The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the 2019-20 campaign with a whole bunch of questions. There’s new head coach John Beilein coming in to take hold of the team’s direction and a trio of rookies being added to the mix of – for the most part – a youthful group of guys looking to make the most of the opportunities presented to them.
On the player and coaching front, this will be a season of development and growth more than one set out on the final results, though we will probably see the maturation over the course of the year. At the end of the day, this team is likely lottery-bound once more, but the players in the locker room want to show that they’re for real and can get into the postseason picture. Unfortunately, they’ll have their work cut out for them in a quickly improving Central Division.
One year removed from the start of another project without LeBron James, let’s see where this new era of Cavaliers basketball is headed.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Cavaliers are still in the beginning phase of a rebuild. They haven’t identified a go-to player around whom a playoff team can be built. They do have some nice young pieces; however, there is some redundancy in their rotation. First-year head coach John Beilein will have his hands full in trying to identify which point guard – Brandon Knight, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland – will be their lead guard of this year and the future. Ultimately though, the narrative of the season in Cleveland will be what they do with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. But to be clear, the Cavaliers are making strides, but there’s a lot of rebuilding left to do.
5th place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Cavaliers had themselves a solid draft night. They picked up a few intriguing players in Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler. One of the biggest question marks heading into the season is can Garland coexist in the backcourt with Collin Sexton? Both are undersized guards who aren’t really true playmakers. Expect to see new head coach John Beilein experiment with that pairing this season. This team is clearly in full rebuild, so don’t be surprised if Kevin Love’s name comes up in trade talks quite often. It’s going to be another tough year for the Cavaliers, but the name of the game for them is development. If the younger guys show improvement and consistency throughout the year, it will be a successful season for Cleveland.
5th Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
It was difficult to watch the half-LeBron, half-young-guy roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers last year. The remnants of the championship years were frustrated and it wasn’t helping the player development side of things, so the team underwent major changes throughout the season. This one coming up is essentially a clean slate under head coach John Beilein and a trio of rookies joining Kevin Love. There will be plenty of ups and downs with an extremely inexperienced bunch collectively but, at worst, they’ll push forward in the culture shift focusing on growing their young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, amongst others. Unfortunately for them, the wins won’t come easily and that will show with a second straight ending in the Central Division.
5th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Cleveland Cavaliers are somewhat in limbo with an expensive roster and insufficient talent to be a viable playoff team. However, outside of Kevin Love, the Cavaliers’ other big contracts either expire after this upcoming season or decline each year moving forward (as is the case for Larry Nance Jr.). Thus, the main focus right now is adding assets and young prospects and building a culture that the players can develop in effectively. The Cavaliers, despite some mixed opinions, added some nice prospects in this year’s draft. Cleveland drafted Darius Garland (5th), Dylan Windler (26th) and traded 2020, 2021, 2023 and 2024 second-rounders and $5 million to the Detroit Pistons for the rights to Kevin Porter Jr. (30th). Garland plays the same position as Collin Sexton, whom Cleveland drafted eighth overall in last year’s draft. However, I am a firm believer in drafting the best talent available even if there is some overlap on the roster, so I am generally a fan of this move. This season is mostly a bridge to next year when Cleveland gets a lot more flexibility and another year of development for their younger players.
5th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Cavaliers are in a rebuild, and rebuilds suck.
The upcoming season for Cavaliers fans will likely be more about watching Darius Garland and Collin Sexton figure each other out, more so than anything meaningful in the win-loss column. Sure there are veterans on the roster that have been to the NBA Finals, like Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, but neither are going to anchor Cleveland as a playoff contender — it’s more likely they play themselves into trade bait. That’s just the sad reality of the rebuild.
The good news is that Love and Thompson may return value in a trade, same as veteran John Henson, who is on an expiring deal. As the Cavaliers try to re-make themselves, how much those veterans return will tell the story of how long the rebuild will take, especially if the Garland/Sexton pairing is more like John Wall/Bradley Beal than Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum.
