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Cheap Seats: NBA’s Biggest Disappointment

What have been the biggest disappointments of the 2013-14 season? In this week’s Cheap Seats, the Basketball Insiders’ interns discuss.

Basketball Insiders

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the biggest disappointment of the 2013-14 NBA season.

Derrick Rose’s Injury and Its Effect on the Bulls:

There have been a few disappointments this season. From the struggling New York Knicks, to the slow-starting Brooklyn Nets, to the never-ending injuries, there have been plenty of letdowns for NBA fans. But the most disappointing story centers around Derrick Rose’s latest knee injury, which ended his 2013-14 season, and forced the Chicago Bulls to seek a new path to contention.

On April 28, 2012, Rose tore his ACL in his left knee in a playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s a day that Bulls fans look back on with despair. Adding to the pain of losing their franchise player to major injury was the fact that Rose probably should have been resting on the bench since the Bulls had a 12-point lead with roughly a minute and a half left in the game at the time of his injury.

On May 12, 2012, Rose underwent surgery to repair the torn ACL. With ACL tears, a typical recovery time for NBA athletes is commonly between nine months to a year.

By January 2013, reports out of Chicago were that Rose was participating in full contact basketball activities. The Bulls made it clear that Rose’s return date would not be determined until team doctors had cleared him and Rose was mentally ready. The Bulls wanted Rose to come back once he was 100 percent healthy, and not a second sooner. However, on February 13, for the first time, Rose hinted that he may miss the entire season to ensure that he could make a full recovery. Daily speculation ensued as to when Rose would return. Some fans grew angry, believing that Rose was stalling his return and lacked commitment to the team.

By early March it was being reported that doctors had cleared Rose to play, indicating that the young point guard had made a full recovery. Despite Rose participating in practices without restrictions, the former MVP insisted he was not mentally prepared to return. Derrick’s brother, Reggie Rose, made the situation worse when he publicly stated that the Bulls’ decision to not make any significant deals at the trade deadline would play a role in whether Derrick would return for the remainder of the 2012-13 season. Criticism from fans and the media persisted throughout the remainder of the season.

Without Rose, the Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they lost to the Miami HEAT. Rose never made his anticipated return and missed the entire season. Even if Rose had been able to play, the Bulls still would have been short-handed as they were missing Luol Deng, and the HEAT would have likely still won the series. Still, for Bulls fans, constant reports of a potential return was the dominant storyline of the season.

Fast forward to October 5, 2013, when Derrick Rose made his return to action against the Indiana Pacers in a preseason game. After waiting 525 days since Rose tore his ACL, Bulls fans would get to watch their franchise player on the court once again. Rose was rusty, putting up 13 points in 20 minutes of playing time. It did not matter though; Rose was healthy and all NBA fans had reason to smile.

On October 16, after scoring 22 points in his first game back in Chicago, Rose said he thought he was even more “explosive” than before his injury, and that he had increased his vertical jump by five inches. Browse YouTube clips of Rose’s best dunks before his injury, and you can see why the thought of him adding five inches to his vertical was a scary thought for the rest of the NBA. Greg Oden, Joel Anthony and Goran Dragic, all past victims of vicious Rose dunks, would certainly agree.

The hype surrounding Rose’s return reached its apex on October 31, when he hit a game-winning floater to beat the Knicks, 82-81, in just the second game of the regular season. Rose was not efficient in that game, going 7-23 from the floor and turning the ball over four times. But it didn’t matter. Rose did what superstars are supposed to do in the NBA, which is to take, and make, the biggest shots in the biggest moments.

»In Related:Six Things to Know About the Chicago Bulls

Unfortunately it would not be long before disaster would strike again. After playing in only 11 games, Rose tore his meniscus in his right knee while playing against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 22. After undergoing surgery, the Bulls announced that Rose would miss the rest of the season.

In a season in which point guards have been plagued by injuries (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Kemba Walker, Eric Bledsoe, etc.), Rose’s latest injury cuts the deepest. Rose’s injury, compounded by the time he has missed, has changed the course of the franchise. Every point guard listed will return from injury, or already has, and their franchise will continue down the same path it was already on. The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder will continue to compete for a championship, and teams like the Phoenix Suns will continue to build around young talent with an eye toward the future. But the Bulls are not the Suns, and this was not supposed to be a rebuilding year for them. Coming into this season, the Bulls were thought to be one of three teams in the East that would compete for the championship, along with the HEAT and Pacers. Instead, the Bulls are now grouped with every other team in the East looking up at the top two teams.

