A new era has finally dawned for the Charlotte Hornets. Facing another half-decade of sustained mediocrity, Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak elected against re-signing the beloved Kemba Walker, giving the Hornets a much-needed reset but ridding the roster of the only player who ever really propelled them to success.
The rebuild, for the long-term better and short-term worse, is here. But the track it follows will largely depend on the development of several young players, any of whom it’s easy to envision ultimately coming into their own elsewhere. Especially if you are placing wagers at betfred or one of the Best Sportsbooks in the US.
Will this season mark the infancy of Charlotte’s next playoff team, or merely serve as year one of a lengthy, laborious process that ultimately takes multiple forms? Either way, the Hornets won’t be winning many games in 2019-20, a blueprint toward future contention this franchise unfurled a bit later than it should have.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 2019-20 season looks bleak for the Hornets. They passed on extending Kemba Walker, and swapped him for Terry Rozier. There are lots of overpaid players on the roster like Nic Batum and Marvin Williams, and some unproven younger ones like Malik Monk. The few bright spots on the Hornets roster appear to be Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington – and maybe Rozier depending on how you define a bright spot. The Hornets flirted with the playoffs for a few years – even qualifying in 2016. That won’t be the case this season.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
To say the Hornets had a poor offseason would be kind of an understatement. Not only did they lose franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker, they didn’t really do anything to pick a firm direction they want to go in. With Walker gone, a rebuild seems to be the best option moving forward, but they kept all of their high-priced veterans around. Of course, it could be that there isn’t a market for any of them. After all, a team needs to be willing to trade for those players/contracts. The signing of Terry Rozier is a bit of a head-scratcher, as they gave him quite a bit of money for a player that isn’t of Walker’s caliber but is expected to replace him. The one thing they may have going for them though is some of their youth. Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and P.J. Washington are a start. Not a very confidence-inspiring start, but a start nonetheless. Expect the losses to pile up for the Hornets this season.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
For the first season since 2011, the city of Charlotte will not have Kemba Walker suit up on opening night. It’s never easy losing a star player, but this one especially hurts. There’s a question of who will be the one to step up. What the question should be is who will be the *ones* to step up. You can’t replace somebody like that with one player. Terry Rozier can have a career season, and he’s bound too, yet it’ll still take a collective effort and strong performances all around to keep this group afloat. Miles Bridges will have to grow up fast. The same could be said of Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and even rookie forward P.J. Washington. The mental toughness of the Hornets will be tested this season and the near future. How James Borrego handles this type of adversity will be paramount to the team’s direction.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
It’s hard to understand what Charlotte’s goal was going into this offseason and what the long-term vision is at this point. First, if the Hornets were not going to offer Kemba Walker a max contract, then they should have traded him before he hit free agency. Charlotte hasn’t been anywhere close to contention in recent seasons and should have foreseen Walker moving on if the team was not going to offer a max contract. Second, in response to Walker opting to move on, the Hornets engaged in a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics, sending Walker and a 2020 second-rounder to in exchange for Terry Rozier on a new three-year, $56,700,000 contract. That is a lot of money for Rozier who is talented, but is unlikely to live up to this contract. Third, they let Jeremy Lamb go to the Indiana Pacers for what turned out to be a very reasonable contract (three-year, $31.5 million). Lastly, I’m just not a big fan of what the Hornets did in the draft. A few years down the road, it may turn out that P.J. Washington (12th), Cody Martin (36th) and Jalen McDaniels (52nd) were all good selections for Charlotte, but I am not counting on that. Its just difficult to see what the strategy is here for the Hornets and it’s hard to get past how big of a mistake it was to not trade Walker when he was still under contract for young talent and future assets.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Charlotte Hornets are a team poised for a re-build, although one could argue that if anyone on the roster steps up to an All-Star level things could get interesting in Charlotte. In fact, the Hornets are returning a lot of the same core that won 39 games last year. It’s clear there is no one on the roster of former Hornets star Kemba Walker’s stature, but if a combination of guys step up or have the expected internal growth, they could be better than most seem to be thinking. That said, the Hornets still look like a team more likely to lose 50 games than win 50, which will put them in the lottery and likely sellers of any meaningful veterans they have on the roster come the trade deadline in February. James Borrego is a quality coach – it is just unfortunate that he’ll have to skipper another roster thats not likely to be playing for much at the end of the season.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
When Kemba Walker chose the Boston Celtics, the Hornets opted to facilitate a double sign-and-trade transaction landing Terry Rozier on a three-year $56.7 million contract. That move locked in a hard cap for Charlotte, limiting the team to $138.9 million in total salary. That shouldn’t be an issue, the team will likely enter the season with a payroll at roughly $125 million.
