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Growing Pains or Are the Bulls in Trouble?

Do Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah trust Fred Hoiberg? It doesn’t seem like it, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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I don’t envy Fred Hoiberg. He, like Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City, walked into a situation where he was inheriting a team that, relative to expectations, has mostly underachieved over the past few years.

Particularly when many of the team’s star players rose to prominence under the predecessor — Tom Thibodeau in this case — the newbie faces an uphill battle as it relates to earning the respect and affection of his team.

To this point, Hoiberg does not seem to have excelled.

“You have to stick to your principles,” a noticeably frustrated Joakim Noah said after the Chicago Bulls recently lost to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Apparently, so does his head coach.

* * * * *

The NBA season is long. It’s filled with ups and downs, and frustration gets the best of even the coolest customers. But after mulling about the Bulls’ locker room recently—even before I learned of Jimmy Butler calling out his head coach—something seemed “off” to me about the team.

As a team, they didn’t seem happy or at ease. Over the years, they had endured injuries and shortcomings, but one thing that was never in question about these Bulls was their unity and toughness.

I will always remember a one-on-one conversation I had with Butler at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center during the 2013-14 season. Butler has begun making a name for himself as one of the premier up-InsideJimmyButlerand-coming wing players in the league. During that talk, nothing controversial was said, but I do keenly remember Butler saying that the key to Thibodeau’s success was that he had one standard that he applied across the board to each and every player.

So when I hear Butler—a player whom I know to be both honest and down to earth—cite frustration with his coach being too “laid back” and not “getting on guys,” it concerns me.

And when I stand shoulder to shoulder with Joakim Noah and see him give one word answers to any and every question that could be interpreted as him putting himself and his demotion above his team, I knew that something was up.

The Bulls enter play on December 22 with a 15-11 record and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. They also enter play having lost three consecutive games and as a team that, to me, appeared nothing like the tough-nosed bruisers that they were under Thibodeau.

Noah was once heralded as one of the most versatile frontcourt players in the entire NBA. As he closes in on his 31st birthday, he has seemingly fallen victim to attrition. Since playing a career-high 37 minutes per game during the 2012-13 season, Noah has had trouble remaining at or near 100 percent so much so that the brass in Chicago thought it prudent to put him a on 32 minutes per game restriction for the duration of the 2014-15 season.

Meanwhile, as Thibodeau’s relationship with the front office frayed, whispers of Thibodeau’s supposed shortcomings as a head coach—his offense—grew louder.

After assuming the helm, Hoiberg, as many other coaches would probably do in his situation, opted to remove Noah from the starting lineup in favor of the impressive sophomore Nikola Mirotic. It was the quintessential trade of offense for defense, but in the process, Hoiberg may have lost the heart and soul of his team. That would be Butler, and yes, Noah. Even a hobbled Noah.

When asked what was wrong with the Bulls, Noah cited the team’s defense.

“Just the little things, guarding pick-and-rolls, stuff like that,” Noah said when asked specifically what has gotten into—or away from—this group.

Do you think Thibodeau would have ever benched Noah in favor of Mirotic? Do you think he would apply different standards to different players and fail to find a way to mesh Butler’s still-improving ability to single-handedly carry a team with Derrick Rose’s desire to prove that he can revert to his pre-injury form?

I don’t, and it’s pretty obvious that Butler doesn’t either.

For a team with so much talent, still so much untapped potential and premonitions of grandeur, a rookie head coach can quickly find himself in an unenviable predicament. Of course, Erik Spoelstra (though not a rookie at the time), David Blatt and Steve Kerr once faced similar circumstances and the latter two just so happened to square off in the Finals as a pair of rookie head coaches this past year.

Hoiberg would like to meet the same fate, but at this point, both figuratively and literally, without Thibodeau, the Bulls are much closer to the draft lottery than they are to the top of the Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Is Starting That Big Of A Deal?

It’s easy to conclude that a bench player should replace a starter in the lineup if the former is outplaying the latter, but Matt John explains why that may not be the best idea.

Matt John

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Of all the topsy-turvy things that have happened to the Boston Celtics this season, Jaylen Brown’s sudden decline and subsequent comeback might just be the topsiest-turviest thing of them all.

