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Fixing the Golden State Warriors

In the wake of firing Mark Jackson, what can the Warriors do to become true contenders next season and beyond?

Nate Duncan

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The Golden State Warriors have seen quite a bit of upheaval during the last 12 months. A year ago, they were the darlings of the league after an electric upset of the Denver Nuggets. Since then, they (rightly) let Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack go, then acquired Andre Iguodala in a sign-and-trade that was enabled by the trade of 2014 and 2017 first round picks to the Utah Jazz.

Yet after a 51-win regular season and a hard-fought first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors have fired head coach Mark Jackson with one year remaining on his contract. Whether that was a wise decision remains to be seen, but with Jackson’s firing the pressure is now squarely on management to nail their next coaching hire and improve the personnel. And, as we shall see, the pressure is also going to be on owner Joe Lacob and his ownership group to open their wallets to maximize this team’s odds at a championship. Here’s what the Warriors should do moving forward:

Evaluate The Team

Warriors management has to determine whether it thinks this can be a championship core at some point in the future. A fairly obvious first step, right? As General Manager Bob Myers said to me earlier in the year, “The end goal is and will always remain winning championships and doing it over as long of a period of time as you can.”

How close the Warriors are must be determined so that management can figure out whether it should work on alleviating the weaknesses around this core or if major changes need to be made. But answering that question may be more difficult for this Warriors team than for any other good team in recent NBA history.

On one hand, the team made the playoffs for the second straight year, an unprecedented development for the franchise in the past 20 years. They improved from 47 wins to 51 wins, and perhaps more importantly from 44 “expected wins”* to 54 this year.* The team’s plus 5.4 net rating was sixth in the NBA, and the defense improved all the way to third in points allowed per possession. From a statistical perspective, this was a team that was a fringe championship contender. One could argue that the team very well might have defeated the Clippers had Andrew Bogut been healthy in the first round, or even if they had one more dependable athletic big man to replace him.

*The number of wins predicted by their point differential.

On the other hand, the team was still merely the number six seed in the West for the second straight year, and did not advance a round as it did last season. The team blew a number of winnable games against inferior opponents at home during the year that perhaps cost them a chance at the top half of the Western Conference bracket. Only a few of the more analytical writers even mentioned the possibility that the Warriors could be a championship dark horse even in their best stretches during the year. Even with a healthy Bogut it is nearly impossible to imagine the Warriors navigating through the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs without homecourt advantage this season. And perhaps the only reasons that first round series was so close were the Clippers’ distraction from the Donald Sterling affair and Chris Paul’s balky hamstring.

Whichever view you take, it seems clear the team was not quite a championship contender this year. Is this core likely to become so in the future? Stephen Curry had another healthy year and emerged as certainly a top-10 and possibly even top-five player in the NBA. Draymond Green emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the league and vastly improved on what was a sub-replacement level season offensively a year ago to become a very solid role player. He can improve even further by becoming more of a knock down shooter. Klay Thompson improved to become a better on-ball defender and finally began to diversify his shooting-based game with more passing and drives to the basket as the year ended, though his overall season and playoff statistics still suffered from a dearth of assists, rebounds and free throws. It is also worth noting that Green and Thompson basically never get hurt. Meanwhile, former lottery pick Harrison Barnes regressed from what was a middling rookie season, posting terrible efficiency on well below-average usage. Barnes was talked about as a future star after last year’s playoffs*, but at this point his only true merits are shooting standstill threes and playing above-average defense. Nevertheless, at only 22 years old, Barnes does have the skillset to develop into a reasonable three and D wing who could come off the bench or start in a pinch.

*Surprisingly, given the fact he had a mere 13.8 PER even in the playoffs, which was by far his apex for the year.

NBA players generally hit their primes between 25 and 27, although there is some evidence that superstars may peak slightly later. So that is it for Warriors mainstays who are likely to improve next year. Andrew Bogut (30 next year), Andre Iguodala (31) and David Lee (32) are now at the point where they will begin declining. All three struggled with nagging injuries this year.