If needed, the Hornets still have $8.1 million of their Mid-Level Exception remaining (partially used on Cody Martin) and their full $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception. But don’t expect the franchise to exceed the $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, let alone reach the hard cap.
Before November, Charlotte needs to decide on the team options for Malik Monk and Miles Bridges.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nicolas Batum
As much as anything else, Batum’s status as Charlotte’s best offensive player is an indicator of just how lacking this roster is for talent compared to the rest of the NBA. He was always overstretched as the Hornets’ secondary scorer and playmaker under Steve Clifford, and indeed seemed more comfortable last season after first-year coach James Borrego shifted him down to small forward, allowing the veteran to play a more ancillary offensive role as he entered his thirties.
Batum bumped his true shooting percentage comfortably above league average for the first time in six years, sacrificing mid-range jumpers for threes and making a career-best 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, per NBA.com. Both his usage percentage and amount of touches dipped considerably, while his share of assisted baskets ticked all the way up to 67.2 percent – far higher than in any of his previous four seasons with the Hornets.
As a jack of all trades and master of none, this is the role for which Batum has long been best suited. The problem is the value of dependent offensive players, especially one with natural court sense like Batum, correlates to the quality of their teammates, and no team in the league is in more dire need of a talent influx offensively than Charlotte.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Kidd-Gilchrist was another benefactor of Borrego embracing a more modern style of lineup construction last season. Finally playing the right position, power forward, he re-established himself as an ultra-versatile difference-maker defensively.
Kidd-Gilchrist led the Hornets in both defensive rating and net defensive rating, per NBA.com, evidenced by his ability to switch across four and sometimes five positions. He was Charlotte’s only player other than Cody Zeller with a defensive real plus-minus above 1.0, and held offensive players to a lower field goal percentage than expected from everywhere on the floor, too.
Dreams of the former No. 2 overall pick becoming a positive player on the other side of the ball are long gone, and a relative deficiency in short-area quickness has kept him from fulfilling expectations as a stopper of historic order. But Kidd-Gilchrist has natural defensive instincts and always competes, while his effectiveness holding up at power forward – occasionally even small-ball center, too – unlocks crucial flexibility for the Hornets they would otherwise lack.
Top Playmaker: Terry Rozier
Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak have placed a lot of faith in Kemba Walker’s replacement – too much, in fact, by almost any measure. It’s unclear who Charlotte was bidding against when it offered Rozier a three-year, $58 million deal in free agency, ultimately acquiring him from the Boston Celtics via sign-and-trade. But unless he shows far more capacity as a floor general with the Hornets than he ever did with the Boston Celtics, Rozier is poised to disappoint – and hamstring his new team’s arduous rebuilding efforts.
It’s unclear how Borrego will tweak an offense that last season used more ball screens than any team in the league but the LA Clippers, per NBA.com, but he’ll have to with Rozier in Walker’s place. Charlotte’s new franchise point guard is more accurately described as a ball-handler than playmaker. He lacks high-level passing vision, and doesn’t threaten the defense enough by attacking the rim or with his pull-up jumper to create the space needed to consistently compensate for that weakness.
