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Can These NBA Rookies Be Salvaged?

Nate Duncan looks at five rookies who have disappointed, and talks with executives and scouts about whether their careers can be salvaged.

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Long before it was actually held, pundits deemed the 2013 NBA Draft one of the worst in recent memory. Since then, the top 10 has done absolutely nothing to dispel that notion. Aside from second pick Victor Oladipo and ninth pick Trey Burke, every rookie in the top 10 has been disappointing, injured, or both.

Do these rookies’ struggles bear ill portent for their fanbases, or can they turn it around? I talked to several scouts and executives, then went to the film and the stats to determine what to make of five rookies’ bad starts.

One key point to remember is the context for each of these players. As one Western Conference executive pointed out to me, the rookies who have struggled the most are generally on teams that are at least trying (if not succeeding) at winning this year. Unlike a lot of years, rookies Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Alex Len and Ben McLemore are on teams that are contending for the playoffs or at least attempting to make a playoff push this year. Rookies naturally make mistakes, which the coaches of these teams feel like they cannot afford. These mistakes often lead to the rookie sitting on the bench, which leads to a vicious cycle as the player loses confidence.

»In Related: 2014 NBA Mock Draft

On the other hand, the executive said, “Look which rookies are doing great. The top four rookies are Oladipo, MCW [Michael Carter-Williams], Burke and Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. They play for the four worst teams in the league. None of them care about winning right now.” These players have been given the minutes and freedom to make mistakes. The guards are even playing relatively similar roles to what they did in college, while Antetokounmpo has started most of the year on a Bucks team whose wing rotation has been devastated by injuries, ineffectiveness and lassitude.

Another obvious but easily forgotten piece of context was provided by multiple scouts, who noted that drafts should not be judged until three years after they occur. One Western Conference scout lamented that by that point people have often already been fired and that there is “way more pressure now” for draft picks. “Look at James Harden and Tyreke Evans. How many times has that script been re-written?”

With that context in mind, let’s turn to five struggling rookies.

Anthony Bennett

Last June, I believed Bennett was a top-three pick based on the fact that he had the highest offensive ceiling in the draft. After putting on at least 20 pounds over the summer while he recuperated from shoulder surgery, Bennett’s stats have been bad enough to make him jealous of LaRue Martin. His PER is 4.1, about five points lower than replacement level, and his NBA.com shot chart would make Vladimir Ilych Lenin proud.

Bennett Shot Chart

But those I talked to said that it was too early to write him off. One scout who watched him a lot at UNLV said he thought he was “Jamal Mashburn meets Larry Johnson” coming out of school, and still had that kind of potential. A few also intimated that whether he recovers to become an effective NBA player depends on his makeup, especially because he has “something hanging over his head” after being the number one pick. Another noted that he still is not in great shape. Undersized power forwards who are successful play with great energy and outwork their opponents, and Bennett has not been able to do that so far in his NBA career.

On film, Bennett shows great potential, but very poor overall results. On rare occasions he looks outstanding isolating and going to the basket, almost always to his left.

Bennett drive Davis

Bennett crossover

He also shows great potential as a pick-and-pop threat with his quick-release three-pointer.

Overall, however, these positive instances are few. What struck me most about Bennett is that he just does not play like a big man despite his heft. His moves inside are almost always of the finesse variety. He tries to go around or over defenders rather than carving out space with his shoulders (which could be because he is a little gun shy due to the shoulder surgery). Bennett also really needs to work on his left hand (especially as often as he drives left), as a lot of his missed finishes at the rim occur when he uses his right hand on the left side. What made Bennett so intriguing as a prospect was his outstanding shooting, dribbling and jumping ability for someone so big and strong. He is going to need to learn to use that strength to maximize his potential. This would help his free throw rate, which ranks below the league average at about one free throw for every four field goals. Bennett also needs to throw his weight around on the offensive glass. His 7.7 percent offensive rebound rate is in the bottom half of power forwards, which is disappointing considering his college statistics.

Part of that is because he is very often on the perimeter shooting (and missing) jumpers.* Most of these come out of pick-and-pops. His quick release could be a huge weapon on these in time, but is currently a detriment because he does not adequately set his feet on a lot of his shots after he pops out. He must better his footwork in this aspect of the game. While there is no way of knowing whether his jump shot will ever come around, he made them in college and presumably makes enough in practice that he is allowed to take them in games. This is another area in which getting in better shape will help, as less fatigued legs should better his jumper.

