’s injury. If Thomas can stay healthy, he look to be able to run the Wizards offense and will have a great offensive tool with Beal. Look toward Thomas having Beal playing off of his playmaking ability and maximizing both of their talents this year.

Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal

Beal’s stats during “Clutch Time” (during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points) were some of best in the NBA last season. During Clutch Time, Beal had the one of the best last minute field goal percentages among players who took 25 or more attempts with a 45 percent conversion rate. Beal also ranked seventh in most points scored during clutch time with 125 points.

Isaiah Thomas was the first option in many crunch time situations when he was with the Boston Celtics. If Thomas can gain the trust of the Wizards coaching staff through the season, he may steal some crunch time shots, but still look for Beal to be the primary option.

Unheralded Player: Troy Brown Jr.

With C.J. Miles healing a stress fracture in his left foot to start the season, Troy Brown Jr. has a strong opportunity to be the starting small forward on opening night for the Wizards. Being a lottery pick in the 2018 draft, the Wizards have high hopes for Brown to turn into reliable small forward in his sophomore year. Brown was quite clearly the best player on the Wizards’ Summer League roster. In his only full game, he put up 18 points and 15 rebounds, but he only shot 40.6 percent in Vegas. Brown will not have any pressure of being the focal point of the Wizards’ offense, which will make it easy to play off players like Beal or Thomas to gain some easy scoring opportunities.

Best New Addition: Rui Hachimura

Hachimura only played in three of the Wizards’ summer league games, but posted a dominant performance in his final game of the tournament, scoring 25 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Hachimura was definitely seen as a cerebral player who smoothly adjusting to the speed of the NBA and improving game-by-game. Hachimura also had a strong performance in the FIBA World Cup this summer, where he averaged 13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 2.3 APG. He has been hampered by a knee injury that kept him out of two games in the World Cup. If Hachimura can overcome his leg injuries, it should give Wizards fan hope he can contribute as a rookie.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Free Lakers Pieces

The Wizards acquired center Moritz Wagner, forward Jemerrio Jones, guard Isaac Bonga and a 2022 second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade involving the New Orleans Pelicans. Wagner was selected 25th in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the Lakers. In 43 games with the Lakers last season, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, including 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in five games as a starter. Bonga was selected 39th in 2018 draft and Moon went undrafted.

Wagner appears to be the most coveted one since Bonga and Jones both played sparingly or didn’t spend much time with the Lakers. Despite their lack of experience, they both have tremendous upside – Bonga being a 6-foot-9 point guard and Jones being one of the toughest defenders in the league according to Mo. The Wizards were able to get players who will be long term projects that can continue to build a solid young core.

2. Veteran Balance

Tommy Sheppard’s focus this offseason was to balance the Wizards roster by bringing in young talent. The front office focused on securing veterans leadership for the team as well. Besides signing eight-season NBA vet Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards also signed guard Ish Smith, who is entering his ninth season. The Wizards also signed guard-forward C.J. Miles, who is coming into his 15th NBA season. There is strong potential for these veterans to mentor younger Wizards and boost the team’s confidence with the help of Beal.

Thomas only played 12 games with the Denver Nuggets last year and is looking to make a strong come back from a hip injury his sustained in 2016. Smith played three years with the Detroit Pistons where he averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game last season on 41.9 percent from the field. Miles only played 13 games last year but can contribute as a stretch four, averaging 36 percent from behind the arc for his career.

3. New Management

On July 22, 2019, the Wizards hired Tommy Shepard as general manager of the team. Shortly after the team hired Shepard, he started filling out the front office by naming Johnny Rogers as Vice President of Pro Personnel, Antawn Jamison as Director of Pro Personnel, Sashi Brown as Chief Planning and Operations Officer and former Georgetown head coach John Thompson III the head of  athlete development and engagement department This rebuild was organized by Monumental Sports and Entertainment (MSE) CEO Ted Leonsis after he let go of Ernie Grunfeld in April after 16 years of service.

