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NBA Daily: What Can We Expect From LeBron In 2019-20?

Can LeBron James continue playing at the level we’ve come to expect from him? Drew Maresca draws comparisons to four all-time greats to determine his production in 2019-20.

Drew Maresca

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It was a foregone conclusion that LeBron James would be drafted first overall in 2003, even before the draft lottery rewarded his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers with the first overall pick. James was already a national phenomenon before stepping foot on an NBA court.

James immediately bore a tremendous burden, with pressure to grow into potentially the best player of all time. And while that amount of pressure seems suffocating to virtually anyone else, to James it was probably expected.

Fast-forward 16 years and James has not disappointed. He has accomplished just about everything an NBA player can accomplish; he is a three-time NBA champion, a four-time NBA MVP, a fifteen-time NBA All-Star and so on. To say James’ career has been wildly successful is actually an understatement.

But looking back and looking ahead are dramatically different exercises. And while James has performed exceptionally well in all of his 16 professional seasons, every season from here on out represents new challenges – the likes of which he has yet to face, namely aging.

Last season, James suffered his first serious, documented injury – a groin strain sustained on Christmas Day. But groin strains are not terribly severe and typically don’t linger too long when treated correctly. The Lakers took precautions with James, playing him in only 21 of their final 48 games.  And while James career will probably come to an end by his own volition – and not as a result of an injury – he will inevitably begin to show cracks in his armor at some point.

But when might that be?

Sports media has already begun to wonder. And it is well within our rights as basketball fans, onlookers and commentators to debate. But doing so aimlessly is an exercise in futility.

With that being said, let’s try to predict James’ 2019-20 output by examining the drop-off of four quasi-similar players at similar points in their career relative to their career averages. Let us draw comparisons to players who are at least somewhat similar to James from a physique and/or stylistic standpoint, so the comparisons are as relevant as possible.

Of course there are independent variables that we can’t predict, like James’ willingness to accept less minutes or his desire to run the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense through Anthony Davis to mitigate strain on his body. And while they will ultimately affect James’ output in 2019-20, we’ll have to proceed as though he’ll approach this season like all of the ones he’s participated in prior to it – which might not come to fruition.

While it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint four players that share that much in common with James, we are fortunate enough to have the entire history of the NBA from which to draw. So let’s examine four of the best and most physically gifted players to ever don an NBA jersey, all of whom share at least one striking similarity to James – Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins and Kobe Bryant. And we’ll examine the first full season in which a player entered having already turned 34-years-old.

But first, let’s establish the baseline:

LeBron James averages 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists in 38.6 minutes per game through 16 seasons. He has logged a total of 46,235 regular season minutes and 10,038 minutes in postseason games.

Michael Jordan

Jordan entered the 1997-98 season having already turned 34 years old the previous winter. His 34-year-old season differs from James’ in that he’d played significantly fewer minutes up to that point. Jordan retired from basketball for nearly two seasons after the 1992-93 season when he was only 30-years-old, and he entered the league at 21 years of age – meaning he had the luxury of a 27-game NCAA regular season and a slimmed down postseason in place of playing 82 games with less rest between them.

Jordan entered 1997-98 having played a total of 32,706 regular season minutes and 7,474 playoff minutes – nearly 16,000 minutes less than James in total.

Jordan averaged 30.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 37.75 minutes per game in his 12 seasons prior to turning 34. In his 13th season and at 34 years old, Jordan averaged 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 38.8 minutes per game.

Karl Malone

Malone is a 6-foot-10 wrecking ball who had above-average speed and mobility given his size and build. He was a powerful two-way player who also had elements of a finesse game well ahead of his time. He entered the league at 22-years-old. Thus, he preserved his body a bit, too. But Malone also played straight through 40 years of age, having played 80 or more games in all but two professional seasons.

Malone and Jordan were born in the same year and, therefore, their 34-year-old-season was the same (1997-98). Malone entered his having played a total of 36,799 regular season minutes and 4,924 playoff minutes – nearly 16,000 minutes less than James in total.

He averaged 26.11 points, 10.75 rebounds and 3.25 assists per game in 37.55 minutes per game prior to the season in which he turned 34. Malone lived up to his iron man reputation and posted even better averages in his 34-year-old season than he’d averaged across the first 12 seasons, averaging 27 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 37.4 minutes per game.

Dominique Wilkins

While Wilkins sported a slightly slimmer stature than James, his height, play at a wing position and explosiveness make him an extremely relevant comparison. Wilkins entered the league at 22 years old and he retired from the NBA when he was 39. His rookie season was 1982-83; he was 34 at the beginning of the 1994-95 season – his thirteenth season in the NBA.

Wilkins played 33,493 regular season minutes prior to 1994-95, and an additional 2,019 playoff minutes; he played approximately 20,000 total minutes less than James as a professional at the same age. Wilkins ruptured his right Achilles tendon in 1992, which added additional complications to Wilkins’ professional journey and residual, physical barriers to overcome.

Wilkins averaged 26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.68 assists in 36.99 minutes per game across the 12 seasons before his 34-year-old season. Wilkins production dropped considerably in his next professional season, averaging 17.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 31.5 minutes per game.

Kobe Bryant

Bryant might be the most relevant comparison given the fact that both he and James entered the league as 18-year-old rookies. Bryant was a rookie in 1997. He was 34 years old in 2012-13 season as a 16-year veteran.

Bryant played in 42,377 regular season minutes and 8,641 playoff minutes prior to his 34-year-old season – which is far closer to James’ minute totals than any of the previously mentioned players.

Bryant averaged 25.16 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.65 assists in 36.53 minutes per game through 16 seasons prior to his 34-year-old season. He averaged 27.3 points, 6 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 38.6 minutes per game as a 34-year-old.

And to provide some color to the aforementioned statistics: In 1997-98, Jordan led the league in scoring, won a NBA Finals MVP and received first-team All-NBA honors. In 1996-97, Malone was named league MVP and received first-team All-NBA honors. In 2012-13, Bryant received first-team All-NBA honors and he carried the Lakers to the playoffs despite a lack of coaching continuity and a hodge-podge of disappointing and injured role players in a competitive Western Conference. And Wilkins averaged 31.5 minutes per game and posted about the same effective field goal percentage in his 34-year-old season (.472) as he did for his entire career (.478).

Average Drop-Off

The average production of the four players mentioned above prior to their 34-year-old season is 27.17 points, 4 assists and 7.26 rebounds in 37.2 minutes per game, whereas the average production in the 34-year-old season was 25.2 points, 3.9 assists and 6.75 rebounds in 36.575 minutes per game. That means that if the average drop-off of the Jordan, Malone, Wilkins and Bryant careers can be expected of him, then James’ 2019-20 production will look something like the following: 25.2 points, 6.3 assists, 5.75 rebounds in 37.95 minutes per game.

One additional caveat: James injury history, or lack thereof, and the degree to which he attends to his body is unique, even for players who shared equally big burdens for their respective teams. After all, modern medicine and advancements in health and wellness should lengthen James’ career beyond all four of the aforementioned players in and of itself.

And to reiterate, so many factors will affect James’ 2019-20 production, and it is laughable to think that we can predict a player’s production for an entire 82-game season with a simple formula such as the one used above.

But one thing is for sure: If his 2019-20 season plays out at all like the circumstances that were dealt to Jordan, Malone, Wilkins and Bryant, we can expect another impressive year from James.

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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