The Hornets need a point guard who can make his teammates better if he can’t drive them to success by himself, and neither description fits Rozier based on his career to date. But he’s also the only guard on this roster with the physical tools and eroding potential to play either role should he suddenly take a major step forward.
“Offensively, I’ve got to get him more comfortable right now in our system,” Borrego said of Rozier, per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. “He’s got a lot to prove — the first time he’s out there as a starting point guard.”
The viability of Charlotte’s offense won’t hinge on Rozier nearly as much as it did Walker, but unless he shows court sense and an ability to manipulate the defense that he’s yet to thus far in his career, the responsibilities he’ll be asked to shoulder will almost certainly prove too heavy regardless.
Top Clutch Player: Malik Monk
Monk has virtually no track record of crunch-time success in the NBA. He took 15 shots in those situations last season, making five of them, and was on the court for less than a third of Charlotte’s 158 minutes in the clutch, per NBA.com. Needless to say, thats not exactly the resumé of a player normally tasked with serving as his team’s alpha dog when it matters most.
But Monk could fit that bill this season anyway for the Hornets, who are otherwise bereft of the shot-making talent necessary to score under the pressure cooker of crunch time. Rozier, even considering the overblown hype of “Scary Terry” in the 2018 playoffs, isn’t a reliable enough off-dribble shooter. Batum just isn’t that type of player. Miles Bridges definitely isn’t ready to be Charlotte’s top offensive option when the game is on the line, and likely never will be.
That leaves Monk, whose blend of explosive athleticism, wiggle with the ball and flammable scoring skills has long prompted Lou Williams comparisons. The problem? Monk’s ability to drain difficult pull-up jumpers is mostly theoretical at this point, and he doesn’t navigate ball screens with enough knack and subtlety to crease the paint when defenses dare him to shoot. Just like the Hornets, he’s still very much still a work in progress – which is all the more reason why they should force-feed Monk touches in the clutch to help figure out how he fits in the organization’s big-picture plans.
The Unheralded Player: Cody Zeller
Death, taxes and Charlotte faring better when Zeller is on the floor. Ever since his rookie year in 2013-14, the Hornets have put up a positive net rating with Zeller in the lineup. Last season, the six-year veteran was the only player on his team to notch an on-court rating better than 1.0, per NBA.com.
Zeller’s influence comes in the margins. He racked up screen assists at a rate higher than any other player in the league, evidence of his speed running into picks and comfort flipping the angle and direction of screens at a moment’s notice. He’s adept in the dribble hand-off game, too, and creates several easy scoring opportunities per game for his teammates simply by sprinting the floor in transition and diving hard to the rim, sucking in defenders. Zeller’s short arms limit him as a rim-protector, but he’s almost always in the right position, using his instincts and quickness to routinely cover for teammates.
Unfortunately, a penchant for injury has prevented Zeller from staking his claim as one of basketball’s best role-playing bigs. He’s played a total 82 games over the past two seasons due to knee and hand injuries, and has appeared in more than 62 games just twice in his six-year career.
Best New Addition: P.J. Washington
Washington isn’t sexy.
He has good physical tools for a power forward, with impressive quickness and overall coordination, and possesses more than enough length and strength to play small-ball five. He shot 42.3 percent on over two three-point attempts per game at Kentucky last season, the most significant of across-the-board improvements made compared to his freshman campaign.
The rough outline of a productive NBA player is here. But unless Washington gleans a much better understanding of how to play when he’s not involved in the primary action on both sides of the ball, it seems likely his decided dearth of natural instincts will keep him from reaching his potential as a switch-proof big man with nascent three-point range who can put the ball on the floor in space.
Washington’s selection here, like most, says more bad things about the Hornets than it does good things about him. Charlotte punted on free agency other than Rozier, whose contract is one of the summer’s most head-scratching, and has no plans to change that approach going forward as it transitions to life without Walker.
