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Who Will Be the Knicks Next Point Guard?

The Knicks are in search of their point guard of the future. Tommy Beer breaks down the candidates.

Tommy Beer

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The Knicks find themselves in a familiar position this offseason. Coming off another losing season, New York will, once again, spend the summer desperately searching for a point guard.

There has been plenty of unpredictability and chaos surrounding this franchise for the better part of two decades. However, scarcity of quality point guards and an abundance of defeats have been two fairly constant themes since the turn of the century. Dating back to the start of the 2001-2002 season, the Knick are 240 games below .500 (528-768). The Minnesota Timberwolves are the only team in the NBA with a worse record over that stretch. One common denominator on most of these awful Knick teams has been the lack of a steady, solid point guard.

Just how putrid and inconsistent has the Knicks point guard play been over the last decade? Well, (via Basketball Reference) here are the franchise leaders in total assists among guards since 2006-07:
1. Raymond Felton (1,225 assists)
2. Chris Duhon (944)
3. Nate Robinson (715)
4. Jamal Crawford (705)
5. J.R. Smith (602)
6. Pablo Prigioni (568)

Over those ten years, the only New York point guard to post a PER above 17 over the course of a full season was Nate Robinson in 2008-09.

A quick look around today’s NBA serves as a reminder that quality point guard play has become virtually imperative for teams that hope to compete at the highest level. Of the eight teams that have won a playoff series in 2017, seven of them have point guards that have made an All-Star team. (George Hill of Utah is the only non-All-Star on the list.)

The last Knicks point guard to be named to an All-Star was Mark Jackson back in 1988-89.

Coming off three straight losing seasons, the Knicks roster has plenty of holes that need to be plugged. Still, no need is more pressing than finding a point guard for the present, and the future. All too frequently, the Knicks have had neither. Thus, the consistent losing. This summer, either via the draft, free agency, or even possibly a trade, New York will hopefully (finally) find a solution. Below we take a look at each possible approach:

*****

Free Agency
There will be a number of top-tier point guards on the market this summer. Unfortunately, it’s extremely unlikely that any of them would consider signing with the Knicks. Not only will the Knicks likely have less than $20 million to lavish on free agents in July, but New York is also no longer the ideal destination for players it once was.

* Stephen Curry:
LOL.

* Chris Paul:
At this time last year, it didn’t seem like an impossible proposition. The thinking was that the Knicks were going to have plenty of cap space in 2017 and, assuming they posted an impressive record during the 2016-17 season and made a bit of noise in the playoffs, Carmelo Anthony could conceivably convince his buddy CP3 to join Melo and Kristaps Porzingis in New York. Instead, the Knicks are a nightmare, Phil Jackson has alienated Carmelo Anthony in every way imaginable, and the chances of Chris Paul leaving L.A. for NYC have dropped from slim to none.

* Kyle Lowry:
Earlier this month, when asked about his free agent priorities, Lowry focused on only one thing.

“A ring, Lowry said. “Nothing else. I just want a ring.”

Yea, so, we’ll move on…

* George Hill:
Hill is a talented, underrated point guard and would be an undeniable upgrade for the Knicks, but the fit isn’t quite right. For starters, Hill is 31. How many more high-level seasons does he have left in the tank? The Knicks are nowhere near a competitive team right now, and likely won’t be for a while. Signing Hill would be a “win now” move for a team that should be thinking long term. In addition, Hill’s injury history is a concern. He’s missed a total of 80 games over the last three seasons.

* Jrue Holiday:
Holiday turns 27 next month, and his best basketball is ahead of him. While not a superstar, he’s above average on both ends of the floor. Holiday a reliable shooter and crafty scorer, who makes smart decisions in pick-and-roll action. Defensively, his quickness and length allow him to keep opposing point guards out of the paint. Durability issues have been a problem in the past, but Holiday only missed three games due to injury last season. The downside is that he will be expensive (well north of $20 million annually) and, as a result, likely out of Knicks price range. Nonetheless, if the Knicks don’t draft a point guard with their lottery pick, Holiday will be a target, especially if the Knicks choose to re-sign Justin Holiday and Jrue considers giving New York a bit of a discount to play alongside his brother.

* Jeff Teague:
Teague is in his prime at age 29. He’s been durable and solid, if unspectacular, since becoming a full-time starting point guard. He would make sense as an intriguing option, but Teague’s hometown team, the Pacers, will be motivated to keep him in Indianapolis to show Paul George they’re serious about remaining competitive.