This is especially problematic because in today’s NBA, under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it is widely believed that if you are not a championship contender, then you should bottom out in hopes of landing a young star in the NBA lottery. Good luck convincing head coach Tom Thibodeau or any of the veterans on the team, such as Joakim Noah, that they should be tanking.

This is, in part, where rumors of a disconnect between Thibodeau and Chicago executives stem from. Under Thibodeau’s defensive principles, the Bulls have the second best defensive rating in the league. But the recent trade of Luol Deng suggests that Chicago’s front office has conceded this season in favor of future flexibility. By trading Deng for Andrew Bynum and then waiving him, the Bulls saved roughly $20 million. But no one can argue that trading Deng for purely financial savings makes the Bulls a better team now. Beyond trading Deng, rumors persist that the Bulls will amnesty veteran Carlos Boozer, who is set to make $16.8 million next season.

»In Related: Chicago Bulls Salary Information

If Chicago does amnesty Boozer, it will leave the Bulls with a roster featuring Rose, Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy Jr., promising rookie Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler, a solid foundation to build around. Interestingly, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that, “Chicago is much more in play for [Carmelo Anthony] than L.A.” Whether through a trade this season or by signing Anthony over the summer, a pairing of Anthony and a healthy Rose would most likely put Chicago back into contention. This is especially true when you consider that Anthony will add much needed offense, while having to commit himself to a proven team defense under the demanding, yet effective Thibodeau.

Though the Bulls are currently the fifth seed in the East with a 22-21 record, it is very unlikely that they can get past the Pacers and the HEAT. Even if Chicago somehow made it to the Finals without Rose and Deng, they would likely have to defeat the Thunder or Spurs in a seven-game series, which is no easy task. It is unfortunate, but without Rose, this is a lost season in terms of competing for a championship.

While the Bulls have a few paths to quickly reload the team, it is undeniable that Chicago fans, and basketball fans in general, have missed Rose’s aggressive style of play that earned him NBA MVP honors at the age of 22. Moreover, it is disappointing to miss out on two seasons of Rose in his athletic prime, and two seasons in which Chicago could have competed for championships.

»In Related: Could a Carmelo Anthony Trade Benefit Bulls and Knicks?

Don’t count out Rose yet though. Players who have suffered ACL injuries have recently returned with greater success rates than ever before, and while a meniscus tear is unfortunate, it is not a career ending injury. Had Rose undergone another operation, such as a microfracture, there would be significant doubts as to Rose’s long-term prognosis. Fortunately, this is not the case for Rose. But Bulls’ fans will have to keep waiting for Rose’s return. The Bulls, and the NBA, will be much better when he does.

– Jesse Blancarte

J.R. Smith’s Awful Season:

Let’s take a look back to Monday, April 22, 2013 – the day New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith received the 2012-13 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.

His head coach, Mike Woodson sounded like a proud father, quick to offer praise and admiration for Smith and the year he had put together.

“Couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” Woodson said. “I’m so proud of him, in terms of buying in to what we wanted him to do earlier in the season. And it started this summer. I wasn’t going to start him, coming into this year, and I knew that. And he bought in. He didn’t like it, but he bought in. And it couldn’t have happened to a better person, because he put in the time and he worked his butt off to get to this point, and he got rewarded for it. I’m happy for him.”

Carmelo Anthony touched on the noticeable change in Smiths’ maturity, as Smith had seemingly turned the corner in that department.

“I think there comes a point in time in your life where you’re almost forced to grow up, you’re almost forced to mature. You gotta be willing to want to do those things. I think right now, this season, J.R. has done that,” Anthony said. “I think J.R. was forced to grow up, he was forced to be mature and he was willing to take on that challenge, too.”

»In Related: New York Knicks Salary Cap Information

Smith thanked his teammates and coaching staff for their patience.

“I’ve been known to make so many mistakes I haven’t been making recently,” said Smith, thanking his veteran teammates and Woodson for helping him. “Just keeping my head, mentally on the court and off the court.”