“Free-agent signings, for us, are not something we need to concentrate on going forward. We’re not going to get the ‘Big Fish,’” Kupchak said, per The Observer. “We have to create a culture where those kinds of players would want to come here. And, quite frankly, we’re not there yet.”
– Jack Winter
WHO WE LIKE
1. Charlotte Finally Embracing The Future
Even during this organization’s most successful seasons under Clifford, there was a clear cap on just how high the Hornets could rise in the Eastern Conference. A team with Walker as its best player, as dynamic as he is on the floor and inspiring he is off it, was just never going anywhere meaningful. In that vein, moving on from the homegrown star made sense for the Hornets.
What didn’t, and is fully deserving of the widespread criticism it sparked, was Kupchak insisting Charlotte would do “everything” possible to re-sign Walker in free agency, only to extend him a a five-year, $160 million final offer that fell well below the max. Kupchak’s recent concession that the Hornets’ plans were complicated by Walker making Third Team All-NBA, thus qualifying for the super-max, doesn’t make the optics any better.
Regardless, staying the course was never the best plan for Charlotte, as difficult as the circumstances surrounding Walker’s departure were. There’s no telling where this team ultimately goes from here, and it will almost surely be a bottom-dweller in the standings this season. But the mere prospect of real contention going forward – way forward, to be clear – is a more hopeful position than the Hornets have been in since 2016.
2. Dwayne Bacon
Playing in Charlotte could cost Bacon a lot of money this summer. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 wings with workable athleticism, a plus wingspan, thick shoulders and fledgling three-point range who could remain relatively anonymous in league circles, especially just one season ahead of restricted free agency. But that reality applies to Bacon as 2019-20 approaches, and unless his development continues at the accelerated rate it did last season, could save the Hornets some cash next summer.
Bacon’s impact as a rookie in 2017-18 was almost impossible to distinguish. He’s not quite good enough defensively to be considered a true stopper, and isn’t disruptive enough on that end that his presence alone makes a positive difference. But coupled with an adjusted shot chart that prioritized the rim and the arc – where he shot 69.4 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively, last season – Bacon’s utility as a solid, versatile, scheme-sound defender takes on a whole new level of value.
One caveat: Bacon’s newfound prowess from deep came on just two tries per game, and he shot only 25.2 percent in the G-League last season, albeit on a much more aggressive diet of attempts than he’ll ever need in the NBA. He definitely isn’t the marksman his three-point shooting percentage from last season indicates, basically. But if Bacon proves himself a player who must be guarded beyond the arc in 2019-20, a substantial payday likely awaits, one that could cement him as a viable rotation player for years to come.
3. Devonte’ Graham
Every team needs a reserve guard who can competently run the offense, make the defense pay when given air space from beyond the arc and compete defensively. Graham, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, has the makings of not just fulfilling that archetype, but potentially overgrowing it.
No numbers from Graham’s rookie season suggest either possibility is imminent. He shot 34.3 percent overall and 28.1 percent from deep, and posted the worst on-court rating of any player on the roster othan than Bismack Biyombo. Equally discouraging? An average leaper with a still-developing floater game, Graham shot 37.5 percent on drives, per NBA.com – fifth-lowest in the league.
Ignore specific takeaways from those damning statistics for now. Graham has just enough size to be used in two point-guard lineups and plays with a natural sense of pace, effectively changing speeds to get where he wants to go. Most optimism about Graham, though, stems from his fearless nature at Las Vegas Summer League, where he took nearly nine threes per game – with many coming off the bounce – and hit them at a 38.5 percent clip.
Graham won’t ever be a star, and very likely nothing more than a spot starter. But the league could always use more tough, smart guards who will take and make tough shots to sop up minutes behind stars, a role it’s easy to imagine him eventually playing at a worthwhile level.