*Bennett has (thankfully) largely played power forward, and should continue there almost exclusively with the arrival of Luol Deng.

Another adjustment Bennett could make in the pick-and-roll is trying to set harder screens. One of the key differentiators of his successful pick-and-rolls is making solid contact with the ballhandler’s man. Another is when he rolls to the basket instead of immediately popping. He does the latter about 80 percent of the time, and usually barely makes contact Carlos Boozer style on these plays.* By contrast, rolling to the basket is one of his very few effective play types.

*It is unclear whether coaches are instructing him to do this or not, but he’s clearly more effective rolling or popping after a solid screen.

Defensively, Bennett has not been horrendous for a rookie who was not expected to shine on that end. The Cavs’ bad defense isn’t significantly worse with him on the court, and the only area in which he has particularly struggled is in closing out on shooters, which again may be the result of his conditioning.

»In Related: Cleveland Cavaliers Salary Information

The good news for Bennett is that his issues are things that he could plausibly improve, including getting in better shape, using his body better inside and actually hitting some jumpers. Nevertheless, the best predictor of future performance is past performance, and it must be noted that the list of rookies who have played as badly as he has and gone on to great things is nonexistent. Equally troubling, he really hasn’t started playing any better yet; his numbers since January 1 are nearly on par with his season-long statistics. Plus, he is a year older than most who come out after their freshman year, turning 21 in March. Given his performance to date, it is very difficult to imagine him becoming a star, and unlikely that he even becomes a solid starter. But we cannot yet entirely foreclose the possibility if he is willing to put in the work. With the Cavs out of the playoff race, they need to see what he can do the rest of the year. Despite his struggles, I still think he has the best chance for stardom of this group.

Cody Zeller

Charlotte Bobcats fans were none too happy about the drafting of Zeller with the number four pick in the draft, and thus far they have proved more prescient than Bobcats management. Zeller has been unable to beat out Josh McRoberts for the starting power forward job, a disappointment on a Charlotte team that basically had no good big men last year. The scouts and executives largely agreed that Zeller was a reach with the number four pick. Said one, “If you were Charlotte you might look down the road and wish you had done a little better.” Said another, “I think he can have value in the league, but I’d probably lean toward him being more of a backup. He’s kind of like Tyler Hansbrough. Does he have value, sure? But a star? No. Zeller is a longer version of that type of energy player.”

Zeller wowed scouts with his “athleticism” at the combine, but he is an example of the dangers of such testing. While I normally put great stock in the numbers, this testing is a different animal. Athleticism is far better evaluated on film and through actual game performance. Zeller’s 35-inch vertical and agility testing were considered outstanding at the combine, but it is hard to call the seven-footer athletic when he doesn’t block shots, dunk on anyone or even finish inside well. That last is the most concerning part of his game. He shoots 48 percent in the restricted area. Even worse, he shoots only 44 percent* on non-post ups around basket, a miserable number considering most of those attempts occur after receiving the ball inside with an advantage on the defense.

*One of Zeller’s few redeeming factors offensively is his .35 free throw to field goal ratio, but even accounting for plays on which he was fouled he only ranked in the 16th percentile on these play types.

Smith blk Zeller

Zeller missed layup

Another disappointing aspect of Zeller’s play is his outside shooting. Zeller shot few jumpers when he played center in college at Indiana, but his camp successfully painted him as a stretch four leading up to the draft. His jumper looks pure, but the results have been Bennett-like. Overall, his 37.7 percent shooting is horrendous for a big man with a usage rate of 18.5 percent.

Zeller Shot Chart

One executive commented that “his skill set seems a little undefined right now,” and the numbers bear that out. Zeller is below-average offensively in every category but transition, where he can showcase his ability to run the floor like a deer.*

*Good rule of thumb: If the first thing scouts say about a big man prospect is that he runs the floor like a deer, he’s probably not going to be very good. People seem to get enamored of big men who can run, but if that’s the lead instead of scoring, rebounding or shot-blocking, you’re in trouble.