5th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Cavaliers have whittled down their salary for the 2019-20 season below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line. Provided the team stays below, they’ll reset their repeater tax clock (earned from massive payrolls through the more recent LeBron James era). That means they’ll probably leave their exceptions unused (Mid-Level, Bi-Annual and a few small trade exceptions).
Cleveland is not a contender this season, which probably makes several expiring veterans available in trade (or bought out later in the season) like Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matt Dellavedova. The team still owes $120.4 million to Kevin Love. While the Cavaliers may find a market for the former All-Star in a trade, not every team will be able to easily match his $28.9 million in salary for 2019-20.
Collin Sexton and Ante Zizic have team options for the 2020-21 season that need to be picked up before the start of November. Cedi Osman is eligible for a contract extension, at least until the season begins.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love
There isn’t any question as to who the go-to guy is for the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor is there a question about who this team’s leader is. Kevin Love’s impact on the games themselves and the young players around him was clear in the overall confidence of the group, as the wine and gold won seven games between mid-February and mid-March. He helped instill self-belief in rookie Collin Sexton and an inexperienced Cedi Osman, while also providing the spacing necessary for each player’s success.
Love’s value comes from forcing opposing big men out to the perimeter to clear the lane for Cleveland’s offense to operate. Whoever initiates the offense will be able to attack the basket, leaving a choice to either finish, draw a foul or kick it out for a shot. There wasn’t much good from that last season with a lack of shooting, but Love certainly shined as of the few who consistently converted on those opportunities. He also showed a versatile side as an impressive passer when the Cavaliers utilized the inside-out game by playing through the post. It will be interesting to see how head coach John Beilein takes advantage of the 31-year-old’s talented skill set.
Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.
Today’s NBA requires adaptability on both ends of the floor. Larry Nance Jr. is the furthest thing from a one-trick pony. With a wide wingspan and impressive mobility, it really is a matchup nightmare for anybody he defends. Against guards on the perimeter, he’s quick and steady. In the paint versus bigs, he’s strong and has a nose for the ball, evidenced by his 2.8 percent steal percentage last season, good for fourth-best in the league.
What isn’t said enough about Nance’s activity on the defensive end and on the glass is how smoothly it starts transition opportunities. He’s crashing the boards after misses to immediately outlet the ball, or he’ll force a turnover and bring it up himself. We’ve seen flashes of his shot-blocking capabilities, too, but the rim protection and use of verticality are certainly improving.
Top Playmaker: Larry Nance Jr.
While the term Swiss Army knife may be cliche, it’s probably the most fitting to describe Nance. We knew how much potential was there when we watched him play in Los Angeles, yet we didn’t know how many different areas of the game he could affect. He got the opportunity last year to expand his game, and he did not disappoint.
With Nance assuming the role of point forward, Cleveland often played through the middle. He would get the ball at the top of the key, where guards and wings would cut either behind or in front of him. Palming the ball high with one hand, he’d typically find a teammate off ball by the rim with a flashy pass. If there wasn’t a lane, he’d settle for a dribble hand-off and set a pseudo-screen to open up a look just long enough for the shooter on the receiving end. With a few more three-ballers added to the mix now, Nance’s ability to make plays will be a key asset to Beilein.
Top Clutch Player: Collin Sexton
Perhaps the most endearing quality about Sexton is his refusal to quit. Time and time again last year, there were plenty of moments in which he could’ve thrown in the towel. He never did. His work ethic didn’t allow him to. He’d be out on the floor two hours before every game – studying film, working with assistant coaches and shooting with the two-way contract players and G-League guys. It’s pretty rare for a lottery pick, the former eighth overall selection in an NBA Draft, to go to such lengths to improve.
Those hours of work showed up in games, especially in crunch time. It’s like Avery Johnson, Sexton’s former coach at Alabama, told the media – he just loves when the lights are brightest. Last year’s Cavaliers’ coaching staff fawned over the rookie’s marked improvement in shot selection and decision-making down the stretch. His 70 percent three-point conversion rate in the clutch partially shows it, but it’s really the fearlessness of having the ball in his hands and the progression of making the right play that stands out here.