4. Miles Bridges
The Bridges hype, even to the understated extent it exists, seems a bit overblown. He has average length for his position, and he lacks the hip fluidity needed to consistently keep up with dynamic ball handlers or even elite off-ball shooters after switches. He won’t ever be anything approaching a primary option offensively, but his shot-put stroke doesn’t suggest he’ll ever be a knockdown three-point shooter, either.
Even if Bridges reaches a more modest appraisal of his ceiling, it seems pretty clear he’ll fall short of being an All-Star. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But his jaw-dropping vertical oomph, rare aerial body control and passing-glance positional versatility has led some to believe he has legitimate star potential, and there was little to indicate as much during his rookie season save for so many highlight-reel finishes.
Still, the Hornets’ clearest path back to respectability involves Bridges establishing himself as a pillar of their rebuild – even if that means he’s ultimately more impact role player than secondary star.
– Jack Winter
Charlotte is finally playing the long game. The roster obviously isn’t where it needs to be in terms of overall talent, but the Hornets will at least employ a style this season that should position them well for rapid growth when the necessary pieces are in place.
That’s reflected in several aspects of Borrego’s overall philosophy: a preference for playing two ball handlers, his pointed decision to slide several players down a position and an offensive scheme that prioritizes space and quick-hitting ball movement. Though the Hornets aren’t the Moneyball Houston Rockets, the early takeaways of Borrego’s style indicate they’ll rely on modern offensive tenets now and going forward.
A more tangible immediate strength is Charlotte’s defensive flexibility. Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Batum, Bacon and Bridges can all guard three or more positions, and Borrego took semi-frequent advantage in 2018-19 by yanking all traditional bigs off the floor. Defense will be the source of the Hornets’ success this season far more often than offense; their enviable lineup and stylistic versatility should be the biggest reason why.
– Jack Winter
Most teams have multiple players they have reason to feel confident in as lead ball handlers. Charlotte, depending on how you feel about Rozier, may not have any. More debilitating might be its shortage of players who can create unscripted offense for themselves and their teammates.
Bottom line: The Hornets have the worst collection of offensive talent in the league, and it’s not particularly close. Even if young players eventually scrape their realistic ceilings, they’ll still need to add multiple prospects with high-level offensive upside to be playoff-caliber on that side of the ball in the future.
– Jack Winter
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is there a surefire long-term building block on this roster?
In an illuminating interview with The Observer that finally ended their silence in the wake of Walker’s departure, Kupchack and Borrego full-throatedly endorsed a youth movement. Stalwart veterans like Batum and Williams will have their playing time cut to make room for younger players; even Kidd-Gilchrist, just 25, will likely fall prey to that stark shift in organizational priorities.
An unabashed rebuild has been long-awaited in Charlotte. The issue is that it’s unclear which of these incumbents will be able to show enough to have seen it through to the finish.
Even believers in Rozier know he won’t top out as anything more than a league-average starter. Monk’s high-outcome destiny as a microwave scorer is tantalizing, but accompanied by inherent questions of roster fit and cap resources. Bridges projects as an elite role player at best, and so does Washington.
The Hornets have ample time to find the star power they need to ultimately contend. Kupchak will be picking near the top of the lottery for the foreseeable future, and the seemingly imminent firesale of veterans midseason – in February 2020 or 2021 – will further stock Charlotte’s stable of draft assets. But holdovers from the Walker era aren’t good enough by themselves to foster a healthy environment of growth, and top-five picks won’t serve as that immediate panacea, either.
As the Hornets lose game after game, many by double digits, how are Rozier, Monk, Bridges and Washington supposed to make an inarguable case as cogs of this franchise’s long-term prospects? The more damning question for Charlotte’s future is whether or not they’d even be able to under more stable and rewarding circumstances.
– Jack Winter
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.
The X-Factors: Brooklyn
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.
The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.
While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.
Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.
But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play? Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.
And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.
But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?
Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.
Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.
Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.
So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so, what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.
The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone. So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.
But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.
This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.
One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.
And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.