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Houston Rockets 2017-18 Season Preview

With Chris Paul joining James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, how high can the Rockets soar? Basketball Insiders takes a look.

Basketball Insiders

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After overachieving last season, the Houston Rockets pulled off one of the more surprising moves of the summer. With Chris Paul now joining James Harden, the Rockets have one of the league’s best backcourts. The question now, however, is whether or not they have enough to help them become one of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

With a roster that isn’t as deep as it was last season, the 2017-18 Houston Rockets will be counting on their supremely gifted backcourt to help them surpass last season’s 55 wins.

Whether or not they can may ultimately depend on how general manager Daryl Money fleshes out his roster around his two superstars—and also whether the team is able to eventually pull off a long-discussed trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2017-18 Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

For the first time during his Houston Rockets tenure, James Harden has a true superstar companion (no, I’m not counting Dwight Howard in that category).

Chris Paul joins Harden in H-Town after a season that saw Harden switch to point guard in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and lead the league in assists per game. While that may seem odd at first glance, Paul’s ability to command the floor, shoot and score effectively, and play elite defense gives Houston a backcourt that can rival any in the league — even those dudes in the Bay Area.

With role players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza on board, Harden and Paul should have enough artillery to overtake their division and actually give Golden State a run for their money.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Oh, there will be three-pointers. So many three-pointers. A year ago, the Houston Rockets broke the single-season record for most deep attempts in a season, having shot over 40 of them per game, and it doesn’t look like this year is going to be any different, especially with Chris Paul helping to break down defenses and create potentially even more open looks for those Houston shooters. Nabbing Paul was a huge boon, and somehow finagling Carmelo Anthony would only add to the haul basketball gods willing. Even without Anthony, though, Paul and last year’s MVP runner-up James Harden is enough to make this team a powerhouse. The role guys here fit Mike D’Antoni’s system beautifully, and the star power obviously is there. Pencil the Rockets in for a very deep playoff run this summer. Nobody is going to give Golden State more trouble than these guys, health pending.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Houston is hoping that the backcourt duo of James Harden and Chris Paul can bridge the gap between the Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are still the favorites, but Houston now has arguably the league’s best backcourt, versatile wing defenders that theoretically match up well with Golden State and enough overall talent to have a chance to upset the Warriors on any given night. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah Moute help to bolster the team’s defensive versatility, while Paul is still one of the league’s best defensive point guards. However, the loss of players like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could sting a bit more than most predict. The wildcard right now is the stalemate regarding Carmelo Anthony. If Anthony ends up in Houston, the Rockets would have a very impressive arsenal of offensive talent. Whether the skill sets of Paul, Harden and Anthony could effectively mesh together is unclear, but it sure would be fun to see what they could achieve together.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

What an offseason for Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who should easily be in pole position for Executive of the Year at this point. The Chris Paul trade is the obvious feather in the cap, but Morey also got fantastic deals on guys like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute – both exactly the kind of wing stoppers this team has been in dire need of for some time. The Rockets now have more of the kind of switchable bodies needed to throw at a behemoth like Golden State, plus two of the league’s best ball-handlers in Paul and James Harden. They’re all-in on making a charge at the champs this year; we’ll see if they have enough to do it.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Rockets enter the season very similarly to the Celtics.

Each team surpassed expectations last season, but ended up trading away a few rotation pieces to consolidate and bring in a superstar. I think the partnership between Paul and James Harden will work so long as Harden continues to play with his head up. The propensity for many people in Harden’s shoes would be to revert to being a shoot-first guard, but I think the Rockets will only maximize their potential if both Paul and Harden make it their duty to make their teammates better.

Although these guys may struggle to get defensive stops at times, they are just one more piece away from potentially winning the Western Conference. The Rockets would be best-served by encouraging Carmelo Anthony to work out a contract buyout with the Knicks and join them after potentially clearing waivers. Until they find a way to add him (or a player with similar caliber), they will still be looking up at the Spurs in the Southwest and at at least two other teams in the conference.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

Although Chris Paul is a supremely gifted offensive player, James Harden is absolutely extraordinary. Russell Westbrook’s record-breaking 42 triple doubles overshadowed the fact that Harden himself turned in an amazing 22 over the course of the season. Always having been a dynamic scorer, Harden took his game to the next level last season after being installed as the primary point guard for Mike D’Antoni and his club. Harden reverted to his prior days as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and proved that he still had the ability to create plays for his teammates and be an effective “finder” in pick-and-roll situations.