The Unheralded Player: Ante Zizic
Isn’t it curious that when people bring up who won the Kyrie Irving – Isaiah Thomas trade, they usually forget that Ante Zizic was a part of the deal? This is a man who was picked 23rd overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. All it takes for somebody to gain some confidence is a little playing time. With injuries to Love and a fluctuating roster, the Croatian center received an opportunity. He didn’t let it go by the wayside.
In essentially his first season (he sporadically played in 2017-18), Zizic put his footwork on display with his back to the basket. More often times than not, he’d have a feathery touch on his jump-hook shot and showed he could work the pick-and-pop game from mid-range. He’s got to work on conditioning, his foot speed still needs to get better and his reactions defensively must be sharper, but we’ve got to remember Zizic is only 22 years old. Cleveland has an intriguing young talent on its hands.
Best New Addition: Darius Garland
The Cavaliers desperately needed anything and everything to accelerate this organization’s rebuild from a talent standpoint. Drafting Darius Garland and two more dynamic rookies only adds to that pool and, for the Vanderbilt standout, could give him the keys to the castle. Beilein and his coaching staff are envisioning a dual-guard set between Garland and Sexton a la Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland.
Both will be able to handle the ball and orchestrate the offense. Vice versa, the two backcourt partners will play off the ball and switch roles when necessary. Following his introductory presser at Cleveland Clinic Courts, a league source raved over Garland’s potential. If his track record before his short college stay translates to the pros, there’s a bright future in store for him.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Cedi Osman
Elected to the Rising Stars Game at NBA All-Star Weekend this past year, Osman was another young player that exhibited the advancement in his development. Thrust into the starting forward role right away, there were ups and downs partially due to playing out of position. When Love was hurt, then-head coach Larry Drew played him up a slot at power forward, where he was often overpowered and outmatched on the defensive end.
However, it was a good learning experience for the Turkish swingman to reveal the hardships of being depended on night-in and night-out with a rigorous schedule. He pushed through and, like Sexton, passed with flying colors when playing with a healthy roster. Per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, here’s the most notable stat regarding Osman: His points per game average increased by 8.1, the second-most in the NBA from 2017-18 to ‘18-19 – right behind Pascal Siakam, the Association’s Most Improved Player.
According to Fedor, the Cavaliers and Osman have had preliminary talks regarding a contract extension, but the 24-year-old’s main priority at the moment is representing Turkey in the FIBA World Cup.
2. Tristan Thompson
Though he only played for a bit over half of the season total, Tristan Thompson had a career year. It was the first campaign that the veteran big man put together a double-double average, proving to the masses how skilled he has always been if not for the setbacks and injuries. Before any of that, he’d been Cleveland’s iron man to always make the hustle plays, pull down the big-time rebounds, throw down high handoffs and bring the energy. We saw that version of Double T last season. With a contract year coming up, it’s likely he’ll turn on the jets even more – regardless of whether he remains with the team that drafted him or not.
3. Jordan Clarkson
It’s understandable that little attention was paid to the Cavaliers last year, so not too many basketball enthusiasts saw the display Jordan Clarkson put forth as a sixth man. When you look at the totals – a career best 16.8 points per game – it was arguably his best season as a pro yet. The instant offense is the name of JC’s game. He’s as streaky as they come, but when he gets it going, he turns into a microwave at the snap of a finger. Although when he doesn’t have it going, there’s a lot of forcing and bad possessions. It’s just the type of player he is. Similar to Thompson, Clarkson is entering a contract year and could draw plenty of interest around the league from those teams in need of bench help. If he continues to pack a powerful punch off the pine, Cleveland could receive an offer it can’t refuse. We’ll see if general manager Koby Altman decides to hang on to him.
4. Kevin Porter Jr.
The wine-and-gold brass is such a believer in Kevin Porter Jr. that the franchise bought the 30th overall pick for a league-record $5 million in addition to trading four second-round picks to the Milwaukee Bucks. 2018’s Mr. Basketball in Washington has a multitude of tools in his bag. It’s getting the 19-year-old to focus and hone in on being a professional that will be the challenge – for both sides. According to Chris Fedor, the Cavaliers saw Porter as a top-10 talent. If their talent evaluators turn out to be right, this could be a steal of an addition.