MSE went soul searching during this rebuild and used 78 different consultants for this front office reorganization. Leonsis picked the brains of the youngest general manager in the history of major league baseball, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States. Leonsis made it clear that he needed help in his search for a replacement or, better yet, an entirely new system for his organization to run on. More importantly, the front office rebuild will not be a success if Shepard is unable to put together an NBA Finals contender. Though it seems that the Wizards are searching for a championship and will do anything to improve their odds.

4. Thomas’ First Fully Healthy Season

Isaiah Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016 but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. The Wizards hope that Thomas has fully addressed the hip issue and can make a full recovery after his surgery. The likelihood of him fully recovering is not in his favor, but if he can manage to be the starting point guard for the Wizards, that would justify taking the risk on Thomas.

Thomas has always a narrative of being an underdog: Being picked last in the 2011 draft, having the Kings refuse to sign him after averaging over 20 points a game, to the Celtics who traded him to the Cavs after having two All-Star seasons. Thomas was all but counted out when he tore his labrum and to come back from this injury would solidify the underdog narrative.

-David Weissman

STRENGTHS

Realistically, the most proven piece of the young core is Thomas Bryant who started 53 games for the Wizards last season and this summer got a new contract of 3 years/ $25 million. At 22, Bryant has the best resume and most upside to start at the five, especially with per-36 numbers last year of 18.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG.

Troy Brown Jr. will also be an integral part of this young core. Brown played in only 52 games, 10 of which he started. He averaged under 15 minutes per game, scoring 4.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 1.5 APG. With an opportunity to play bigger minutes this season, Brown has provided optimism from his performance during the summer league and is anticipated to make a jump statistically this next season.

The Wizards also acquired Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga, Jemerrio Moon, Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield to bolster the youth movement on the team. Sheppard looks like he is attempting to rebuild while still maintaining Wall and Beal on the roster. Beal has been offered 3 years/ $111 million extension, but has yet to accept. If Beal walks after two seasons, the young core can hopefully supplement his absence in the future.

-David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

The one glaring issue that the Wizards face is the lack of security at the point guard position. Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on Jan. 8, 2019, to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years.

Wall is a six-time All-Star who has averaged 19 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.3 RPG during his career, creating a glaring hole of productivity at the point guard position. The Wizards took a risk on Isaiah Thomas to try and fill the offensive productivity they are used to with Wall. As mentioned before, Thomas is coming off of a serious hip injury and may be limited himself. The Wizards signed Thomas on the veteran minimum salary, a small risk especially after having so much money tied up at the point guard position already with Wall’s massive contract.

The Wizards will probably know fairly early in the preseason about what they have in Thomas and what they can expect. If Thomas’ last season performance is any indication about his availability this season, Ish Smith will be spending a lot of time on the court. Smith averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game last season, solid for a backup point guard, but a far drop from the productivity of Wall.

-David Weissman

The Burning Question

What Does Sheppard Do With The Future Of The Team?

As Tommy Sheppard takes over as General Manager for the Washington Wizards, he faces a tough choice that will determine the Wizards’ future: (1) Blow the team up or (2) Continue to build around John Wall and Bradley Beal. Blowing up the team would require trading away the All-Star backcourt, allowing Sheppard to focus on developing a young core featuring Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura. Building around Wall and Beal, on the other hand, would require keeping a duo together who has not had the best relationship in the past and Wall overcoming injury. Sheppard has suggested he wants to maintain the established backcourt by offering Beal a full max extension, the best approach for the Wizards’ future despite the risk of gambling on Wall’s health.

Wall had been an All-Star for the five seasons prior to the 2018-2019 season, mainly due to his athleticism and playmaking ability. In December 2018, Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on January 8, 2019 to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles, worsening the injury from December 2018. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years. Trading this incredibly expensive contract with a devastating injury attached to it is an incredibly difficult feat without giving up assets, making sticking with Wall an almost unavoidable option for Sheppard.

Trading Wall and Beal, the Wizards would start off fresh with whatever is left of a young core comprised of Brown Jr., Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The Wizards’ hopes would rest on the young core developing into a strong foundation that could attract All-Star caliber talent and drafting well during a multi-year rebuild.