Smith was able to parlay his strong season into a three-year contract with the Knicks worth just under $18 million.  The Knicks re-signed Smith, showing confidence that he could be the bench scorer they needed for years to come.

Unexpectedly, just after the contract was signed, Smith would require knee surgery.  The Knicks claimed to be aware of this prior to Smith signing the extension, but just based on the timeline it is easy to speculate that Smith wanted to ink a new deal before going under the knife and risking his health.  Injuries happen, that is part of being a professional athlete, and Smith needed to do what was best for his long-term health.  The injury required that Smith spend the offseason rehabilitating, unable to spend time out on the court working on his game. He didn’t play any basketball until October.

In September of 2013, about a month and a half prior to start of the season, Smith was notified that he must serve a five-game suspension for violation of the NBA’s anti-drug program.  Smith spoke publicly for the first time since the incident on media day; he was very apologetic and was quoted in the New York Post expressing his remorse.

“The worst thing is I feel I let my teammates and coach down,’’ Smith said. “I let Mr. Dolan down. I’m looking to move forward from it. As soon as I’m able to play, I’m hoping to have a good season.’’

Smith has never been known as the most righteous of characters – he has been arrested and has served suspensions in the past – so this incident didn’t come as a total surprise.  The risk with Smith has always been whether his production would outweigh his antics.  Smith went into the season behind the eight ball in that regard, but if he was able to produce at or near the level of last season it seemed all would be forgiven.

Smith may have had a tumultuous offseason but the on-court expectations remained the same.  Smith was signed to provide a scoring punch and to give the Knicks another consistent scoring threat to complement Anthony.  Smith played in his first game back from the suspension against the San Antonio Spurs and got off to a very poor start, shooting 1-9 from the field and scoring only five points as the Knicks were trounced by the Spurs.  Unfortunately, that poor performance would be a sign of things to come.  Granted this was his first game back from knee surgery so it was expected that Smith may be a little rusty and might start the season off slow. And he sure did. Smith put together an undeniably bad first month of the season.  He shot just under 33 percent from the field while scoring 11.7 points per game.  For a guy expected to provide a lift off the bench, he was doing the exact opposite.  Shooting so poorly, he alone made it very difficult for any offensive group he was part to play efficient basketball.  He was singlehandedly anchoring down the Knicks offense.  The Knicks struggled mightily in November, not exclusively due to Smith’s poor performance, but it certainly played a factor in the team’s 2-11 record for the month.

The next month wasn’t much of an improvement for Smith or the Knicks.  At the end of December, the Knicks had only managed nine wins in 30 games and finished the month off with back-to-back losses against division foe Toronto.  Smith was able to marginally increase his production from his pitiful November, his field goal percentage up to 34.5 and his points per game up to just over 12.  He was trending in the right direction as the season progressed, but these were still very disappointing numbers for the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

What happened in the next couple of weeks can be described as something straight out of the The Onion. On January 8, 2014, Smith was fined $50,000 for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.” Or, to be more specific, Smith was fined for multiple instances in which he attempted to untie his opponents’ shoelaces during the course of play.  His childish behavior was the last thing the Knicks needed being in the middle of a fight to salvage their season.  Coach Woodson spoke to ESPN New York 98.7 FM on Smith’s actions.

“I’ve always said I don’t condone things that I know you shouldn’t do,” Woodson said. “No, I’m not happy about this. He was warned, he comes back and he makes the same mistake, it’s not right. … It’s unacceptable. It really is. It’s unprofessional. That’s the only word I can use. … You can’t do that. You just cannot do it. … At the end of the day, he’s got to grow up. These things have got to stop.”

Smith had severely regressed from the maturity level that he just last April was being commended for.  Smith did offer an apology via his Twitter account, “Huge apologies to my team, to the league [and] most of all you the fans.”

You have to ask yourself at what point do Smith’s apologies start to ring hollow? How many times can a guy make selfish mistakes that negatively impact his team and their goals and still be believed as remorseful?

»In Related: Should the Knicks Trade Carmelo Anthony?