5. Dylan Windler
The first of two late first-round picks, Dylan Windler is a sort of “do everything” player. He can pull up from distance, pass the ball to set up teammates and sniff the ball out on both sides of the court. With an unorthodox style of ambidextrousness, Windler could earn advantageous situations by keeping defenses on their toes. The shot’s going up lefty, but he’s right-hand dominant, can make plays with both hands and is always around the rim looking to find extra possessions for his team.
– Spencer Davies
Cap guy Eric Pincus already addressed this surely, but how about the job Koby Altman has done in just two years of work? He started a rebuilding process halfway through LeBron James’ last season in Cleveland and continued it further a year ago. The road map from what he’s acquired and sent out, plus what those moves have turned into in the present, deserves more praise than he’s gotten — especially with the fact that the team is now under the luxury tax amount. Asset accumulation mode has been prioritized in the last year or so, and that won’t be changing in the upcoming season.
The Cavaliers have a boatload of expiring deals – Tristan Thompson ($18.5M), Brandon Knight ($15.6M), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4M), John Henson ($9.7M) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6M) – and that could lead to even more draft capital in the future. It’d be hard to see every one of those players traded, but there’s little chance Altman doesn’t strike when the iron is hot with at least two of these valuable contract assets. And that’ll open up floor time for the younger players and potentially affect the long term picture in a positive manner.
– Spencer Davies
The inexperience on and off the floor is quite concerning. You can argue how much better the team is from the “on-paper” perspective. Until we see it in action, what can we really say? John Beilein hasn’t coached in an NBA game and he’s an integral part of pacing a rebuild with a bunch of young pieces. This roster currently has nine players with four years of experience or less, four of which are rookies and three of them have two or less. Now, having the players who have seen the floor time and been through the wringer is huge leadership-wise – but this combination of a lack of exposure to the pro level between the head coach and the team is something the Cavaliers will have to go through together.
Defensive breakdowns were maddening a season ago, so we’ll see if the staff addresses that first and foremost. Shooting, obviously, was not the strong suit of this squad either, but new personnel could help change that trend. An overlooked element in all of this to keep an eye on – staying healthy. It just seems like the injury bug bites just a little harder than most in The Land. It screws up rotations, makes things more difficult and demands adjustments.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
Does Kevin Love Get Traded Away?
For most pundits and national news outlets, we’ve seen “Trade Kevin Love?” float about since he came to Cleveland. Most of the time, it’s been a clickbait headline in an effort to get a rise out of people. This offseason, it’s been a legitimate inquiry.
Love is a hot commodity at the moment. When he is on the floor, his impact on the game supersedes most stretch bigs around the league. He cans three-pointers, hits the glass hard and has an All-Star-level skill set — and, best of all, he’s in the best shape of his life. There’s plenty left in the tank. The phone is going to be ringing in Koby Altman’s office early and often. The Cavaliers know where they are in their timeline and, obviously, know where Love is in his. The obvious answer to the question of whether he is moved should be a defiant “yes.”
However, it’s more complicated than that. Love has a hefty contract that goes through 2022-23 and will require a ton of salary to match it in a potential deal. There are also questions of whether or not that price is worth it for some teams hesitant about his injury history. On the other side of the spectrum, the Cavaliers likely won’t be “shopping” Love. He’s the face of the franchise right now. His locker room leadership is invaluable. He signed a lengthy extension last summer knowing the road ahead might be rocky.
Love won’t be one to complain behind-the-scenes to force his way out. He’s been nothing but the consummate professional since his arrival, and that’s not going to change. In fact, he’s already got a team mini-camp planned out in New York prior to training camp.
The only way Cleveland sends Love packing is if a team comes with a home run offer. There’s a reluctance in the front office to part ways with him not only because of his meaning to the franchise but also because there may not be an offer deemed good enough to get the proper return on his value.
Where that ultimately leaves the Cavaliers in 2019-20, we can only wait and see for now.
– Spencer Davies
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.