Lee has looked athletically overmatched of late, especially against the Clippers. He may have to transition into a role as bench scorer as early as next season, as he is going to struggle to score one on one against the league’s more athletic players and he lacks the athleticism to make a positive impact on defense or the boards. Iguodala, while he rated very well by advanced plus minus metrics, averaged a mere 10.4 points per 36 minutes. He could well decline to an unacceptable individual level offensively very quickly, and while he was a great team defender his ability to lock down great scorers is already on the wane. Bogut should hold up a bit better over time due to his size, but injury is an ever-present risk for him.

Therefore, it seems likely that among this core, improvement from the young guys will be countered by decline from the older guys, resulting in a similar performance from those players overall during the next few years. It is possible that one of the younger players breaks out to lift the core to new heights, but equally possible one of the older players drops off the map completely.

It is understandable that Warriors fans are shocked at the dismissal of Jackson. They just watched their best team since 1976, when Rick Barry brought a team that won the 1975 championship to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in seven.*

*That was a series in which it was alleged that Barry refused to shoot for much of Game 7 because his teammates did not come to his defense in a fight.

But the fact that the team has a terrible history is irrelevant to the team’s future goals of competing for a championship. Since this year’s core was not good enough to win one, and should play about the same going forward, it is clear that changes will need to be made.  Unfortunately, the team went close to all-in with the trade of two future draft picks, and contracts for Bogut and Iguodala that last until 2017. And Barnes’ value has decreased mightily since his playoff heights last season.  Therefore, the options are relatively limited for making massive improvements. Nevertheless, there are a few paths open to the Warriors.

Be Willing to Spend Big. Now.

In the modern NBA, no discussion of a team’s plans can be complete without a discussion of its finances. The Warriors have approximately $65 million in salary commitments to 11 players under contract for next year assuming Green is retained, as he will be since his $916,000 non-guaranteed salary is preposterously cheap for his production. That is over the projected* $63 million salary cap , but well under the projected $77 million luxury tax and, more importantly, the projected $81 million “apron,” over which transactions such as sign-and-trades and use of salary exceptions become quite limited.

*Those 11: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut, Barnes, Green, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. This assumes the Warriors do not extend Jordan Crawford a $3.2 million qualifying offer to retain the rights to match any contract offered to him as a restricted free agent.

These figures are higher than was originally believed, a fact that could become very useful for the Warriors given the availability of a $9.8 million trade exception left over from Richard Jefferson’s trade to the Jazz last summer (which must be used prior to July 10) and the $5.3 million mid-level exception (MLE).* These exceptions can be used piecemeal, but cannot be aggregated. However, the trade exception could potentially be used to essentially “sign” a free agent for up to $9.8 million, assuming his prior team could be persuaded to assist via sign-and-trade.** The Warriors could also include sweeteners like their 2015 first-round pick (which can dealt after the draft) or perhaps Barnes to entice a team to trade a player into the exception as well, likely an overpaid but still-productive player already under contract from a team looking to dump salary.

*It should be noted that using the mid-level exception or receiving a player in sign-and-trade would result in the Warriors being hard-capped at the $81 million apron for 2014-15.

**If a free agent’s prior team believes the player will depart regardless, it will often agree to a sign- and-trade to obtain a trade exception and/or a middling future draft pick, such as the Bucks in the J.J. Redick sign-and-trade last summer.

However, the upshot of using these two exceptions to improve the team means that the Warriors would almost certainly pay luxury tax next year, as taking on $14.1 million in salary would put the Warriors at about $79 million for 13 players. The team might also merely dump unproductive guaranteed players like Kuzmic and Nedovic to free up a little more room, but avoiding the tax could prove difficult. Next year, they would only be at most $4 million over the tax, resulting in luxury tax payments of up $6 million and further costs in foregoing the tax revenues distributed by the league to non-taxpaying teams.