And that’s saying something.

There may not have been a starter in the league who played as badly as he did when the season began. In his first month and a half as the starting shooting guard, Jaylen averaged 11.1 points on 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 25.3 percent from three. That was quite the drop off from his numbers the previous season, where he averaged 14.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent from three.

Advanced metrics showed that Brown’s struggles were hurting the Celtics too. Boston was minus-11.9 with Brown on the floor, which was the worst on the team among players who played at least 100 minutes. By December, Brown was benched in favor of Marcus Smart, where the Celtics not so coincidentally started picking things up from there.

Since his move to the bench, Jaylen has regained his footing, averaging 14 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting and 36.3 percent from three. This most recent stretch has been really encouraging for him, as he’s put up 16.4 points a night on 49.5 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from three. Best of all, his play is benefitting the Celtics, as they are plus-6.9 with him on the floor, good for third-best among players who have played 97 or more minutes behind only Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.

His timing couldn’t be better, as the playoffs are just around the corner. Brown playing his best basketball of the season could really help the Celtics’ chances. So one question remains – why not put him back in the starting lineup?

It would make sense. The uptick in Brown’s production has coincided with the diminishment of Marcus Morris’ production.

Morris and Brown have come from opposite ends this summer. While Brown has worked his way up after falling so far down, Morris has descended quite a bit since his brilliant start.

“Mook” was playing the best basketball of his career when the season began. In fact, he was one of the few positives in a season that started as underwhelmingly mediocre as the Celtics had. Through the first two-and-a-half months, Morris was playing like a borderline all-star.

In that time, Morris averaged 15.5 points on 50.1 percent shooting and 44.1 percent from three. The Celtics were plus-5.5 with Morris on the floor, with all of the positivity coming from the offensive end, where the offense was plus-11.6 with him on the floor, second only to Kyrie Irving.

Since then, Morris’ production has tailed off. There was bound to be some regression in Marcus’ case, but since the all-star break, he’s playing what could very well be the worst basketball he’s played since becoming a Celtic.

Since the return from the All-Star break, Morris has averaged 13.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from three. The Celtics are minus-17.1 with him on the floor during that span. In other words, he’s hurting them badly on both ends.

So, subbing the slumping Morris for the thriving Brown in the starting lineup would seem like an obvious move to make. The Celtics could do it, and no one would bat an eye, but in this time of the season, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with the lineups this late into the season, or more specifically, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with what’s been working for Brown.

Though it took longer than Boston would have liked, Jaylen Brown has found his stride with the second unit this season. Even if Morris has struggled over the last month or so, taking Brown out of a situation where he’s playing at his best and putting him back into a lineup where he struggled could mess up his mojo. It’s unlikely that Brown will be coming off the bench through the duration of his career, but this season, he was meant to play in the second unit.

There are certain players who, despite having the talent to be a starter, are put in the NBA for the sole purpose of ruling over the second unit. Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry fit that certain mold, but there may not be a player that fits that description better than Lou Williams.

At the age of 32, Williams has already done enough to cement his status as one of the best microwave scorers of all time. The 13,135 points that Williams has scored in his NBA career is good for No.194 among all-time points scored. Last week, he surpassed Dell Curry for the No. 1 all-time scorer off the bench. That is impressive whether he started or not. However, if Lou had been a starter for his entire career, those numbers wouldn’t have as much meaning as they most definitely do as a sixth man.

It’s not as much about having as high scoring numbers in his case. It’s more about the purpose of what those numbers do for his team. Williams’ scoring abilities off the bench give his teams an edge that a fair amount of second units don’t have. His impact offensively is so strong that, like Brown over the past month, he usually winds up finishing games. That’s why having guys like Williams or Brown off the bench is important – They bring an advantage.

Another example would be Williams’ teammate, Montrezl Harrell. Doc Rivers, who has a very solid case for Coach of the Year, has elected to start then-Clipper Marcin Gortat and recently acquired big man Ivica Zubac over Harrell at center this season despite it being very clear that Harrell is his best player in the frontcourt.

He does this because Harrell gives LA an edge in the second unit much like Williams does with the energy he brings to the court. Harrell influences the game so much that again, like Williams, he’s usually out there finishing games as well. His skill set makes him a perfect fit in the second unit, and he could very well be Lou’s best competition for Sixth Man of the Year.

