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Who Are The Keepers: Atlanta Hawks

Nate Duncan breaks down the Atlanta Hawks roster and looks at who will be part of the next contender in the ATL.

Nate Duncan

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The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams with no real hopes of contention. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.

The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.

The Atlanta Hawks have made the playoffs since 2007-08, but in none of those years did they have a realistic chance of winning the championship.  In the summer of 2012, newly hired GM Danny Ferry began the process of dismantling those teams, trading away Joe Johnson’s enormous contract to the Brooklyn Nets.  A year later, Ferry made no attempt to re-sign power forward* Josh Smith, instead replacing him with a short-term two-year, $19 million contract for Paul Millsap.  Ferry also re-signed Kyle Korver and matched the Milwaukee Bucks’ offer to point guard Jeff Teague.  Before Al Horford suffered a torn pectoral muscle on December 27, Atlanta was chugging along toward the de rigueur middle seed and second-round noncompete.  Now the Hawks are desperately clinging to the eighth playoff seed, but they do so while maintaining flexibility and assets for the future.

*Yes, Joe Dumars, he’s a power forward.

Ferry now presides over a roster without any bad contracts (Teague’s four-year, $32 million deal comes closest), but the long-term plan appears murky.  Without knowing that plan, determining the Hawks’ target date is difficult indeed.  They tried the cap space route with hopes of signing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the offseason, but never appeared to be serious contenders for their services.  With only an outside chance of luring a marquee free agent, Atlanta’s options are to 1) continue signing value free agents and hope to unearth a star drafting in the teens, or 2) blow up the roster entirely and accumulate future assets while Philips Arena lies fallow for a few years of losing.  I do not envy Ferry the difficulty of this choice, nor the ultimate unpalatability of either option.

Buy His Jersey

Al Horford

Age: 27

Contract: 2 years, $24 million

Projected New Contract: 3-5 years, $10-13 million Average Annual Value (AAV)

Horford’s second pectoral injury in three season is a bit concerning, but he remains the franchise cornerstone.  Aside from shooting midrangers he does nothing spectacularly, but everything well.  His contract remains a solid value for a versatile lower-level All-Star player.  The Hawks would be unlikely to get fair trade on a value or talent basis were he shipped out.

That said, Horford is very clearly a complementary player who in turn requires his own special complement, all the more so now that Smith toils in Detroit.  Horford is somewhat miscast as a center, but was able to backline above-average defenses with Smith.  Especially as he ages, Horford really needs a jumping jack center beside him to boost the Atlanta defense to championship levels.  It is possible that 2013 16th pick Lucas Nogueira and his 7’5 wingspan could be that player in time, but he is raw, skinny, and missed most of the year for his Spanish league team with severe knee tendinitis.

Horford’s lonely status in the Buy His Jersey category highlights the problem for Atlanta. He remains the Hawks’ best player by a considerable margin, but he is also the team’s best asset.  If Ferry concludes contention is unlikely in the next few years, Horford may be traded before his contract expires in 2016.

Maybe, It Depends

Kyle Korver

Age: 32

Contract: 3 years, $17.2 million

The relative hype of Korver’s NBA record three-point streak has highlighted his best season at age 32.  While his shooting should contribute to far more graceful aging than most players, and his declining contract should mirror his production, it is hard to see Korver as a part of the next Atlanta contender.  With the burgeoning value of shooting around the league, Korver would very likely glean a first-rounder or decent developmental prospect this offseason.

Ferry may wait to deal considering Korver is under contract for three more years, but he should also consider he is unlikely to quite repeat this performance and a high sell may be in order.

Jeff Teague

Age: 25

Contract: 3 years, $24 million

The Hawks swallowed hard and matched the Bucks’ offer sheet for Teague this offseason, making a Mike Conley style gamble that he might grow into the contract as he matures.  After a hot start to the season, Teague has settled in as a slightly below-average starter.  Of particular concern is his 27 percent shooting on threes despite shooting almost three per game.  Only a solid free throw rate saves his efficiency numbers.

At this point, Ferry is in much the same situation with Teague as when he decided to match.  Atlanta has no ready replacement and could not afford to lose the Wake Forest product unless they intend on Sixers-style tanking next year. Yet he remains slightly overpaid, and there is little trade market for him given the glut of point guards around the league.  There are only a few teams that might find him an upgrade.  As a result, Teague may be around for the longer haul.  If he can combine last year’s 35 percent on threes with this year’s free throw rate, he could still live up to that contract, but at almost 26 time is a wasting.

DeMarre Carroll

Age: 27

Contract: 1 year, $ 2.4 million

Once little more than a Renaldo Balkman-style energy player, Carroll has made himself into a solid complementary performer on offense while offering solid wing defense.  He has a 14.3 PER, but more importantly is hitting 38 percent of his threes while taking 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.  The Hawks’ player development staff deserves credit for teaching and/or encouraging relatively old dogs like Carroll and Millsap to shoot threes.  Of note, Carroll is 16th in the entire league in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (per Stats for the NBA), a plus/minus metric which purports to adjust for the quality of teammates and the opposition when a player is on the floor. Carroll’s is a value contract through next season, although he is not really a keeper with his age and 2015 expiring deal.

Dennis Schroder

Age: 20

Rookie Contract expires 2017

Schroder was listed at 6’2”, 165 in the predraft process, and it looks an accurate weight.  There was hope that Schroder could seize the backup point guard position after a strong summer league, but that fizzled immediately when the real games started.  He started as the backup point guard, but lost the position to Shelvin Mack early on and only recently began playing regular minutes again.  His statistics are among the worst of any player in the NBA, with a net rating of negative 14.9 points/100, a .459 true shooting percentage, and 5.9 PER.