Not surprisingly, his relationship with Woodson has begun to sour.  On January 15,2014, it was reported that Smith arrived late for a team meeting the day before so that night when the Knicks played the Charlotte Bobcats, Smith did not see one minute of action.  This was the second time over a four-game stretch that Smith had recorded a DNP-Coach Decision in the box score.  Woodson spoke again to ESPN 98.7 FM about his growing frustration with Smith.

“I think it is a privilege to wear a uniform in this league,” Woodson said. “There’s only 30 teams. There’s [only] so many players on each team. I think every player has a responsibility and has to be held accountable for what they do on a ballclub.”

Smith has since worked his way back into the line-up and has been playing consistent minutes as of late.

It’s hard to believe how poorly this season has played out for Smith.  A player who has been able to score in the NBA since the first day he stepped foot onto the court, his talent is undeniable but it is becoming increasingly more evident that he is a me-first player who refuses to consider the affects his actions may have on his team.  In all fairness, it would be much easier to look the other way if he wasn’t putting up near career-worse numbers in almost every statistical category.  For the season, Smith is averaging 12.2 points, three assists and 4.2 rebounds, with a PER of 11.2.  The number that sticks out most is that Smith is shooting only 37.8 percent from field, a career-low and absolutely unacceptable for a player who was brought in to score.  Smith is not a defensive stopper, he is not a great passer and he is an average rebounder.   Add to that, this season he is an extremely inefficient scorer that has repeatedly made mistakes and supplied distractions for his struggling team.

To call Smiths’ season anything other than a massive disappointment would be a lie.  When you read the quotes from last April, it seemed that everything had finally clicked and that he understood what it meant to be a professional.  For whatever reason, Smith has taken a huge step backwards, his production is miserable and his behavior just as bad.  It has come to the point where you wonder if it is even worth it for the Knicks to keep Smith on their roster (there have been rumblings that the Knicks may look to move Smith).  The surprising surgery, the early season suspension, the shoe-lace untying incidents and most of all his all poor production have all been ingredients that have led to arguably his worst season as a pro.

– John Zitzler

Cleveland Cavaliers Not Living Up to Expectations

The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked many draft experts last summer when they drafted Anthony Bennett with the number one overall pick. It was a move that they hoped would help them make a run toward the playoffs, but instead has many critics describing the pick as a bust.

While half of a season is far too early to label a draft pick as a bust, Bennett’s season isn’t exactly giving the Cavs a reason to be excited for his future. He’s currently averaging just 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. Bennett’s work ethic has been described as questionable, so it may be no surprise that it took him 33 games to score in double digits.

Work ethic aside, the Cavs haven’t exactly done themselves any favors with Bennett. In his breakout performance on Tuesday, Bennett played 33 minutes, well above his season average of 10 minutes per game. The team should explore more options on how to get Bennett in the game more, and should seriously consider sending him down to the Development League to allow him to regain some of his confidence.

»In Related: Cleveland Cavaliers Salary Information

The Cavs brought in Andrew Bynum in an attempt to help them advance to the postseason and to help resurrect Bynum’s career. The team got the short end of that deal after they traded Bynum to the Bulls after getting just 26 games out of him. Prior to the trade, Bynum was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team after becoming a negative influence on the Cavs. Bynum stated publicly early in the season that he lost his joy for the game, which he continued to battle for the duration of his stay in Cleveland.

In return for Bynum, the Cavaliers received Luol Deng in hopes of trying to win now. Since adding Deng 10 games ago, the Cavs are 4-6 and stand at 16-29, good for 11th in the East. Even though Deng is averaging 15.6 points per game with the Cavs, there is still room to improve on how head coach Mike Brown utilizes him. Brown is neglecting to set up plays that allow Deng to move around and cut toward the basket, arguably the best thing he does.

»In Related: Kyrie Irving’s Uncertain Future

Although the Cavaliers have a much healthier and improved team this season, their record doesn’t reflect it. Anderson Varejao missed the majority of last season with a blood clot and Kyrie Irving missed 25 games due to injury; they have missed four games combined this season. The Cavs also signed Jarrett Jack from Golden State, but are still averaging 96 points per game, the same amount they averaged en route to 24 wins last season.

The Cavs are just three games back of the final playoff spot in the East, but given their additions to the team through the draft, trades and free agency, they should definitely be competing for a much higher seed than just the eighth seed.