Those are examples of players who could be starters if their team wanted them to. They just play better when they come off the bench, but are there players who – despite being a starting-caliber player – are not a good fit in their starting lineup?

As it turns out, Derrick Favors is one such player. It’s been a much-debated controversy in Utah now about whether Favors should be starting in the frontcourt alongside Rudy Gobert for the Jazz. Honestly, those two aren’t bad together, but they play so much better when they pair up with a floor spacer in the frontcourt instead of each other.

In two-man lineups, Favors and Gobert are a plus-1.4 together. Defensively, the two of them are great together, giving up 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Alas, they only score 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare their two-man lineup to one with either Joe Ingles or Jae Crowder.

Favors and Ingles: +6.1
Favors and Crowder: +2.6
Gobert and Ingles: +4.5
Gobert and Crowder: +4.1

To be clear, Favors is good enough to be a starter. He just might not have the best frontcourt partner to be paired with.

When you take all of this in, it’s fair to say that to a certain extent, starting is overrated because it has no bearing on who plays the most minutes. What’s most important really is who finishes the game. Sometimes it’s the starters while at other times, it’s one or two bench players. It all comes down to who is the most reliable.

Because of this, in the Celtics’ case, the more accurate conclusion is that Brown should be getting more minutes than Morris rather than he should be replacing him in the starting lineup. That is, if he keeps this up.

No matter what Boston decides to do, one final question must be brought to our attention – Does anyone else think it’s an odd coincidence that Brown’s and Morris’ productions both started trending in opposite directions after the two of them got into that skirmish back in January?

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March Madness

NBA Daily: Four Prospects Ready To Rise In NCAA Tournament

Every March brings a collection of mock draft risers ahead of combine season, but there are four names worth your attention this spring, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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Ah, it’s almost that time of year, folks.

With conference tournaments set to wrap up this weekend, and Selection Sunday not far behind, the mental preparations for the big dance have already begun. Each season, like clockwork, a group of players seemingly raise their stock amongst fans ahead of workouts and the combine. Last season, of course, the largest beneficiary of the bright spotlight was Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. During the NCAA Championship, DiVincenzo torched Michigan for 31 points on 5-for-7 from long range — then once he measured out well, it was all but settled. In a matter of two months, DiVincenzo had gone from a near-lock to return to college to a potential lottery selection.

But as Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler pointed out alongside his most recent mock draft, importantly, it was a combination of everything that vaulted DiVincenzo into the cultural forefront. With much of the collegiate sphere transfixed, rightfully, on Zion Williamson’s return to Duke, plus his renewed efforts with top prospects Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, most of the collective draft class has just slipped on by. So although scouts may have a handle on the NCAA’s very best prospects, there are plenty of other cases worth adding to join to the pre-tournament hype conversation.

Given that March Madness kicks off on Tuesday, there’s no better moment to investigate the portfolios of some potential risers. Again, a stellar showing in the tournament won’t do it alone — but, regardless, these are four players that could do a ton of damage between now and the NBA Draft in June.

Eric Paschall, Villanova

Speaking of DiVincenzo, the Wildcats have sent a handful of players to the NBA over the last three years and senior Eric Paschall appears to be next in line. The 6-foot-8 forward bided his time alongside stars like Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, but the former All-Tournament selectee has bloomed as Villanova’s main man. Over 32 contests, Paschall has averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 three-pointers per game, helming his now-depleted squad to 23 wins.

Although he hasn’t collected the same awards that Brunson did last year, NBA teams tend to love ready-to-contribute Wildcats, no matter their age.

Paschall will be 23 once his rookie year begins in the fall but he’s got big-game confidence and oodles of experience already. On Thursday, Paschall scored 20 points and 10 rebounds to pace No. 25 Villanova past Providence in Big East Tournament play. There are some concerns over his pro-level fit as a power forward, but his massively improved three-point conversion mark will definitely have scouts back on board.

Of note, Paschall was unanimously named to the All-Big East First Team and he’s currently heating up ahead of another deep Villanova run. Paschall’s fantastic put-back helped the Wildcats force overtime against Xavier on Friday, while his clutch three-pointer and subsequent free throws then iced it.