The luxury tax chickens would really come home to roost the next year, assuming whomever were added via the MLE or trade exception had multi-year contracts. Green will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, and Thompson will be if he and the team do not agree on a lucrative extension this offseason (which would kick in for 2015-16). Those two players could command up to $15 million combined in annual salary, if not more. That could push the team salary to $95 million or more in 2015-16, about $15 million over the projected luxury tax for that year. That would mean that the Warriors would be paying approximately $95 million in salary plus another approximately $28.75 million in luxury tax in 2015-16 for a year until Lee’s contract expired in the summer of 2016.* The team could also try to bribe a rebuilding team to take Lee’s contract to minimize the tax payments, as he probably will not be particularly useful by then. After that, the bill would become manageable again until the expiration of Curry, Bogut and Iguodala in the summer of 2017 would enable a major makeover.

*For nerds, the formula: $1.50/$1 for the first $5 million over the tax, then $1.75/$1 for the next $5 million, then $2.50/$1 for the next $5 million, $3.25/$1 for the next $5 million, and then increasing by $0.50/$1 for every additional $5 million after that.

It is not necessarily the case that players acquired with these two exceptions must have multi-year contracts, but the better they are the more likely they are to demand them. With big new contracts for Green and Thompson looming, the Warriors will not be able to add any significant free agents after this summer until 2017, as their new contracts plus the current core alone would put the Warriors into the tax and close to the apron. The time to strike must be this summer.

Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob has made key changes to what was once a downtrodden franchise. He is is obsessed with winning to the point of putting enormous pressure on management and the coaching staff. Will he and his partners sacrifice profits to maximize the team’s chance to win as Curry enters his prime? And how much in profits are they willing to sacrifice?

Hire a Great Coach

The Warriors are certainly taking a risk in firing Jackson, who despite his other foibles succeeded in getting his players to defend and to play together. These are perhaps the two primary jobs for an NBA coach. Some have argued that Jackson is not really responsible for the solid defense, pointing to the systems implemented by former assistants Mike Malone and Darren Erman and the intelligence of the players on the roster as the primary impetus. But the fact remains that the team defended at an elite level in last year’s playoffs and all season this year with Jackson, and we don’t know whether they will for another coach.

The good news is that Golden State has the best talent on hand of any opening, unless Oklahoma City were to falter and relieve Scott Brooks. With great fans, a wonderful community and (hopefully) ownership committed to spend, Lacob, Myers and company should be able to lure the best candidate on the market. Evaluating coaches who have not been head men before is very difficult, but winning coaches such as Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni are available. However, both have had their personality clashes and dysfunction at previous stops with both management and players, which could make management gun-shy about pulling the trigger on those coaches. Steve Kerr has also been discussed; from a personality standpoint he is nearly as beloved a figure as exists in the NBA today. He has solid NBA experience as a GM with the Phoenix Suns, but has never coached. He, like all first-time head coaches, would represent a risk as well.

For my money, I would roll the dice with Van Gundy were he willing. He has shown the ability to coach excellent defenses and got more out of his teams in Orlando than anyone had a right to.

Kick the Tires on a Big Move With David Lee

Of all the Warriors players, Lee is likely the worst fit going forward unless he somehow learns to shoot threes at age 32. Given his odd shooting form, which does not particularly utilize his legs, that seems unlikely. Lee is a big salary and overpaid at this point, but he could possibly be traded for a player signed to a four-year deal last summer if his current team has buyer’s remorse. Barnes could also potentially be added to complete the deal if negotiations so require.

The perfect example of such a player is Josh Smith.* Smith was awful for the Pistons, compiling his worst statistics in years while playing out of position at the three and taking jumpers far too frequently and inaccurately. Lee was undeniably better last year. But Smith is much younger, and is excellent defensively when playing the four in the right system. His presence would make the Warriors absolutely impossible to score on, as they could switch everything from the two through four positions and protect the rim with Smith and Bogut. With room to operate as a four, Smith would also make a nice pick-and-roll partner with Curry and could take bigger fours off the dribble. He and Iguodala would also be terrors in transition. And Smith wouldn’t need to take nearly as many jumpers on a team with Curry and Thompson as shooters around him.