Last season, the Rockets finished second in points per game and second in offensive efficiency, and they did so because of Harden. The bearded point guard averaged career-highs across the board with 29.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 11.2 assists per game.

He’s not only the top offensive player on the Rockets; it could be argued that he’s the top offensive player in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Again, Chris Paul gets snubbed, but barely. The same can be said for the newly signed Luc Mbah a Moute, who is entering his 10th NBA season. Both Mbah a Moute and Paul were members of the most effective defensive lineups deployed by Doc Rivers last season, but Clint Capela is a true game-changer on the defensive end of the floor.

Although he had the benefit of being protected on the perimeter by Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza, Capela is a prototype of what today’s defensive NBA should be. He is wiry and rangy—his long arms make him a good shot blocker and pass lane defender, while his athleticism and light-footedness make him nimble enough to defend opposing perimeter players after being switched out on pick-and-roll plays. The numbers might not necessarily back up the claim (Capela averaged just 1.2 blocks and 0.5 steals per game during the regular season), but he was the anchor and final line of defense for a team that finished a respectable 18th in defensive efficiency last season. Most importantly, though, was Capela’s defense during the playoffs. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game and helped the Rockets hold their playoff opponents to 105.8 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the playoffs.

As it relates to defensive presence, the Swiss-born center is special.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

James Harden may have led the league in assists per game last season, but Chris Paul is the best playmaker on the roster. Whether or not he can be more effective with Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson—the three of whom all shared the floor with Harden last year—remains to be seen, though.

Still, Paul has averaged at least nine assists per game for each of the past 10 seasons and has never drawn criticism for a lack of creating opportunities for his teammates. In fact, it will be especially interesting to see how effective Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be on the offensive side of the basketball without him.

As it currently stands, Paul enters his 13th season averaging 9.89 assists per game—the third-highest per-game average in NBA history. Magic Johnson (11.19) and John Stockton (10.51) are the only ones who have averaged more per game. Paul is also just one of two active players to rank in the Top 10 for total career assists. Andre Miller, who has recorded 8,524 career assists, ranks ninth. That leaves him just 273 assists ahead of Paul’s 8,251.

In all likelihood, Paul, one of the top playmakers in the history of the league, will become ninth this season.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

While Chris Paul has certainly made his fair share of big shots, James Harden gets the nod. Truth be told, however, an inspection of the numbers yields the conclusion that both Paul and Harden leave a bit to be desired in clutch moments of games. Last season, in the final five minutes of a game that was within five points in the fourth quarter and overtime, Harden shot 33-for-93. Converting on just 35.5 percent of shots in those situations is a mediocre showing, but it is better than the 13-for-41 shot by Paul in those moments. Paul’s 31.7 percent shooting in those situations is not as good as we would expect it to be, but he should also point out that his lack of attempts in those situations is probably due to the fact that he has more of a propensity to pass the basketball in the first place.

Still, Harden gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

In an interesting twist, in December 2011, Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package of players that most prominently featured Eric Gordon. The two will now share the floor as members of the Houston Rockets.

After averaging 22.3 points per game in his third season, Gordon seemed destined for greatness as the NBA level. The Hornets thought they were getting an All-Star caliber player in exchange for Paul, but Gordon’s very first season in New Orleans was an indicator of what would become of his career. Gordon was limited to just nine games in 2011-12 and would play just 42, 64, 61 and 45 games over the following four years, respectively.

Last season, though, things turned. After being relegated to the bench, Gordon appeared in 75 games and scored 16.2 points per game off the bench. As a result, Gordon managed to edge out Andre Iguodala for the 2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Award and play an integral role in the Rockets and their overachieving last season. He hasn’t necessarily gotten his due from the masses, though, which is why he deserves some love here.