– Cody Taylor

What has been the biggest disappointment of the 2013-14 NBA season? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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Nuggets, Analysis and Predictions for This Year’s All-Star Festivities

Bobby Krivitsky shares his analysis, noteworthy nuggets and predictions for this year’s All-Star festivities.

Bobby Krivitsky

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This year marks the 70th edition of the NBA All-Star Game, an event that began in 1951. Atlanta, for the third time and first since 2003, is set to host the festivities; one of the league’s more memorable All-Star games, the Eastern and Western All-Stars combined for more than 300 points as the East prevailed 155-145 in the lone double-overtime game in the contest’s history. Despite the awkward circumstances surrounding the event, here’s hoping the 2021 iteration can be just as eventful!

So, without further ado, here’s a primer on this year’s All-Star Sunday, featuring noteworthy nuggets, matchup analysis and predictions.

Slam Dunk Contest, 3-Point Shootout and Skills Challenge Predictions

Let’s start with the festivities taking place before and at halftime of the All-Star Game, beginning with the Skills Challenge. It’s always fun to pick a dark horse to win the obstacle-course competition that tests players’ dribbling, passing, agility and three-point skills — of the group, Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic and Robert Covington (the lone non-All-Star participant) of the Portland Trail Blazers best fit that description.

But who has the best chance to come away with the award? It would seem Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ wunderkind, would be best suited to take home the hardware versus the field.

Later, the Three-Point Contest is expected to be a flurry. Among the participants is a former champion: Stephen Curry, who won the contest back in 2015. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics’ two young stars, are entrants this year, as is Donovan Mitchell, who’s shooting a career-high 38.2 percent from beyond the arc this season. With Devin Booker, another former champion, expected to miss the contest due to a left knee sprain, Mike Conley has been tabbed to replace him. In a crowded field, Curry, inarguably the greatest shooter the game has ever seen, is deservedly the favorite. That said, this writer is backing first-time All-Star Zach LaVine, who’s shooting a career-best 43.5 percent from three — the highest mark among this season’s participants — on well over eight attempts per game.

For the Slam Dunk Contest, which is set to take place during half time of the main event, the three participants are all taking part in the event for the first time. New York Knicks’ rookie Obi Toppin evokes comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire, thanks in large part to leaping off two feet to throw down the thunderous dunks when he rolls to the rim after setting a screen.

There’s a difference, however, between being a powerful in-game dunker and one whose pageantry can captivate the audience and earn the top spot in the competition. 

Trail Blazers’ guard Anfernee Simons stands at six-foot-three, making him the shortest participant in this year’s contest — some might argue that an advantage, given the added excitement of jams from smaller entrants. That said, Indiana Pacers rookie Cassius Stanley should be considered the favorite; Stanley registered a maximum vertical leap of 44 inches at the 2020 NBA Draft Combine, tied for the third-highest mark since 2000. And, at six-foot-five, the elevation he gets on his dunks will still stand out – case and point:

 

Noteworthy Nuggets

  • The Phoenix Suns are the fourth franchise Chris Paul has been named an All-Star for; the only other NBA players to accomplish that feat are Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal. 
  • LeBron James is making his 17th All-Star Game appearance, the third-most behind Kobe Bryant (18) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (19). Odds are, three years from now, there will be a new record holder.
  • At 20-years-old, Zion Williamson will become the fourth-youngest player in league history to not only participate, but start in an All-Star Game. Bryant, James and Magic Johnson are the only players who took part in an All-Star Game at a younger age.
  • LeBron wisely chose Giannis Antetokounmpo with the first pick in this year’s All-Star draft. The two-time league MVP has the highest scoring average in All-Star Game history, producing 27.3 points per game over his first four appearances. By the way, LeBron’s 385 points are the most in the event’s history.
  • A record six European players got selected to this year’s All-Star Game: Antetokounmpo (Greece), Doncic (Slovenia), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro).
  • There are a record nine international All-Stars, while five were voted starters, also a first: Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Gobert, Jokic, Sabonis, Vucevic, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.
  • The Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats are the two universities best represented at this year’s event, with three alums from both schools earning a spot in this year’s matchup. The former Blue Devils — Tatum, Irving and Williamson suit up for Team Durant along with former Wildcat Julius Randle. Booker and Anthony Davis, the other Kentucky products, are both out due to injury. Six All-Stars — Curry, Sabonis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Damian Lillard — did not play at a Power Five school.