Given the difficulty of moving Wall and the uncertainty of what the rebuild can actually achieve, sticking with the current Beal/Wall duo seems like a better recipe for success in the near future. Best case scenario, Wall is able to perform at an All-Star level again and re-develops a dynamic duo in a wide open Eastern Conference with Beal.

-David Weissman

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NBA

NBA Daily: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19

A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.

Jack Winter

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A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.

More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.

Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.

It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.

Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.

4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.

Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.

Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.

Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.

As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.

3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.

On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.

Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.

The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.

Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.

2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.

But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.

The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.

No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.

The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.

Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.

That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.

1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.

Wrong.

Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.

The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.

Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.

Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.

Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?

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G-League

Kyle Collinsworth In Familiar Territory

Kyle Collinsworth has been making his mark for the Salt Lake City Stars, which shouldn’t feel too different to him since he’s dominated in Utah basketball before. Matt John writes.

Matt John

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For Kyle Collinsworth, playing basketball in Utah is nothing out of the ordinary.

The 28-year-old grew up in Provo and went on to become one of the most storied basketball players in the history of Brigham Young University. Since graduating from BYU in 2016, he’s bounced around a bit in the NBA. He’s had stints with the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and the Toronto Raptors. When the Utah Jazz added him this season to play for their G League Affiliate, the SLC Stars, Collinsworth was excited for home aspect alone.

“It’s always good to be home,” Collinsworth told Basketball Insiders. “My family’s here. My wife’s here. We’ve got a house here, so it’s just nice to be able to be home and do what I love at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Even though Collinsworth grew up and played college basketball in the mountainous region, he surprisingly didn’t grow up a Jazz fan. In fact, the team he grew up rooting for happened to be the only one that has given him legitimate NBA minutes in his professional basketball career — the Mavericks.

Going from a Mavericks fan to a Mavericks player was an experience Collinsworth truly treasured, especially since he got to play with his boyhood idol.

“It was incredible,” Collinsworth said. “Growing up, (we were) huge Mavericks fans. (With) Dirk being my favorite player, being teammates with him was surreal.”

In 2016, Collinsworth was brought in to play for the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends, before being called up at various points to play for Dallas. In the 2017-2018 season, Collinsworth played 34 games in Dallas. Collinsworth didn’t mince words when praising the organization and how they’ve been able to get to where they are now.

“It’s just another testament of consistency. Those guys, day in and day out, bring the work, and that’s why they are champions,” Collinsworth said.

Following his stint with the Mavericks, Collinsworth is now back where it all began for him. However, it’s not just the Utah climate that he’s used to. He’s also pretty used to filling up the box score when he’s on the court.

Back when he played for the Cougars, he was renowned for his all-around game. In his four years in college, Collinsworth’s total points scored (1,707) placed him 11th all-time among BYU men’s basketball players, while his total rebounds (1,047) and total assists (703) placed him first. In fact, his 12 triple-doubles are the most any player in NCAA history has recorded over his collegiate career.

His game has continued to shine through in the G League this season. In the three games he’s played for the Stars, Collinsworth’s all-around game has shined for the team, as he’s averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Stars head coach Martin Schiller praised Collinsworth for what he brings to the floor.

“His all-around game, offensively and defensively, as well as leadership-wise, his game impacts the team a lot,” Schiller told Basketball Insiders.

With Collinsworth being the oldest player on the roster at 28 years old, his experience has made him quite the influence in the locker room, which has served very well for his younger teammates.

“It stabilizes us,” Schiller said. “The guys listen to him. The guys believe in him. He played legit NBA minutes, so the guys respect him and therefore it’s very important to have him.”

When the Stars faced the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Friday night, they found themselves down by double digits in the second quarter. The Stars rallied back and were able to come up victorious for their first win of the season. SLC was never deterred even when the odds were stacked against them, which is exactly what Collinsworth has emphasized in the example he sets for his team.

“Just (be) Steady Eddie,” Collinsworth said. “Always bring the energy and just stay steady (because) there’s a lot of games…You have to keep your head up and stay positive, through the good games and the bad.”

