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Basketball Insiders Week in Review 5/22

Basketball Insiders looks at some articles from last week in case you missed any the first time around.

Kyle Cape-Lindelin

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Can the Cavaliers Win It All?

By Moke Hamilton

After speaking for 11 minutes, the candid LeBron James exhaled, put on his sunglasses and exited stage right.

For 11 minutes, he answered all kinds of questions: some about his return to Cleveland, some about Andre Iguodala and some about the losses of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

What all of those questions had in common was that they came in the aftermath of the Cleveland Cavaliers faltering due to a talent deficiency and succumbing to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.

Collectively, they have been waiting for an opportunity at redemption.

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Utah Jazz Should Restructure Derrick Favors’ Contract

By Eric Pincus

With the salary cap jumping to a projected $92 million in July, a historic rise from this season’s $70 million, teams may struggle to spend enough to reach a salary floor of roughly $82.8 million.

In April, the NBA sent out a memo anticipating teams will collectively fall short of their minimum obligation, based on the agreed-upon split of Basketball Related Income, by $375 million — an average of $12.5 million per squad.  Any franchise still under the floor by the end of the 2016-17 season will be required to cut a check to their rostered players for the difference.

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50 Predictions Revisited (Part 1)

By Joel Brigham

On the one hand, the month of May means all of the NBA’s most fun things. It means Conference Finals and NBA Draft Combine and annual awards, but on the other hand it also means that it’s time for me to take my medicine and revisit the 50 NBA predictions I made in the fall.

Every year, I begin this project with extremely high hopes. I tell myself that this year will be different, that this is the time where I finally break through and get the overwhelming majority of my predictions correct. But these predictions are hard. In fact, I purposefully make them that way because if they were too easy, I’d get just as much flak in going 50-for-50 on “no duh” predictions as I do for going 25-for-50 on ones that take a little bit of gumption.

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Big Summer Ahead for the Miami HEAT

By Alex Kennedy

The Miami HEAT’s season came to an end on Sunday when they were eliminated by the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

All things considered, it was a successful campaign for the HEAT, who were without Chris Bosh (blood clot) for the second half of the season and Hassan Whiteside (knee) for the end of their second-round series. Miami finished the regular season with 48 wins and secured the third seed in the East. They had the NBA’s seventh-ranked defense (allowing just 101.6 points per 100 possessions) and 12th-ranked offense (scoring 104.2 points per 100 possessions).

Now, Miami’s focus will shift to one of the most important offseasons in franchise history. Depending on what happens this summer, the HEAT could have a drastically different roster when next season begins.

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Free Agents Who Increased Value in Playoffs

By Cody Taylor

Each year during the playoffs, we see players step up and elevate their game when the spotlight is brightest. With their season on the line, players will do whatever it takes to help their team achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship.

We expect the top players in the league, like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook among others, to rise to the occasion and lead their teams. While it’s important for those players to turn the intensity up, it’s also extremely important for role players to step up as well.

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Controlling The NBA Draft Process

By Steve Kyler

The 2016 NBA Draft Lottery will take place tonight in New York, and the exact order for June’s NBA draft will be decided.

From there, the game of who will get access to top overall prospects Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram will begin.

A recurring theme from this year’s NBA Draft Combine was that the agents for the top-tier players are being hyper aggressive and there are many who are not hiding the fact they intend to control the process for their guys even if it means a player ends up going a few spots lower than maybe the player would like – if only to ensure the player’s lands in an ideal situation.

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Taurean Prince’s Versatility is an Asset

By Jesse Blancarte

With the way the NBA has evolved over the last few seasons, general managers are constantly looking for versatile players. This includes 3-and-D players who can spread the court with their shooting, lock down an opposing wing player on defense and play multiple positions. This also includes well-rounded players who may not thrive at any single thing, but whose collective skill set helps a team significantly, such as through setting effective screens, grabbing rebounds, defending the rim, guarding opposing players and knocking down open shots – think of, say, Draymond Green.

The Golden State Warriors assembled a collection of versatile players and have utilized that dynamic over the last few seasons with great success. Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes are the type of versatile players who can play multiple positions, have multifaceted skill sets and can switch seamlessly on defense whether it’s against bigger or smaller players. The rest of the league is trying to emulate this, as we saw with players like Khris Middleton and DeMarre Carroll receiving large paydays in free agency last offseason.

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Free Agents Hitting The Market Injured

By Lang Greene

Free agency is an exciting time for fans, but also for most players since it is a time to fully cash in on years and years of hard work in the gym. However, every year there are more than a few free agents who will head into the summer months injured and facing the prospect of toiling long hours in rehab attempting to regain their form.

Franchises face a huge risk opening up their wallet for an injured player. In past years, these teams would be insulated by market forces and a salary cap that increased a slight percentage. But this summer, the salary cap is expected rise in the neighborhood of $90 million and nearly half of the league is projected to have significant cap space to potentially become free agency players. Put simply, there will be plenty of money flowing and with a salary cap floor of $82 million, these injured guys may still get paid.

Let’s take a look at some free agents who will head into the market this summer recovering from an injury:

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Pros and Cons of Knicks Hiring Jeff Hornacek

By Tommy Beer

Phil Jackson’s strange, rambling journey to name the New York Knicks’ new head coach seems to be nearing its completion.

According to Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, the Knicks are closing in on naming Jeff Hornacek their new coach. “It’s ‘as close as humanly possible,’ per source, [though] not official. Deal is expected soon, barring any unforeseen snags.” Beck tweeted on Wednesday evening.

The are plenty of potential pros and cons to this decision from a Knicks perspective. Let’s take a quick look at a few of each.

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LeBron James’ Workload Has Never Been So Light

By Ben Dowsett

Most of us wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if it involved burning the raw energy necessary to play one minute of basketball in LeBron James’ body. Every step in his 6’8, 250-pound frame is that much heavier and burns that many more calories. Fueling this human fighter jet is just a different operation altogether than the typical recovery process for virtually any other athlete in the world, much less the average person.

It hasn’t been easy during King James’ run of five straight NBA Finals appearances, and a few instances where the tank has come dangerously close to empty have been notable. Dehydration cramps have been a recurring issue on the game’s biggest stage, from his one-legged heroics against the Thunder during his first title win in Miami to a Game 1 in San Antonio marred by a malfunctioning AC and the resulting cramps that kept him out of a pivotal fourth-quarter collapse.

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Los Angeles Lakers Finally On The Upswing?

By Jabari Davis

The Los Angeles Lakers continued their upswing in terms of positive organizational momentum by landing the No. 2 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft (June 23), but that hasn’t stopped some from still questioning the direction of the franchise. Following the most brutal stretch of the team’s history – three consecutive “worst seasons ever”- the Lakers finally appear to have things headed in the right direction, but that still doesn’t seem to have eased the minds of analysts like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and even some of the less optimistic fans that still express distrust with the front office.

We can rehash and debate the steps and/or missteps that led to the team’s current situation to no end, but the fact remains they have an intriguing young core of players, as much as $68.3 million to work with on the market this summer and a pick that will land them either Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. While there have admittedly been some questionable coaching hires from a timing standpoint, and failed free agency strategies and moves along the way, you cannot deny these Lakers are in a pretty good spot as first-year head coach Luke Walton gets set to take over the reigns once his season is complete with Golden State.

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Kyle Cape-Lindelin is based out of Portland, OR covering the NBA while being one of the newsline editors and contributor to "Out of Bounds."

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ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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