C. Zeller Tran.

Unfortunately, the Bobcats’ slow pace has provided few chances for Zeller to get out in transition, as he uses a slightly below average six percent of his possessions this way. By contrast, the league leaders (many of whom use far more possessions overall than Zeller) are up around nine or ten percent.

»In Related: Bobcats Are Buyers at Deadline

With his inefficient scoring, Zeller’s future is likely, as one executive said, “more as an energy guy off the bench.” However, the “one caveat is if he develops a three-point shot.” Considering Zeller’s solid form and the fact that he apparently hits jumpers well enough in workouts to impress people, this is not out of the realm of possibility. But right now, he has taken only one three all year. Without adding that shot, it is unlikely he becomes a starting caliber player.

Ben McLemore

McLemore was the player the insiders and I most disagreed on.

Said one, “I think he’ll be alright. The biggest thing he’s getting used to is the speed of the game and making decisions at the speed of the game. He’s still their fifth leading scorer at seven points per game. He’s got some promise, and has two things going for him. If you’re an athletic player who can shoot, you have a future in the league.  He’s got good size, he’s very athletic and he can shoot. Just getting the feel to wait on screens comes with experience, he’ll be alright.”

Another was less sanguine, “He doesn’t have great size and has few intangibles. He seems to be another athletic 6’5 guy that can’t do any one thing exceptionally well. If he were good enough he would get noticed in [Sacramento]. They are getting better but were searching for help early on and McLemore was unable to separate himself. He’s getting decent minutes and has shown shooting ability, but needs to find out who he is.”

My projection is much worse for him than either insider’s. The fact McLemore has played 23 minutes per game masks just how bad he as been. He shoots 36.4 percent overall with a .470 True Shooting Percentage.

McLemore Shot Chart

McLemore’s usage rate is a relatively low 17 percent, but he may need to reduce it even further to become anything other than a massive detriment on offense, at least in the short-term. Of particular note is the fact that McLemore shoots in the 71st percentile on jumpers when unguarded (36 percent of his jumpers), but in the 19th percentile when guarded (64 percent of his jumpers). On film, many of these guarded jumpers are taken coming off screens—the Kings would be wise to junk these plays for now and just let McLemore spot up, cut to the rim and get out in transition. With two high-usage stars in Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins, they have plenty of sources of offense.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of McLemore’s game is his poor shooting at the rim, even in transition where he ranks in the 24th percentile. He shoots only 45 percent on layups and is 70 percent (21 of 30) on dunks. Despite his outstanding leaping ability, it is clear that McLemore simply does not have the feel that great, or even average, finishers have for defenders around the basket.

McLemore tran Hayward block

McLemore Tran Block

McLemore Tran Miss

It is very rare to see any NBA two get stopped at the rim like this by other smalls, not to mention one with a 40-inch vertical. This problem is exacerbated by his complete lack of an in-between game, as he has shot only 21.7 percent in the lane away from the rim. Even worse, McLemore has shown no ability to break down his man off the dribble, operate in the pick-and-roll or create for others. One scout’s take that “he’ll need to work on improving his skills with the ball” is a massive (and perhaps diplomatic) understatement. Thus, his only offensive skill right now is making wide open jumpers.

Defensively, things are even worse. While he has decent tools on that end, the Kings’ 29th-ranked defense gives up 5.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He does poorly in nearly every defensive play type, rating particularly badly in pick-and-rolls, isolations and spot-ups where he loses track of his man. Overall, the Kings actually outscore their opponents by 0.9 points/100 when McLemore sits. With him in the game, they are minus 5.9 points/100. This is not a product of having played only with the bench, as McLemore started much of the year.

»In Related: Sacramento Kings Salary Information

Reports on McLemore’s work ethic are positive. But his lack of feel is the most worrying part of his performance right now. While more research needs to be done on which skills can be improved and which cannot, the areas in which he is lacking seem more nature than nurture. i.e., they are less likely to improve with mere time in the gym. It also must be noted that he too is a year older than the typical freshman due to his redshirt year at Kansas, which further lowers his ceiling a bit.

Alex Len

The fifth overall pick has played only 185 minutes due to offseason surgery on both ankles and the fact that he is clearly the fifth big man on a good Phoenix team. He is shooting 44 percent on the year, with a 9.03 PER.