Previous BYU alumni have opted to go different routes in their professional basketball careers. After failing to find a place in the NBA, Jimmer Fredette has gone on to become an icon for various leagues overseas. His former college teammate Brandon Davies has also played in various foreign professional basketball leagues.

Others have gone back and forth between the NBA and overseas. Eric Mika has played in several foreign leagues before signing with the Stockton Kings this season. For Collinsworth, his path has steadfastly remained the same in order for him to achieve his one goal — to play in the NBA.

“Back in the NBA is the goal for sure,” Collinsworth said. “That’s why I’m back in the G League. I’m trying to make that happen.”

Everyone has to pay their dues to make their dreams come true. For Kyle Collinsworth, that means showing Utah what he’s got in the G League.

It may not be ideal — but for him, at least it’s familiar terrain.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Five Stats To Keep An Eye On Revisited

Before the season, Basketball Insiders identified five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. Quinn Davis revisits those five to see how they have looked over the season’s first month.

Quinn Davis

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Before the season, Basketball Insiders pinpointed five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. These statistics each helped tell the story of last season and could be vital in determining the standings of the current campaign.

A month into the season, here’s an update on how those five statistics, and the impact they’ve had thus far. 

Philadelphia 76ers — Forced Turnover Percentage

After starting the season 5-0, the Philadelphia 76ers fell a bit back down to earth and are now sitting at 8-5. Some of the regression can be blamed on a Joel Embiid suspension and a Ben Simmons shoulder sprain, but there have been some legitimate areas of concern over the last eight games.

Their defense, which was operating at an elite level during the first five games, has fallen now to a good-not-great 11th in the league. Interestingly, their forced turnover percentage has not been the culprit for the decline.

The 76ers are up to 11th in the league in forcing turnovers this season after finishing 28th in that category in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. The new additions Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, along with an increase in aggressiveness on that end from Simmons, have been in key in forcing loose balls and errant passes.

While this is encouraging, the increased aggressiveness may be a direct factor in one of their biggest flaws over the first 13 games. The 76ers are currently 29th in the league in opponent free throw rate, giving up 25.1 free throws per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

A high foul rate can be seen as a necessary risk for this 76ers team. An increase in turnovers could lead to more transition opportunities, which could help an offensively-challenged team generate more easy baskets.

So far, though, the risk has not been worth the reward. Despite going from 28th to 11th in forced turnover percentage, the 76ers efficiency and frequency in transition have remained relatively the same. They’ve generated transition opportunities off of 68.4 percent of their steals, just one percentage point higher than last season, per Cleaning the Glass. These opportunities have netted them an additional 1.7 points per 100 possessions, only slightly better than last season’s number of 1.6.

For Philadelphia to get back on track, something will have to change. Going forward, it will be important to see if the 76ers can keep up their rate of forcing turnovers while simultaneously reducing their foul rate and generating more transition plans. 

Los Angeles Lakers — Half Court Efficiency

The Los Angeles Lakers have jumped out to an 11-2 record and sport the best net rating in the league. They have done so with a very impressive defense that ranks second in the NBA through the first month.

Meanwhile, their offense hasn’t lagged too far behind, as they rank 7th in the league on that side of the ball. Last season, the Lakers struggled offensively, particularly in the half-court where they were unable to consistently generate open looks.

They were a particularly bad shooting team in 2018-19, finishing last season with an overall three-point percentage of only 34 percent. The Lakers were expected to improve in that department this season with multiple shooters being brought into the fold.

But, while the team has taken a step offensively, it hasn’t been because of their shooting.

While Danny Green has been a marksman, shooting 42.2 percent from three, the rest of the Lakers’ roster has not been up to snuff. Overall, they sit at exactly the same percentage as last season when it comes to three-point shooting, 34 percent.

Their offense has been humming thanks to some old-fashioned domination around the rim. The Lakers are shooting 40.4 percent of their total shots at the rim and finishing 69.1 percent of those attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.

That kind of efficiency around the basket will mitigate any shooting concerns. But, if some of the Lakers’ role players can begin to hit their outside shots, the Los Angeles offense could prove even more imposing.