Best New Addition: Chris Paul

Obviously, when you add a player like Chris Paul to a team with the firepower of the Rockets, he is the best new addition. At 32 years old, Paul is probably past his physical prime, but his game has never been about athleticism. If there is a concern, it would be that he managed to appear in just 61 games last season, but in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, he suited up for 82 and 74 games, respectively.

It will be interesting to see how Mike D’Antoni managed Paul’s minutes, and the extent to which he has James Harden and Paul share the floor for long spurts or whether he uses them to spell one another. However, if Paul can remain relatively healthy, the Rockets may be one or two more pieces away from winning the Western Conference, and that’s the case because they managed to add Paul.

Luc Mbah a Moute gets an honorable mention here, as well.

— Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Say what you want about Mike D’Antoni, but the Rockets were a respectable defensive team last season. At the very least, that shows that when D’Antoni has the personnel, he can pull some good defense out of his club.

What D’Antoni deserves respect for, however, is demanding greatness of his team and remaining true to his principles. Since his departure from the Phoenix Suns, he has failed to find the type of success that many expected after leading the Suns to contention. The winner of the 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year Award, D’Antoni joins Gregg Popovich, Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Gene Shue, Bill Fitch and Cotton Fitzsimmons as the only coaches in history to win the award multiple times.

As great as James Harden has been, it could certainly be argued that he wouldn’t have been able to unleash his offensive potential without having a system that could take advantage of his gifts and a coach that could reach him.

It’s easy to argue that the 2016-17 season with the Houston Rockets represents the finest coaching job in D’Antoni’s career.

2. Daryl Morey

One of the leaders of the contemporary NBA’s love affair with advanced statistics and analytics, Morey is one of the more renowned general managers in the NBA. Whether it was making an aggressive run at Chris Bosh or signing Jeremy Lin or Dwight Howard, Morey has traditionally been a general manager who often looks for and usually finds ways to improve his team. An autopsy of the moves that he has made would show a few failures and a few contracts that were richer than they should have been, but the same can be said of most executives across the NBA. Long ago, Morey earned the monicker of “the Wizard” for seemingly being able to come away from trades with more than he gave up. The test of the monicker will be this season, though. With Chris Paul’s advancing age, Morey will have limited time to build a contender around he and James Harden. However, over the course of his 10 years in Houston, we admire his zeal and give him the benefit of the doubt.

3. Trevor Ariza

Though lacking the hardware, one could make the case that Trevor Ariza is a lite version of the modern day Bruce Bowen. Since being drafted with the 43rd pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Ariza has been a plus contributor for each one of his 13 years in the NBA. He has earned a reputation for being a true professional, an excellent teammate and a hard worker.

Defensively, although Ariza has lost a step or two, he is still pesky on the perimeter. He shot 34.4 percent from the three-point line last season and is a career 35 percent shooter from deep. Although that percentage doesn’t necessarily put him among the league leaders, it allows him to blend in nicely with Chris Paul and James Harden. He will contribute positively on the defensive end while helping to keep the floor spaced and the game open.

4. Nene

Having just turned 35 years old, there was some doubt that Nene would return for his 16th NBA season after his 2016-17 campaign ended prematurely. Nene tore a muscle in his left thigh during the Rockets’ playoff battle against the San Antonio Spurs, and any chance that the team had of competing with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard went up in smoke.

Nene is still an effective defender and still has magnificent footwork. He’s nimble and should still be able to give the Rockets an effective 15 minutes per game. It’s also reasonable to expect him to be the team’s best post option and, in a best case scenario, someone who can help some of the younger big men on the Rockets develop their own skills.

5. Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson’s name has been mentioned a lot this past summer, but mostly because the New York Knicks have let it be known that they refuse to take him back in any would-be trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Truth is, when it was learned that the Rockets would sign Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract last summer, most people questioned the wisdom behind the deal. Certainly a hefty commitment, Anderson could be argued as being overpaid, but his effectiveness with last season’s Rockets can’t be questioned.