* Derrick Rose:
The experiment simply didn’t work. Rose’s 2016-17 stats (18.0 ppg, 4.4 apg and 3.8 rpg) look good on paper, but he was often a net negative, due primarily to his lethargic, subpar defense. He ranked near the very bottom of the league in Real Plus/Minus. While his skill set would fit with some teams, his ball-dominant style doesn’t mesh with Kristaps Porzingis, who should be the focus of the franchise going forward. Bringing back Rose, who tore his meniscus in April, would make very little sense.

* Milos Teodosic:
The Knicks have had plenty of success unearthing gems via international scouting, but the 30-year old Teodosic is not a player that has flown under the radar. Last summer, in a poll of NBA general managers, Teodosic was voted the best player not currently playing in the league. He’ll have plenty of interested suitors come July, with the Nets, Kings and Nuggets at the top of the list. Although he’s one of the best passers in the world, he’s a sieve on the defensive end. Teodosic would bring plenty of excitement and flair to MSG, and it’d be fun to watch him work with Porzingis, but considering his age and defensive issues, he’s not an ideal fit in New York.

* Patty Mills:
Mills has come off the bench his entire career and may be looking to land a starting gig this summer. If the Knicks strike out on their primary targets, Mills, age 28, might make sense as a placeholder for a few years.

Some other free agents that will be up for consideration: Tyreke Evans, Shaun Livingston, Darren Collison, Deron Williams, Sergio Rodriguez, Langston Galloway (player option), Brian Roberts, Shelvin Mack, Trey Burke (restricted), Ramon Sessions (team option), Michael Carter-Williams, (restricted), Raymond Felton, Tyler Ennis, Ty Lawson.

*****

The Draft
With the Knicks failing to jump up into the top-three via the lottery drawing, we can effectively take Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball off the board, as they are expected to be the first two players selected.

* De’Aaron Fox:
Unfortunately for the Knicks, it is extremely unlikely that Fox falls out of the top-five, let alone slides all the way down to No. 8. It’s unfortunate for New York because Fox has the type of superstar upside that could potentially turn around a franchise. He is lighting quick with remarkable athleticism and length for the position. Fox is hands-down the best defender among all point guards in the draft. And while concerns about his shooting ability are legitimate, it should be pointed that out that over his final ten games at the University of Kentucky (including the SEC and NCAA tournaments), Fox averaged 19.6 points while shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and 47.4 percent from 3-point territory. Pairing him with KP would put the franchise on a path towards success, but the Knicks will likely have to trade up in the draft in order to have a shot at selecting him.

* Dennis Smith Jr.:
It most other years, Smith would be arguably the best available point guard prospect in the draft. However, because the Class of 2017 features so many supremely talented playmakers, it’s quite possible Smith is still on the board when the Knicks are on the clock. Smith’s remarkable explosiveness allows him to blow past helpless defenders. He averaged 18.1 ppg as a freshman at N.C. State, due in part to his ability to get to the basket at will. He is strong enough to either finish at the rim or draw contact and get to the charity stripe. Smith posted a free throw rate (the number of free throws per 100 field goal attempts) of 48.6 percent last season. That’s tops among all guards in this draft. He’s also terrific in transition (averaging 1.18 points per possession). He isn’t a world-class passer, but he is certainly unselfish and willing to find open teammates. Smith led the ACC in total assists (197), assists per game (6.2), and assist percentage (34.2) in 2016-17. The main knocks on Smith were his lack of defensive intensity (he took plays off from time to time) and his below-average wingspan. He also tore his ACL back in 2015, so an injury concern exists. Still, considering the massive upside this kid brings to the table (as evidenced by his dominant performance at Duke), it would be difficult for the Knicks to pass on him if he’s available.

* Frank Ntilikina:
Two years ago, Phil Jackson made the most important and single-best decision of his Knicks tenure by drafting Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft. Might Phil decide to spend this year’s lottery pick on another international man of mystery? Just 18 years old, Frank Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-KEE-na) is a highly enticing prospect. He’s 6-foot-5 with a mammoth wingspan (nearly seven feet). Due to his combination of length and athleticism, Ntilikina projects as one of the most versatile and capable perimeter defenders in the draft. Playing sparingly off the bench in France, it’s difficult to make determinations based on Ntilikina’s stats and game tape from last season. However, he was phenomenal at the FIBA U18 European Championships last December, averaging 22.7 points and 6.7 assists, while shooting 58.6 percent from three-point range, over the final three games of the tournament. He shot 42 percent on 1.6 threes per game this year. If the Knicks are drafting solely on who fits best in the “The Triangle” (which is something they should not do), then Ntilikina may very well be the pick. He is taller, and a superior defender, and is a better long-range shooter than Smith at this point in their respective developments. On the other hand, Smith is more suited to excel playing the type of pick-and-roll game featured by the vast majority of successful teams in today’s NBA. Non-triangle-centric teams may ultimately prefer Ntilikina to Smith as well; it’s just that Ntilikina happens to check most of the boxes in regards to Triangle requirements. Ideally, the Knicks will make a decision based on which player they feel fits best alongside Porzingis.