Matchup Analysis

Unfortunately, Embiid and Simmons join Davis and Booker, though the Philadelphia 76ers duo is out due to contact tracing, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Their health — and the health of the greater All-Star group — is what matters most. But how could their absence affect the game?

On the surface, it’s a devastating blow for Team Durant, who will now play without their starting center and defensive anchor. Expect Team Durant to experiment with units exclusively composed of guards and wings. Expect Williamson, who was moved into the starting group in Embiid’s absence, to play heavy minutes at center, too. On offense, expect Leonard, Irving, Bradley Beal, James Harden and Donovan Mitchell to shoulder the load.

As for Team LeBron, expect more of a group attack. James’ group is made up of the NBA’s elite facilitators — Doncic, Jokic, Paul, etc. — and should be able to easily find the open man for the easy basket. Further, James snagged some of the league’s best from distance, including Curry, Lillard and George. Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, is a matchup nightmare himself; expect Team Durant to have their hands full with him.

Team LeBron projects to be more cohesive and dynamic than Team Durant, which is why they should be considered the favorite.

The Return of the Elam Ending 

Last year’s festivities sparked a new trend where the fourth quarter is untimed and, in honor of Kobe Bryant, 24 points are added to the leading team’s total after three quarters to establish a target score. It made for a thrilling final frame and, to little surprise, the Elam Ending is back this season.

Nick Elam created the alternate ending in 2007; the idea was born from a determination to see more action at the end of games rather than the trailing team fouling to extend the contest, the leader stalling to protect a lead and or players launching low-quality shots out of desperation.

Who Wins the Game? MVP?

LeBron James is 3-0 since the NBA switched formats to have the two All-Star captains draft their rosters. Sizing up this year’s respective rosters, he seems poised to earn his fourth-straight victory.

James has put together what should be considered one of the greatest passing teams in the event’s history; he’s flanked by Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo James’ first pick, has the highest scoring average in the history of the All-Star game: 27.3 points per game. Adding to his team’s dynamic composition is a bevy of lethal three-point shooters such as Curry, Lillard and Doncic. When it’s time for the final frame and the intensity ramps up, Team LeBron would seem able to get a bucket by any means, a fact that should easily position them to emerge the victor.

As for All-Star MVP, James taking over in the game’s final stages is a distinct possibility. The same could be said for Antetokounmpo, who has yet to earn the award in his five appearances. Doncic, dazzling with his passing and long-range prowess, or Jokic, delivering dimes with surgeon-like precision and scoring from all levels of the floor, could also come up big and earn the honor. 

That said, the prediction here is a hot shooting performance from Curry should earn him the award for the first time in his career, while also leading Team LeBron to the win.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — March 6

With the All-Star break upon us, the Sixth Man of the Year award would appear to have a heavy favorite. Ariel Pacheco examines.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the All-Star break upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. In comparison to other award races, the race for the Sixth Man is a lot more clear-cut in terms of the favorite and their competitors. 

There are certainly plenty of players that are having great seasons off the bench but, due to a variety of reasons, are out of contention for the award. Still, their play is deserving of recognition: Terrence Ross is averaging 15.5 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that has fallen out of playoff contention due to terrible injury luck. Montrezl Harrell, last year’s winner, has seen his numbers dip significantly with the Los Angeles Lakers this season — he’s still productive, but his 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game just won’t cut it this season. Tyrese Haliburton has been a surprise, but the rookie and his 13.2 points, 5.4 assists and 43.3 three-point percentage off the bench has been a bright spot for an otherwise bad Sacramento Kings squad.

That said, while they’ve performed well, none of those players — and many others — have a real chance to compete for the award. In fact, barring a major mixup in the season’s second half, the race to the award might come down to just three individuals.

3. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets are in the midst of what is currently the longest losing streak by any team this season. They’ve lost 13 in a row and have completely fallen out of the playoff picture. Houston’s poor record hurts Gordon’s case, but the 32-year-old is still putting up big numbers and, despite a hefty salary over the next few seasons, may even be a guy teams look to add at the trade deadline.