*Would the Pistons do this trade? That depends what their as yet unnamed GM thinks of Barnes, what happens with restricted free agent Greg Monroe and whether they think Smith is salvageable. If Monroe returns, then the Pistons would be unlikely to accept Lee.

Smith would be a risk, but he has much more upside if the cost is only Lee and possibly Barnes. Financially, there is little cost in flexibility since Smith’s contract will expire along with nearly everyone else’s after 2017, although the Warriors would be looking at another year of potentially hefty tax payments in 2016-17 since Smith’s contract is a year longer than Lee’s.

This sort of trade would not have to happen for Smith necessarily, but it gives an example of what the Warriors could do with Lee. The Warriors’ management has proved very creative in the past with the Iguodala, Crawford and Blake deals, so one can be certain they will exhaust all possible avenues.

Address the Offense off the Bench

Regardless of whether Lee or someone else is the starting power forward, the Warriors’ biggest regular season weakness was offense off the bench. The team scored a top-five rate with Curry in the game, but cratered to near league-worst levels when he was out. Barnes and Crawford were tried in the role of bench creator, but neither was any good during the regular year. Armed with the MLE and the Jefferson trade exception, the Warriors might acquire one or more of the following free agents to handle the ball and/or create offense from the bench:

Vince Carter
Devin Harris
Darren Collison
Xavier Henry
Mike Miller
D.J. Augustin
Patty Mills
Greivis Vasquez

I am partial to Mills and Vasquez of that group. Vasquez in particular could play with Curry and guard less threatening wing players with Thompson, Iguodala and Green available to take on tougher threats. Another option would be trading for an overpaid player that another team doesn’t want to fill this role.

Acquire a Two-Way Third Big Man

While the Warriors got a wonderful performance from Jermaine O’Neal considering his age, he is a free agent and also lacks the mobility, explosion and/or shooting the Warriors would ideally have in a big off the bench. Marreese Speights can score on occasion, but kills the defense due to his lack of awareness and failures to execute the scheme.

Ezeli missed all of 2013-14 with a knee injury. His absence was pointed to as a reason for the struggles of the second unit, but Ezeli seemed like a player best suited as a third center even before the injury. Although he started at times in 2012-13, he had only a 9.3 PER and somehow had a .467 TS% despite using only 10 percent of the team’s possessions and never shooting outside of five feet. He also has horrendous hands. Ezeli is a force blocking shots and on the boards, but has so many offensive limitations that he is unlikely to be a player worthy of major playing time going forward.

Therefore, a true two-way big man is needed, especially considering that Andrew Bogut’s minutes will likely continue to be limited during the regular season. Not all of these players fit the bill, but available free agents include:

Spencer Hawes
Channing Frye
Ekpe Udoh (restricted)
Boris Diaw
Emeka Okafor
Chris Andersen (player option)

Hawes and Frye would be particularly deadly with their shooting ability, although either would likely command a high enough salary that the Warriors would have to dip into the trade exception and secure the assistance of the Cavs or Suns to get that done.

Develop the Young Talent

We touched on the need for Thompson to diversify his game. If he can become more of a threat posting up, coming off screens and playmaking for others on such plays, he could play with the second unit and alleviate some of the scoring woes. And there should still be some (if not much) hope for Barnes to become a quality scorer, as he has shown flashes such as a 30-point performance in the meaningless season finale in Denver. He supposedly has dominated in practice at times, so perhaps another offseason and a new coaching staff can unlock his talent. While I do not believe he will ever have the quickness and moves to score efficiently against real wing defenders, perhaps amazing development could prove me wrong.

Speights, while he has defensive issues, could become a real bench weapon if he turns more of his two-point jumpers into threes. He flashed that kind of range at times during the year, so it is possible. He is under contract for two more years, so the Warriors need to do what they can to maximize his effectiveness.

It is hard to imagine how Curry could improve on his skills, but he could at least serve to cut down on his turnovers through better decision-making.  He could also stand to get stronger to avoid being bumped off his path by stronger guards and provide at least some modicum of resistance when he is posted up on switches.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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 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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