In 29.4 minutes per game last season, Anderson scored 13.6 points per game. More importantly, though, he led the team in three-point percentage, connecting on 40.3 percent of his looks from long distance.

What made Anderson’s proficiency and durability especially noteworthy last season was the fact that he missed 97 total games over the precious three seasons. He appeared in 72 total contests last season, and appears to be trending in the right direction. Although he owns a rich contract that the Knicks rightfully want no part of, he fits nicely with the Rockets, who they are and what they do.

— Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Rockets had an interesting summer, dipping below the salary cap in June to acquire multiple contracts to immediately turn around in trade for Chris Paul. The team has been over the cap since the start of July, using almost their Mid-Level Exception on P.J. Tucker and Zhou Qi. Houston also spent its Bi-Annual Exception on Tarik Black. With $114.7 million in guaranteed salary, the Rockets have some wiggle room under their hard cap of $125.3 million – potentially staying completely under the league’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold.

Next summer, the team could get to almost $20 million in cap room but only if Paul leaves as an unrestricted free agent. Houston is far more likely to stay over next year’s projected $102 million cap, locking down Paul on a new, long-term deal. Before the start of the coming season, Houston can work an extension with Clint Capela, otherwise he’ll hit restricted free agency in July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Backcourt and the Coach

Chris Paul and James Harden, in terms of talent, can argue for mention as the top backcourt in the league. At the very least, they are on the same plane as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Whatever the Rockets hope to be this season will begin and end with how Paul and Harden galvanize their troops. For the most part, though, the two have each proven themselves to be effective leaders and winners. Paul has always maximized the talent around him, and last season Harden proved that he is just as capable of doing the same. If the Rockets can collectively take the next step and keep the ball moving as opposed to standing by idly and waiting for Paul and Harden to create, they’ll be in business.

As it relates to Mike D’Antoni, he will only be effective if his players are buying into what he is preaching. With Paul and Harden, D’Antoni will have the most gifted tandem he’s ever coached, and it should be interesting to see what kind of return he is able to get. If there is one coach that should be entrusted with finding a way to make Paul and Harden work together, it’s D’Antoni.

— Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Chemistry

Jumping on the opportunity to acquire a player like Chris Paul was the right move, but the Rockets don’t have the depth required of a championship contender. Both the Warriors and Cavaliers have 10 players who can be counted on to have an impact on any given night. The same probably can’t be said of the Rockets. At best, the Rockets have eight players who have proven that they are everyday NBA contributors, but Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are only threats on offense, while Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute are most effective on the defensive side of the ball. Nene probably can’t play much more than 15 minutes per game and at least one of Demetrius Jackson, Tim Quarterman or Isaiah Taylor will be depended upon to play impactful minutes at the lead guard position, especially if either Paul or Harden goes down.

Aside from that, the Rockets have a lot of new faces. For a team that won 55 games last season and found success with what it was running, incorporating so many new faces will pose a challenge.

— Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Daryl Morey find a way to land Carmelo Anthony?

Acquiring Chris Paul came at a great cost. In exchange for the future Hall-of-Famer, the Rockets traded away some key members of last seasons team in Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, as well as a few youngsters in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. The Rockets also sent a top-three protected 2018 first round pick to the Clippers. The club also sent cash to the Clippers.

The only problem for the Rockets now, though, is depth. While they still have some very good contributors, the team has consolidated a few of its important pieces (including a top-flight defender in Beverly) for the right to acquire Paul. It makes perfect sense that the team is interested in Carmelo Anthony, but the cupboard seems fairly bare. What remains to be seen with the Rockets now is whether and how they will find creative ways to add two or three more rotation-ready pieces to their roster. If Anthony holds out until December, the trade winds will begin swirling, as players who signed contracts this past summer will become trade-eligible. In other instances, players who seek buyouts (such as Dwyane Wade) may eventually wiggle free and may circle Houston as a preferred destination.

The question at the end of the day thus becomes whether Morey can continue to be the Wizard we have come to know and put some more meaningful pieces around his dynamic backcourt—whether it be Carmelo Anthony or someone else.

— Moke Hamilton

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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