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NBA Daily: Who Will Be King Of LA?

With the NBA season upon us, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the two favorites to win it all – who both happen to hail from the City of Angels – and points out why a certain team could end up on top.

Jordan Hicks

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As we all know, since the Lakers lost last night, they are overrated, don’t have nearly enough shooting and are overall an ugly fit on the court. If the Lakers would’ve won, they’d be the front-runners for a ring, gel perfectly and could score from anywhere on the court. The best part of the NBA is that it’s a marathon – not a sprint. Sure, all 82 games matter, but it’s not very likely that a single regular-season game holds much of anything come playoff time.

What we are going to explore in this article will be a look into who really has what it takes to be the top-dog out of Los Angeles this season. Both teams are considered to be top-three finishers in most people’s rankings, but who has a better chance of getting a higher-seed, making it further in the playoffs and – in the end – hoisting the Larry O’Brien?

Let’s first take a look at some of the predictions featuring these teams that stem from Basketball Insider’s yearly NBA Predictions article (found here) and break them down, starting with the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Lakers will not be a top-four seed in the Western Conference

At first glance, this take seems off. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis – how could they finish anything other than the top two? But when you dig into the facts, it seems plausible.

LeBron’s last season in Cleveland ended as the fourth seed. The year prior – although they were the best team out East – they still nabbed just the second seed.

Anthony Davis has never finished higher than a sixth seed and only ever helped New Orleans to the playoffs twice since being drafted in 2012.

Combining Davis and James certainly improve the chances of the Lakers getting a higher seed in the playoffs, no one will argue that, but things are different this time around, too. LeBron is a year older. He and Davis have yet to play any official basketball together. And, most importantly, they are in the Western Conference. Yes, the same conference where non-playoff teams would be a top-four seed in the East.

LeBron’s wake-up call in the West was missing the playoffs for the first time since his second season. Yes, he missed a chunk of the season due to injury, but they still lost enough key games with him on the floor to not use it as an outright excuse.

Is this is a hot take? It should be considered lukewarm at best. The Lakers have enough talent to finish as a top-four seed, but there’s a real chance they won’t. They’ll be directly competing with the Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers for home court in round one, and I don’t think anyone apart from LeBron superfans will be surprised if they fall to a fifth-or-worse seed come playoff time.

Despite the eventual whispers about Frank Vogel’s job security, he will end the season as head coach of the Lakers

This one is interesting. Vogel was not the sexy name coach that many had envisioned when he was selected to head the Lakers. He had success early on in his career, leading Indiana to back-to-back conference finals appearances, but was most recently coaching Orlando to just 25 wins in the 2017-18 season. To say he was the Lakers’ first choice is laughable, but he wasn’t a horrible hire considering who was available.

Yes, there may be whispers of him being fired if they get off to a slow start, but the Lakers have too much talent to assume Vogel won’t make it until at least the offseason before they consider letting him go. Then, maybe the dream of every NBA Twitter user will come true and the Lakers will hire Magic Johnson as the head coach for the 2020-21 season. No? Yeah, that definitely won’t happen.

Now, moving on to the Clippers.

Los Angeles Clippers – NBA Champions

Clippers over the Philadelphia 76ers seems to be the consensus when it comes to the ending of the season. And how can you see it another way? On one hand, we can’t keep expecting LeBron to turn in these super-human performances. One of the few players who kept up exceptional play deep into his career was Karl Malone, but even he started playing professionally after multiple years of college ball. LeBron came straight from high school. The man has literal MILES on his body.

On the other hand, the Clippers are downright good. The team is largely the same from last season where they won two games on the road against a healthy Warriors team that included Kevin Durant. Add to that roster one Paul George and one Kawhi Leonard – those are *pretty* solid additions. The Lakers may have added AD, but they had to gut the core of their roster to do so. The Clippers didn’t lose all that much if we are being honest. Danilo Gallinari is nice, but not essential, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be really solid one day, but he wasn’t necessarily moving the needle. Even better, the Clippers held on to the most valuable rookie on their roster last season in Landry Shamet. He shot 45 percent from three last season after being dealt to the Clippers!