Schroder has two marketable skills right now, namely his vision and ability to pressure the ball. Aside from those, he is not an NBA-quality player at this point.  His lack of strength is a particular problem. He gets bumped off his drives by even the slightest defenders, and his only finishing move is an inaccurate quick flip shot before the defense arrives.  From outside, he shoots a set shot that is not particularly versatile or accurate at this stage. Moreover, only the whimsy of opposing coaching staffs can save him from being posted up.

Schroder has talent, but he remains a lottery ticket. Counting on him as a future starting point guard would be foolish at this stage.

Don’t Get Too Attached

Paul Millsap

Age: 29

Contract: 1 year, $9.5 million

The former NCAA rebounding champion is having perhaps his best year in Atlanta.  He has made up for declining activity on the offensive glass by blossoming into a stretch four this year through tireless work on his long-range shot.  But his All-Star selection, though deserved, was more a product of a weak Eastern Conference than a marker of Millsap’s ascension to superstar status.  He will never be a stopper, and his frontcourt pairing with Horford is unlikely to bear the sort of defensive fruits that might push the Hawks to new heights.

At the expiry of his contract next season, Millsap will likely move on for one more David West style payday assuming he can duplicate this year. Such a contract could make sense for a contender, but not for the Hawks at his age.  As a result, he could well be traded in-season or over the summer if the Hawks conclude that next year will not bring contention.  Millsap is perhaps the ultimate weathervane that will reveal when Ferry will decide to bite the rebuilding bullet, and how hard.  A full season of his services on a value contract would likely fetch far more assets to that end than a move at the deadline if the Hawks are out of contention.

Mike Scott

Age: 25

Restricted Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1-3 years $1.5-2.5 million AAV

The second-year stretch four has had a breakout year of sorts, and is actually third on the team in PER on the strength of solid jump-shooting.  But he really struggles to hold up defensively and on the boards against first unit players, and the Hawks get torched when he is on the floor.  Moreover, he is a restricted free agent at the expiration of his two-year second round rookie deal this summer, and is nearing prime age already so we can’t expect as much improvement as you might expect from a second-year player.

Shelvin Mack

Age: 24

Restricted Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1-2 years, $1-3 million AAV

It somehow seems that Mack has been around forever, but he is still relatively young.  He has proved an adequate backup point guard this year after Schroder proved unequal to the task early on, with a 13.7 PER in 19.9 minutes per game.  Mack too is a restricted free agent, and could even glean an Eric Maynor-style contract in free agency which the Hawks would likely be wise not to match.  He still lacks the athleticism to improve much beyond his current level unless he can become an elite shooter.

Elton Brand

Age: 35

Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1 year, veterans’ minimum

Brand started the year well, but has been stretched far too thin once Horford went down.  With Millsap and Antic injured on the Hawks recent miserable road trip, Brand conclusively proved he can no longer play over 30 minutes per night. Though he still remains smart enough to hold his own as a second unit big, he lacks the quickness to play four and the explosion to play five at his height.  Brand’s contract expires after the season and one would posit he is unlikely to be in Atlanta’s plans going forward.

John Jenkins

Age: 23

Rookie Contract Expires 2016

This has been a lost season for Jenkins as he struggled through 13 miserable games, tried to rehab, and finally succumbed to back surgery in February. He will miss the remainder of the season.  The 23rd overall pick in 2012 out of Vanderbilt showed some encouraging signs as a shooter off the bench in his rookie year, but he probably lacks the height, length, athleticism, or defensive mentality to ever be more than a bench gunner even when healthy. The Hawks have guaranteed his contract for next year, but seem unlikely to pick up his fourth-year option after that unless he can prove he is healthy and effective in camp next year.

Gustavo Ayon

Age: 28

Restricted Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1 year veterans’ minimum

Hopes were high for Ayon coming off a spectacular performance for Mexico in the FIBA Americas over the summer, but alas he has been unable to stay healthy.  He has played only 26 games this year and is out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.  He will be a restricted free agent over the summer should the Hawks extend him a qualifying offer, and he may still be able to catch on as a fifth big man somewhere on the strength of his rebounding and effort.

Pero Antic

Age: 31

Contract: 1 year, $1.25 million team option

The 6’11, 260 lbs Macedonian has a surprisingly outside-oriented game, launching 58 percent of his shots from beyond the arc at a decent usage for a shooting specialist. He hits 38 percent from out there as a true stretch five.  Antic provides little rim protection and is a below-average rebounder, but considering his shooting he holds up well enough in traditional center duties to be a useful bench big man. At his age, Antic is unlikely to be part of the next Hawks contender, but he is a solid value contract and is under team control through 2015, after which he will be a restricted free agent.  Antic is precisely the type of player the Hawks should look to move for future assets, although it is hard to see anyone parting with a first-rounder for him.

Mike Muscala

Age: 22

Contract: Rookie minimum, team options through 2016

The Hawks’ second round pick was signed mid-season as the big man injury crisis grew, but they probably would have been better off trying someone like Carroll at power forward. Muscala has a -17.2 net rating and 6.8 PER. He gets freight-trained in the post and does nothing offensively to make up for it.  Little indicates he has an NBA future at this point.

Lou Williams

Age: 27

Contract: 1 year $5.45 million

The former Sixers draftee was once one of the league’s best bench scorers, but he has struggled to return to form following a torn ACL.  He has been out of the rotation the last few games as Coach Mike Budenholzer has gone with Mack, Schroder, and Cartier Martin off the bench instead.  Williams takes almost half his shots from three now and hits a respectable 36 percent. He also gets to the line at a reasonable rate, but will need to return his 40 percent two-point shooting to respectable levels to become a valuable contributor again.  It is appearing less likely that will be in Atlanta.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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 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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