On film, he has shown flashes of a very high skill level in the post despite his relative inefficiency from there. The problem is that he over-relies on that skill level instead of his pure size. He shoots (and misses) a lot of face-up jumpers. When he gets closer to the basket he pump fakes half the time, which is way too much. While these look pretty when they work, a pump fake is a gambit because it makes a successful shot very difficult if the defender does not jump. Len almost never just backs his man down for a jump hook or drop step, and he travels a lot while attempting his fancy footwork. His style in the post evokes Chris Kaman, a very skilled pivotman who nonetheless has been relatively inefficient.

On a positive note, Len has hit the offensive glass so far. He pulls down 14 percent of offensive rebounds, a rate that would rank in the league’s top five if he had played enough minutes to qualify. On defense he is blocking a respectable 2.8 percent of opponents’ twos, and the Suns are only slightly worse defensively with him on the court.

»In Related: Suns Are Set to be Players at Deadline

The key for Len will be getting stronger and improving his shooting inside. With a 13 percent usage rate and only nine points per 36 minutes, he needs to get his shooting percentage well north of 50 percent to be useful on offense.

Otto Porter

The number three pick elicited little feedback, as he has played only 207 minutes due to a hip injury. One scout noted that Porter is “very long and has shooting ability that would allow him to stick around.” I am not in agreement on the shooting ability. Porter is shooting only 29 percent on the year. On a Washington team with John Wall and Bradley Beal, his offensive role will be as a shooter and cutter. Unfortunately, he has shot only nine threes (missing them all) compared to 29 midrange shots. When he spots up, it’s generally in the 20-foot range, which kills the Wizards’ spacing. They score a mere 88 points/100 in his limited minutes.

While Porter had excellent statistical translations, I worried that he would prove unable to score in the league. He increased his three-point shooting significantly in his second year at Georgetown, but it was not on a large number of attempts. He also does not have the most versatile jumper and has rather ugly form. Porter is also hamstrung by a lack of elite quickness to get to the basket.

The good news is that Porter has played solid defense in this small sample size. The Wizards give up only 95 points/100 with him in the game. Most of the shots he’s faced have been jumpers, but he has done well closing out due to his length and opponents have hit only 25 percent of their jumpers with him guarding them.

»In Related: NBA Rookie Rankings

Porter isn’t going to play much this year with the Wizards making a playoff push and Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster all playing well in the wing rotation. But Ariza is a free agent next year, so it seems likely Porter could at least become a rotation player if he can extend his range. The key question is whether he will ever develop the offense to merit a starting job. The (very) early returns are not positive in that regard.

Nerlens Noel Should Have Been the Pick

One would imagine the teams that let Nerlens Noel slide to the sixth pick did so at least in part because he could not help them this year and they are looking to win now. Ironically, drafting Noel and playing some other replacement level player all year would have helped these teams more than the rookies they actually drafted. Although Noel has yet to play, he certainly looks much better by comparison due to the poor performances from the competition.

»In Related: 76ers Ready to Trade Evan Turner? 

It should be noted that Noel is very unlikely to ever be much of a scorer away from the basket. Sixers coaches have been rebuilding his shot, but based on the shooting drills I saw him doing in Denver last month the rebuild has not particularly taken. Despite shooting all one-handed jumpers in an effort to fix his form, Noel’s shot was still flat and his right elbow flew way out even while shooting one-handed. Some big men simply do not have an aptitude for shooting, and I fear he may be one of them. Nevertheless, Noel has the potential to be a top five defensive player in the league and an acceptable offensive threat with his finishing at the rim. These skills could have really helped the Cavs, Wizards, Bobcats or Suns down the road. Each of them may rue the day they passed on him.

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NBA

Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity

Clemon’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.

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Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.

Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.

Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.

But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.

But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.

“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”

Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.

“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”

“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”

Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.

“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.

But he can – and he knows it.

Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.

“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”

“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”

With Simms, shooting will initiate interest.  As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.

As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it

“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”

“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”

But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.

The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.

“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”

This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.

Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.

“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”

But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.

“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”

Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.

“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”

“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”

“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”

Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.

Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.

“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”

“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”

Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.

“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.

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NBA

Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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NBA

Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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