*****

Via Trade
If the Knicks don’t land their point guard of the future on draft day and then strike out in free agency as well, they may choose to explore some trade possibilities to address the point guard position. Keep in mind, these aren’t ideal solutions, as there is a reason each player may be on the block. Here are a handful of potential trade targets that may pique the Knicks interest.

* Emmanuel Mudiay:
Mudiay has not lived up to the hype since being selected with the seventh overall pick (three spots behind Porzingis) in the 2015 draft. After an understandably rocky rookie season adjusting to the NBA, Mudiay surprisingly saw his playing time and production decrease in his sophomore season. He lost his starting spot and was banished from the rotation in January. Mudiay saw only spot minutes for the remainder of the season until injuries allowed him to get back in the lineup in April. Meanwhile, Jamal Murray, the Nuggets first-round pick in the 2016 draft, stepped in and stepped up. Murray exceeded expectations and appears to be a franchise cornerstone in Denver, which mean Mudiay would likely be available for the right price.

* Reggie Jackson:
As I discussed earlier this month, the Pistons may be motivated to make a major move this summer after a terribly disappointing 2016-17 campaign. Jackson is coming off an injury-plagued season and is set to earn $51 million over the next three years. Meanwhile, Detroit often played better with backup point guard Ish Smith running the show, and Smith is owed just $12 million through 2019.

* Ricky Rubio:
The Knicks and Wolves were purportedly close to swapping Derrick Rose for Rubio at the trade deadline back in February, before that deal dissolved. Despite, Rubio’s relative struggles at the time, it would have been a phenomenal acquisition for the Knicks. First and foremost, Rubio is locked into a very affordable contract. He is set to make $14.3 million next season and $14.9 million in 2018-19. Considering the current market for point guards, that’s a terrific value. Unfortunately for New York, they weren’t able to pull the trigger. Over the second half of last season, Rubio played some of the best basketball of his career. In 24 games after the All-Star break, Rubio averaged 16.0 points, 10.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds. (Only two other players, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, averaged at least 15 points, 10 dimes and four boards per game over the season’s second half.) There was a report this week from ESPN’s Ian Begley that the Knicks are still interested in trading for Rubio, but with New York no longer able to include Rose in the deal, it doesn’t appear the Knicks would have the requisite pieces to pry Rubio from Minnesota. That ship has sailed.

* One of the many point guards on the Phoenix Suns roster:
The Suns currently have Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyler Ulis under contract. They also have a player option on Leandro Barbosa. In addition, Phoenix has the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft. Some have speculated that despite their depth at the position, the Suns may be tempted to nab another a point guard if they feel De’Aaron Fox or Dennis Smith is undoubtedly the best player available when they are on the clock. Even if they draft a wing as expected, Phoenix may still be willing to deal. Regardless of what happens next month, they would love to dump Knight’s contract (he’s owed a total $34 million over the next three seasons), but will find it extremely difficult to find any team willing to take on that deal. Knight is coming off the worst season of his career, as he averaged 11 points per game (on 39 percent shooting) and 2.2 assists. The coaching staff benched him after the All-Star break and he didn’t play another minute the rest of the year. Eric Bledsoe is one of the most athletically gifted guards in the NBA and averaged a career-high 21.1 points and 6.3 assists per game last season. The issue with Bledsoe is that he has had trouble staying healthy. In addition, the Suns would likely want more than the Knicks have to offer. Phoenix snagged Ulis in the second round last summer and he was buried on the bench for most of the year until injuries allowed him to crack the rotation. Once he got a chance to play, he proved he belonged. Over Phoenix’s final 15 games, Ulis averaged 16.1 points, 8.5 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals.

* Tim Frazier:
If the Pelicans ink Jrue Holiday to a max contract, might they consider trading Frazier? Unlikely, as Frazier is set to make only $2 million next season and was near the top of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.

* Matthew Dellavedova:
It is probably safe to assume the Bucks would be happy to move Dellavedova. Milwaukee signed him to a four-year, $38 million contract last summer; however, Malcolm Brogdon surprisingly wrestled the starting job away from Delly in late December and never looked back. Brogdon, who is a candidate to win the Rookie of the Year award, is clearly the Bucks’ point guard of the future.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?

Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.

Steve Kyler

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No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions

The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.

The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.

Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.

One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.

In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.

For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.

The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.

The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.

The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.

The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.

Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.

The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.

Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.

The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.

The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.

Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton@jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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