Gordon is averaging 17.8 points per game, the second-most by any bench player this season. He hasn’t been as consistent from beyond the three-point line as in years past, or when he won the award back in 2017, but Gordon’s still more than capable from distance and has been one of the league’s best at attacking the rim. Gordon has also provided some excellent on-ball defense.

Gordon has become a perennial candidate for the award — and for good reason. Still, at this point, it’s hard to justify him over the other two candidates in these rankings.

2. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

The opposite of a household name prior to the 2020-21 season, Boucher has burst onto the scene and been a revelation for the Toronto Raptors. His play has been a needed spark for a team that struggled mightily out of the gate but has since turned their season around. So far this season, Boucher has, by far, been Toronto’s most consistent and important big — and he’s been so despite the fact that he plays just 23.8 minutes per game.

Averaging 13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, Boucher has slid nicely into a role similar to what Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol fuflilled a season ago. And, despite a janky-jumper, Boucher has made his presence felt on the outside, hitting 44.5 percent of his 3.8 three-point attempts per game and clearing major space down low for Toronto’s offense.

In almost any other season, Boucher would have a strong case for the top spot on this list. But, as it stands, may not even garner any first place votes for the 2020-21 iteration of the award.

1. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz

Because Jordan Clarkson has just been that good.

This year’s runaway favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, there just aren’t many arguments that stand up to what Clarkson’s been able to do this season. He’s scoring the most of any candidate and doing so on great efficiency. Further, he’s proven the offensive fulcrum for the bench of the best team in the NBA.

Clarkson is averaging 17.9 points with a true shooting percetnage of 58.1 percent. He’s been consistent yet forceful offensive punch for the Jazz and their second unit, scoring in double digits in all but one of Utah’s games this season, including a 40-point outburst agaisnt the Philadelphia 76ers’ top-tier defense and 10 games with 20 or more. While All-Stars Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s success this season, Clarkson has also played an integral role.

Were the vote cast today, Clarkson’s selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award would likely be unanimous — again, he’s been that good. Utah recently gave him a four-year, $52 million deal and, if Clarkson can continue to play at this level, he’ll prove that deal a steal for the Jazz in short order.

For now, this is where the race to the Sixth Man of the Year award stands — but anything could happen in the second half of the season. With that in mind, keep on the lookout for Basketball Insiders’ next peek at the race.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Washington’s Positionless Rebuild

Drew Maresca explains why the Washington Wizards’ are closer to legitimacy than you might think

Drew Maresca

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Upon first glance, the Washington Wizards look like an absolute train wreck. They traded away a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick to swap out John Wall for Russell Westbrook – whose contract will haunt them through the end of 2022-23 – and they are on the verge of chasing away their 27-year-old, thirty-point per game scoring guard, Bradley Beal. So insert your “Washington can’t get their stuff together” comment here while you can, because the opportunity won’t be here for long.

Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth acknowledging that the Wizards have, in fact, botched the opportunity to build a winner around Beal thus far. But, when John Wall opted to have heal surgery and subsequently ruptured his Achilles, the door shut on that option, anyway.

There is an obvious silver lining – Beal is signed through the end of next season with a player option for 2022-23. Given what the Milwaukee Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday last offseason, one could assume that the Wizards would get more than enough to jump-start a rebuild in exchange for Beal.

But a look closer at Washington’s roster would reveal they’ve quietly laid a foundation for the future. Specifically, the Wizards’ last two lottery picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, embody position-less basketball, as versatile, highly skilled players who can be plugged into almost any lineup. Both were recently named to the Rising Star challenge — although it won’t be played due to inherent limitations in the arrangement of the 2021 All-Star Weekend, NBA coaches clearly agree. Sure, there’s international appeal given Hachimura’s Japanese background and Avdija’s Israeli heritage, which one could surmise was a major motivator in naming one or both to the team, but coaches aren’t known for playing politics.

So let’s take a closer look at the young Wizards hoping to lead Washington into the future.

Avdija is a top-flight, Israeli prospect who played on for EuroLeauge’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv – alongside former pros Amare Stoudemire and Omri Casspi – as a teenager for the past two seasons. He entered the NBA as a highly-touted playmaker, capable of playing and defending multiple positions. Somewhat surprisingly, Avdija fell to the Wizards with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, as he was rated as the fourth-best prospect by the Wizards’ front office prior to the draft, according to sources.