Denver Nuggets — Opponents’ Effective Field Goal Percentage

One of the harder to project statistics in the NBA is the opponents’ field goal percentage. This number can vary from year-to-year for no reason other than luck.

Last season the Nuggets improved their defense greatly and went from one of the worst units in the league to an average one. But, when digging into some of their numbers, it became clear that some of this may have been due to a lucky streak of opponent shooting, as the Nuggets gave up very similar looks to those they gave up in 2017-18, but opponents simply shot a worse percentage on these attempts.

This season, the Nuggets’ defense has improved even further. They are currently holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 49 percent, third in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Nuggets give a few too many threes, particularly from the corner, but opponents haven’t punished them as they’ve shot just 32 percent overall from three against Denver.

So, looking at the tracking data on NBA.com, it would appear as if some of that luck has carried over from last season. The Nuggets are giving up about the same number of wide-open three-point attempts as last season. On these attempts, opponents are shooting 37.1 percent, which is slightly under the 37.6 percent they managed last season.

That number is not extremely lucky, as 11 NBA teams have had better luck than Denver on wide-open shots this season. Where the Nuggets have gotten particularly good bounces, however, is on open shots, classified as those attempts when a defender 4-6 feet away. On these attempts, opponents are shooting just 26.5 percent, good for the second-lowest number in the league.

The Denver defense has certainly improved this season, but it’s unlikely they maintain their current pace in terms of opponent shooting. 

Milwaukee Bucks — Offensive Rating without Giannis

One of the big reasons for the Milwaukee Bucks’ success last season was the performance of their bench. While Giannis Antetokounmpo was certainly the conductor of the team’s attack, the team fared very well when he hit the bench.

But, with the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, there were some who questioned how the team would perform without their MVP on the court. And, so far, it appears as if those reservations were valid, to a point.

This season, the Bucks have felt the loss of Brogdon quite a bit, but not in an overly drastic way. When Antetokounmpo is on the floor, the Bucks boast about a 112 offensive rating, compared to a 107 rating when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.

Last season, the difference dropped about three points, from 116 when Antetokounmpo was on to 113 when he was off.

Milwaukee’s offense stayed at an elite level last year when Antetokounmpo sat on the back of impressive three-point shooting. But, this season, the Bucks have been getting up a similar number of attempts when he sits, but the shots have just haven’t fallen. From 2018-19 to 2019-20, the bench’s three-point percentage has dropped from 37.4 percent to 32.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.

While this is partially attributed to the loss of a 40 percent three-point shooter in Brogdon, the Bucks still have a plethora of solid shooters who should be able to hit more shots as the reigning MVP rests. As the season goes on, it wouldn’t be a shock to see these numbers level out in their favor.

Houston Rockets — Second Half Net Rating

After starting the season in a bit of a rut, the Houston Rockets have ripped off eight straight wins and have played about as well as many expected them to coming into the season. Like last year their success could be attributed mostly to a dominant James Harden, who’s averaged 40 points per game in that stretch.

Last season, the Rockets would often get out to a hot start, but struggle thereon and occasionally give up leads in the second half. The culprit of the second half malaise was theorized to be a tired Harden, given his gargantuan workload, or perhaps a predictable style of play that opponents would catch on and adjust to after a couple of quarters.

Whatever the reason, the addition of Russell Westbrook was to serve as a potential antidote. Last season, Westbrook’s Thunder excelled in the second half of games, as his seemingly boundless energy had a way of wearing opponents down as games went on.

And, in fact, the Rockets have proven much more assertive in second halves. They are currently sporting a 2.2 net rating in the first half, a number that has improved to 3.6 in the second, per NBA.com.

While Harden has continued to take a lion’s share of the work, Westbrook has added a transition threat to the Houston offense and has certainly played a key role in its improvement. If the Rockets can maintain this energy and efficiency throughout entire games, they could prove a major threat come April and May.

Those five statistics are just a few of the interesting trends and storylines to follow across an 82-game season. So, be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders to follow them along.

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