The Lakers will be good, no doubt. But the Clippers just might be better. And that will be enough to get them to and past The Finals as champions.

Andre Iguodala will be traded – but not to the Lakers or Clippers

This seems very realistic. Iguodala will likely be on the move. He won’t want to play for the Grizzles and in turn, Memphis will gladly accept any asset that Iguodala returns, but it’s just doubtful that either Los Angeles team will have the best offer.

Virtually every other team in the West will have someone or something that exceeds what the Lakers or Clippers can offer, so neither franchise will be able to net the veteran forward for some significant playoff help.

Whose roster is better?

The Clippers have the superior head coach in Doc Rivers, superior duo (very slightly) in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and the superior role players in Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley, to name a few. It wouldn’t be out of pocket to say that both LeBron James and Anthony Davis are individually better than both Leonard and George.

What this means is that the George-Leonard duo meshes better. In that, you have two elite defenders, as well as two incredibly talented shooters and playmakers. They are both long and athletic, and both have the ability to change the flow of the game at almost every level. LeBron and AD may be objectively better players, but no matter how well they play together, it likely won’t be on the same field as PG and the newly-dubbed “Terminator.”

The last few paragraphs make it seem like the Clippers are hands-down better than the Lakers, but that just isn’t the case. If LeBron can get back to the same form he had during the 2017-18 playoff run, the Lakers will be scary good. Davis is still young and should be plenty healthy with his lack of play last season. The same goes for LeBron. If those two can find a groove, there isn’t a single team in the NBA with a duo that is defensively skilled enough to stop them. The Lakers’ defense will certainly be called into questions at times, but both JaVale McGee and AD are ample enough rim protectors to keep it from becoming too much of an issue.

Another factor that may push the Lakers past the Clippers is the injury issues that could end up haunting the red and blue brand. George will miss the first 10-plus games recovering from dual shoulder surgery. Kawhi, on the other hand, has quite a history of random injuries and more-than-normal load management DNPs. If they lose key games due to inactive players, it could really mess up their seeding and cause them to lose a seven-game series largely due to missing out on homecourt.

With all this being said, it seems plausible that Clippers come out as the kings of LA. The Lakers just don’t have the overall talent to match the Clippers.

But if anything, the game you witnessed last night will have loads of information to analyze and digest moving forward. Just, please, take the results with a grain of salt. As previously mentioned, the NBA season is long. But one thing is certain: we as viewers are in for an incredible ride this year!

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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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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NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham — Breakout or Mirage?

Devonte’ Graham has been one of the 2019-20 regular season’s most pleasant surprises. But is his current level of play something close to the new normal, or an early-season flash in the pan? Jack Winter examines.

Jack Winter

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Based on the first two weeks of the regular season, the Charlotte Hornets seem to have found their franchise point guard.

It’s a reality that’s come as a major surprise to most fans and analysts, who deemed the three-year, $57 million contract Charlotte awarded to Terry Rozier as among the summer’s very worst. More shocking, though, is that it’s not Rozier who’s staked his claim as the Hornets’ undisputed floor general in the season’s early going.

To be fair, even the die-hards whose eyes were opened by Devonte’ Graham at Summer League didn’t see this coming. He’s been Charlotte’s most influential player, and it’s not particularly close. The Hornets outscore opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions with Graham on the court compared to the bench, per NBA.com/stats, best among regulars. While his per-game averages of 17.0 points and 7.0 assists are hardly spectacular, they’re also a team-high in both categories.

It’s not like Graham, who’s come off the bench in Charlotte’s eight games, has done a sizable majority of his work against reserves, either. He’s fourth on Charlotte in total minutes, and is the only player head coach James Borrego has felt it necessary to have on the floor for each of his team’s 19 crunch time played this season.

Coming into 2019-20, believers saw enough in Graham to think he could be a valuable third guard, if the long-range shooting prowess he showed in Las Vegas wasn’t a flash in the pan, anyway. He launched a whopping 6.9 triples per game at Summer League, connecting at a 41.8 percent clip despite most of his tries coming off the bounce. Graham has been even better than that for the Hornets, putting the kind of imminent pressure on defenses with the ball that’s allowed other aspects of his game to shine.