The comparisons between Avdija and Luka Doncic were inevitable, as both are big, point forward types with a flair for the dramatic. That put obvious pressure on the young forward and, while he’s struggled for much of his rookie season – Avdija is averaging just 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while connecting on 35.6% of his three-point attempts – his ceiling is obviously sky-high. He’s shown flashes of his greatness, like in a game in early March in which he recorded 10 points, 7 rebounds; or an early January game in which he collected 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Further, no one should be discouraged by Avdija’s struggles. First, he shot just 27.7% on three-point attempts last season in the EuroLeague – so his three-point percentage this season should come as a huge relief. Further, Avdija is averaging just 21.4 minutes per game, often deferring to Beal and Westbrook (and, to a lesser degree, Hachimura and Thomas Bryant). So, as much as everyone wanted him to be the next Doncic, the opportunity simply hasn’t been there.

But the potential is.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks explained some of what’s went wrong for Avdija’s thus far: “It’s normal to have some good moments and some tough moments. Every player, every single player in this league. I’m sure Michael [Jordan] had a couple of bad games in his rookie year. Every player. Russell [Westbrook], I coached him his rookie year. He’s had a handful.”

“Deni’s gonna be a good player,” Brooks continued. “For all the rookies in the league, it’s never happened where you had no Summer League, really no training camp and then with the safety protocol, he missed three weeks in the middle of the season. That’s hard to overcome.”

To Brooks’ point, the lack of preparation has definitely made the transition for Avdija even harder. What’s more, it’s not just Avdija who’s struggled; Obi Toppin (New York) and Devin Vassell (San Antonio), two of the more refined prospects, have also struggled to get carve out a consistent role.

Further, Avdija isn’t the first lanky foreigner who needed more than a third of a season to acclimate to the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie; Manu Ginobili averaged just 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game; Danilo Gallinari averaged just 6.1 points in 14.6 minutes per game. The list goes on.

Once he gets an actual opportunity, Avdija’s bandwagon should fill up quickly.

If Avdija is Washington’s future facilitator, then Hachimura is its finisher. And, while questions plague Avdija’s performance, Hachimura is being praised for his.

To be fair, Hachimura is farther along in his development, with one NBA season already under his belt (and three years at Gonzaga). Hachimura, already 23, is a bit more refined and it shows in his output: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists this season.

That said, a closer look at Hachimura’s play shows room for improvement – with a below league-average 12.9 PER and a 29.2% three-point percentage serving as his most glaring weaknesses. But, like with Avdija, the upside is clear as day. We’re talking about a second-year player who scored 15 or more points 11 times so far this season – just 26 games. He’s strong, polished and bouncier than advertised prior to the 2019 draft.

Further, a closer examination of his shooting numbers reveals that while his three-point shooting clearly needs work, his mid-range game is spot on. Hachimura is connecting on 41.2% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc – better than noted midrange expert Carmelo Anthony (37%) and just hair behind All-Star forward Jayson Tatum (42.9%).

But Hachimura’s offensive abilities have been known for what feels like forever, partially due to the ridiculously long 2019-20 season. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s continued to improve on the defensive end – so much so, in fact, that Brooks specifically called out his defensive development after a recent game.

But no one should be that surprised. Hachimura’s combination of speed and strength, along with his high motor, is tailor-made for defensive success. And, again, like Avdija, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura’s versatility is his major selling point. He boasts size, dexterity, touch and handle. And, while his skill set has become far more common in the NBA, plug-and-play guys of Hachimura’s build are still relatively rare. And, most importantly, they allow teams to get creative in roster construction, enabling the addition of players whose deficiencies could be covered up by players like Hachimura.

Ultimately, neither Avdija nor Hachimura is a guarantee. Both possess serious upside and could grow into perennial All-Stars, but neither is a sure thing. Their attitudes and approaches will be a major determining factor in their success, or lack thereof.

The Wizards could look very different as soon as next season. But, as of now, Washington looks ready to tackle its rebuild — and, between these two, they may already have a headstart.

Blink and you might just miss their entire rebuild.

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