Jaxson Hayes, Texas

Texas’ newest rim-protecting impact player is the 6-foot-11 Jaxson Hayes — a well-executing shot blocker and walking highlight reel… sound familiar? While the comparisons to Jarrett Allen are simply unavoidable at this point, Hayes has been a worthy target alone based on his slow, but steady improvement throughout the 2018-19 campaign. Through 32 games, the freshman has averaged 10.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on 72.8 percent from the field. Those standout numbers — blocks and field goal percentage — rank as 23rd and second-best in Division I, respectively.

In Hayes’ best performance yet, the big man pulled down 15 points, six rebounds and five blocks during a mid-season victory over rival Oklahoma. Earlier this month, Hayes was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, an honor recently bestowed upon Trae Young, Josh Jackson and Myles Turner. Along with Allen and Turner, Haynes joins Mohamed Bamba as highly-rated former Longhorns with huge professional-level projections — that’s not bad company to keep.

Unfortunately, at 16-16, Texas now faces an uphill battle to even reach the big dance. Much worse, Hayes played just 14 minutes before leaving the game with an injury during their loss to No. 3 Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. Head coach Shaka Smart said he hoped “it’s not extremely serious” but a status update has not been revealed as of publishing. However, as an athletic leaper and instinctual defender, Hayes remains one of the top long-term projects, injured or not.

And with moments like these, it won’t be long until the country takes notice as well — even if he’s sadly done for the season now.

Tre Jones, Duke

Of the names on this list, Tre Jones’ line is certainly the least jaw-dropping — 8.9 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals — but he’s been the fourth mouth to feed behind the Blue Devils’ trio of future top five picks. Still, Jones has been a steadying force for the star-studded side, even seeing a healthy uptick in the three weeks that Williamson was sidelined. During Duke’s slim loss to North Carolina a week ago, Jones chipped in with nine points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals.

With Williamson back in the lineup versus Syracuse on Thursday, Jones dropped 15 points and eight assists — which, long story short, proves the court general is good no matter who is on the floor. While those statistics aren’t enough to push Jones into lottery territory, the 19-year-old point guard has some promising upside for a team with less ball-dominating assets already.

Although head coach Mike Krzyzewski‎ dreams of a sophomore year return, Jones’ laser-sharp distribution and above-average defense will make him a popular name this spring. Jones’ 3.73 assist-to-turnover ratio is third-best in the entire nation and his ability to drop picture-perfect passes to Duke’s sky-walking dunkers has made them appointment viewing all season.

And if you’re feeling some slight déjà vu right now, that’s for good reason. Back in 2014-15, Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother, was an electric playmaker for a Blue Devils team that won it all. But if you see Tre knocking down important, pressure-laden shots like Tyus once did, don’t be surprised — that clutch gene still runs in the family.

Jaylen Nowell, Washington

This foursome has covered nearly every corner of the scouting conundrum checklist thus far: Hayes? Too raw. Paschall? Too old. Jones? Too underutilized. While those are all things that front offices may eventually look past when drafting those three in June, Jaylen Nowell falls into zero of those buckets.

Nowell is 19 years old, just won Pac-12 Player of the Year and seems poised to lead Washington to their longest tournament run in over a decade. Heading into the postseason, Nowell is leading the Huskies in points (16.5), assists (3.1) and three-point percentage (44.9), while the guard is their runner-up in rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.2) too. Uncoincidentally, Washington’s 25 wins are the most the college has finished with since Isaiah Thomas led them to 26 and the Sweet 16 in 2009-2010.

In 2018-19, Nowell has topped 18 or more on 15 separate occasions, including a massive 26-point, six-rebound effort against the likely No. 1 overall-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. Nowell is an incredible dribbler and the sophomore has put plenty of talented defenders on skates — but he’s also been largely hidden in a subpar conference this season. Fundamentally strong, Nowell has shot below 40 percent in just five of Washington’s 32 games so far.

Consistent and reliable, he’ll be their go-to star in the NCAA tournament without a doubt. Before long, the rest of the country will recognize him as one too.