Graham, obviously, won’t shoot 50 percent on pull-up threes all season. But even if he recedes to somewhere in the mid-to-upper thirties, he’ll nevertheless have staked his claim as one of the league’s most dangerous off-dribble shooters.

Graham has let it fly with such freedom and confidence early in the season that it’s tempting to believe that inevitable regression isn’t a foregone conclusion. He’s jacking 4.3 pull-up threes per game, 10th-most in basketball behind a who’s who of star shot-makers. Only Buddy Hield is currently shooting a higher percentage on those tries than Graham, and his film would seem to reveal a player more in line with that esteemed company than one due for a significant backslide.

Graham shoots an easy ball, and his quick, compact release allows him to frequently rise up for threes with only marginal contests by the defense. He loves to stop and pull-up in transition, and doesn’t hesitate to shoot when defenders give him even just a sliver of air space, whether coming around a high ball screen or isolated at the top of the floor.

Graham’s balance on step-backs and side-steps is also impressive and, coupled with his comfort from multiple feet behind the line, sparks optimism about his long-term prospects as a game-changing shooter.

But possessing that plus attribute alone would limit his ceiling to a glorified Quinn Cook – certainly a helpful player, but not the type of guy whose presence answers more questions than it poses. Graham, though, has leveraged his newfound threat as an off-dribble marksman into star-like effectiveness as an overall playmaker.

Graham, 24, played all four years at the University of Kansas, and it shows in the way he operates with the ball. He’s always probing for ways to manipulate the defense with ball fakes, look-aways and extra dribbles, nuance that, combined with defenders’ fear of his jumper, has made him a more effective penetrator than he would be otherwise.

He is merely an average quick-twitch athlete, but Graham compensates with rare body control and a keen understanding of how to protect the ball while finishing. His 71.4 percent shooting at the rim, accuracy normally reserved for the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s and dunk-centric bigs of the world, is another statistical outlier bound to drop as the season wears on, but indicates just how crafty Graham is around the basket.

Graham doesn’t need to be an elite or even above-average finisher for a guard. With defenders going over every screen he uses on or off the ball and tip-toeing at every hesitation dribble, he’ll continue creasing the paint with relative ease going forward, drawing attention that frees up his teammates for easy looks.

Other than the shooting, it’s as a table-setter where Graham has inspired most thus far. The same sense of control and pace he exhibits as a scorer is even more evident as a passer; Graham has routinely been a step ahead of the defense, creating angles that aren’t initially there for pocket passes and dump-offs in the paint. He’s even tossed a few pinpoint lobs from half court, too.

It bears repeating that Graham won’t shoot flames from distance the entire season. Defenses will treat him differently once that regression comes, prompting a ripple effect that’s likely to decrease his efficiency and make him less dynamic with the ball.

But, even if Graham settles into a 35 percent pull-up shooter from three, he’ll still be a surefire rotation player. Ball handlers who must be guarded beyond the arc and know how to create in the paint will always have a role in the league, especially those who double as solid defenders.

Graham’s innate knack for getting to the line raises his baseline, too. James Harden and Goran Dragic, foul-drawing maestros, are the only players also taking at least half of their shots from deep who have a higher free throw rate than Graham’s 39.8 percent, per Basketball Reference.

For now, Graham’s ceiling is unknown. Considering his marginal physical profile and the fact his current level of shot-making is unsustainable, it would seem as if Graham’s early-season play might be his peak. His 41.9 percent shooting on twos doesn’t exactly portend stardom, either.

But then you remember how much he’s improved since last season, and how with each game the action seems to be slowing down.

Only true basketball savants, after all, are capable of making plays like this at the NBA level.

Fortunately for the Hornets, they don’t need to decide how Graham fits into their utmost plans any time soon. His rookie contract runs through next season, sending him to restricted free agency in the summer of 2021.

And, until then, Charlotte should continue to stretch the limits of his game. As his recent play has made abundantly clear, putting a cap on Graham’s potential could prove missed opportunity the Hornets won’t get again.

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