Zion Williamson has been deservedly tough to look away from this season — but collegiate basketball’s biggest showstopper has robbed onlookers of some other incredible narratives as well.

Whether that’s the scrappy lead guard throwing alley-oops to Williamson on the daily, a forgotten National Champion or a budding first-rounder on the opposite coastline, March Madness is shaping up to be another worthy runway for takeoff. Unfortunately, Hayes will likely miss out — even in the now-unlikely circumstance that Texas is selected — but his agile, smooth skillset as a near seven-footer will make him a sought-after interview come draft season.

Between now and April — through a mix of their tournament efforts and combine measurements — an elite group of prospects will rise up mock draft boards once again. Who will it be this year?

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NBA

NBA Daily: What’s Next for Isaiah Thomas?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the situation Isaiah Thomas faces as he is no longer in the Denver Nuggets’ rotation.

Shane Rhodes

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“That Slow Grind” seems to have ground to a halt.

Always a fighter, the former “Mr. Irrelevant” battled through stints with the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns before he ended up in the ideal situation with the Boston Celtics. As he came into his own, the diminutive Isaiah Thomas positioned himself for an enormous payday. But it never came.

In the midst of a, to say the least, gutsy 2017 postseason performance, Thomas aggravated a hip injury that ended his season and has continued to affect him to this day.

The Celtics traded Thomas that summer to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving (as part of a larger trade). Unable to carve out a consistent role, Thomas was then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. There, he flashed that burst that enabled one of the most prolific offensive seasons in NBA history, but his season ended as it started; Thomas again found himself under the knife, forced to undergo surgery on his deteriorating hip.

Things still haven’t gotten better for him. With the Denver Nuggets, Thomas’ has hit the latest roadblock in what has been an uphill battle back to relevancy.

On February 13, 2019, Thomas debuted for the Nuggets to a standing ovation. From there, it took just nine games for Head Coach Mike Malone to remove him from the rotation. Now, the once great Thomas has been relegated to that of a veteran locker room presence and source of postseason experience. To his credit, Thomas has taken the change in stride, but his future NBA prospects continue to darken.

There are a number of different routes Thomas’ career could take out of Denver this offseason, but what exactly could be next for “The Little Guy?”

As he has become accustomed to, Thomas must persevere in order to continue his NBA dream and he’ll arguably have to do it somewhere other than Denver; the two just aren’t compatible. Thomas, at his best, dominated the ball while Denver, led by Malone and Nikola Jokic, run an offense based on fluidity and movement. If Thomas’ eventual goal is a return to form, or something close to it, he must find a team with an abundance of available guard minutes and one that can take the time to allow Thomas to find his footing again, a team desperate for the scoring punch that Thomas could provide once his feet are under him.

Multiple teams seem to fit that description, including the Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic and others that lack an effective weapon off the bench.

Thomas could also, as it were, steer into the skid. His career would take a form far different than what he had always envisioned, but it may be the best and most meaningful way for Thomas to remain connected to the NBA. Were he to come to the conclusion that he may not be able to get back to the player he used to be, Thomas could embrace the role that he has found for himself and look to continue in it in the future, either in Denver or elsewhere. The wealth of experience Thomas could provide a team — both from a personal and NBA perspective — could prove invaluable to a young team faced with hardship, mounting expectations or a number of other potential problems.

Likewise, Thomas’ veteran presence and knowledge of the postseason could provide an edge to almost any contender — anything Thomas contributed outside of the locker room would be a bonus.

Thomas could also forgo both of those options and look to rebuild his value in Europe or China before coming back to the NBA as well. Assuming he can maintain his health, Thomas would almost certainly flourish overseas, as many NBA players do, and parlay that into a potential NBA contract.

Thomas, never one to back away from a challenge, would almost certainly look for an NBA opportunity before making a decision that could drastically alter his future. Since he was drafted, the 5’9 point guard has been told that he couldn’t make it in the NBA and, while the circumstances have changed, it would seem out of character for Thomas to just give in to the doubters.

Whatever he does in the end, expect basketball to be in Thomas’ future, in some way, shape or form. Through it all, his passion for the game has never wavered and, while some may see this as the beginning of the end, it would seem foolish to doubt Thomas now.

He certainly won’t be doubting himself.

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