As debates rage around the league regarding which team in the Eastern Conference’s rising middle will claim the second seed, the more practical way of framing the question is really this: Which squad has the best chance of beating Cleveland in a seven-game series?
To whatever degree there’s really a valid response here – and there may not be – the answer might surprise you. Hype trains are running at full steam in Boston and Atlanta, and have combined with passionate noise from north of the border after a franchise-best season last year for Toronto. Together they’ve drowned out a group that could stand above them all, and more importantly could test the defending champs in ways the East hasn’t seen against a LeBron-led team in years.
The Charlotte Hornets aren’t sexy; Michael Jordan’s brand doesn’t seem to extend to the ownership suite. They were really bad for a number of years, eventually digging out of that hole through a combination of solid-but-not-flashy drafting and low-key savvy personnel moves.
They didn’t even draw that much attention last year, with arguably the franchise’s best season this millennium relegated to the runt end of a four-way tie for the third through six seeds and a wild first-round loss to Miami. Make no mistake though – this team was good, bordering on great.
At ninth in both cases, the Hornets were one of five teams to post top-10 marks on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, a common benchmark for elite teams – the others were Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the L.A. Clippers. That balance was evident elsewhere: Nine Hornets saw at least 1,000 minutes on the year and five of these used at least 20 percent of team possessions while on the floor. Head coach Steve Clifford put guys like Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams in the best situations of their careers, plus got solid performances out of young guys.
Charlotte’s 2016 offseason has been productive and understated. What looked like a dangerous summer with several major contributors hitting a historically lucrative open market turned into a significant positive.
A draft-day trade for Marco Belinelli was a bit strange, but it preceded multiple A+ moves. GM Rich Cho cashed in on a modest 2015 offseason gamble, re-signing Nicolas Batum to a long term deal after betting on the franchise’s ability to retain the Frenchman after just one season in town. He inked Ramon Sessions to a team-friendly deal to back up Walker in place of departed Jeremy Lin and nabbed Summer League standout and high-ceiling big man Christian Wood.
His biggest coup, though, was re-signing Williams. Not only did Cho get a huge discount for a guy coming off a career year in a perfect role, but the Hornets were able to fit Williams in using his Early Bird rights – allowing them to exceed the cap while signing him and in turn leaving room for a flier on one-time Defensive Player of the Year candidate Roy Hibbert on a prove-it deal. This sort of savvy maneuvering can separate mid-market franchises from the pack.
The result is a team that’s at least 10 deep, with insurance on the roster for injuries or rough stretches and the versatility to throw a number of looks on the floor. Clifford’s base alignment likely remains Williams at the four and Zeller at the five, a spaced-out unit that poured in buckets regardless which wing played alongside Walker and Batum last year, but he can shift big in a hurry with Hibbert on the back line when Frank Kaminsky plays alongside him. The Hornets can throw a ton of length at opponents without sacrificing much shooting.
Walker is the spark plug, now heavily underpaid coming off a career year that looks more like his realistic output alongside well-fitting NBA talent than an outlier. The biggest test here will be his shooting from three, which jumped to 37 percent after hovering in the low 30s most of the rest of his career. Though there is reason to be skeptical of his higher three-point percentage, the optics are good: Kemba shot way more open and wide open threes last year than in previous seasons, per SportVU data,and his comfort level shooting was clear within a well-spaced attack.
The rest is already there if the jumper stays consistent. Walker is now on two consecutive years setting the league-wide standard for low-turnover creation among volume guards, posting an assist percentage/turnover percentage combo unmatched in the NBA both last year and the one before. Clifford’s scheme is meant to emphasize ball control, and it has clearly sunk in; there are few guards on earth who make you more comfortable with the ball in their hands.
Walker also quietly made big strides defensively, leaping from a bottom-third rating in ESPN’s Defensive RPM two seasons ago to a top-third rating last year, a difference of nearly two points per-100-possessions after accounting for team and opponent context. His limited stature caps his ceiling here, but he’s proven to be a smart positional defender who can do some pick-slithering and keep guys in front of him in the two-man game. Kemba easily could have been an All-Star last year, and continuation plus a few smart additions around him are all positive signs for him staying at that level.
Creation could be an issue when Walker sits, or especially if he misses any time, but Clifford has shown the smarts to make due. Batum is a crafty passer who exploits gravity extremely well to help cover only modest ball skills, and both Sessions and presumed third point guard Brian Roberts are capable initiators. Zeller and especially Kaminsky could be ready for more touches on the block next year, especially with bench units while Kemba sits down.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will return from an injury-plagued fourth season, and this is where the greatest of Hornets optimists will get their primary fix leading into the season. The Hornets absolutely destroyed teams during MKG’s brief court appearances last season, with per-possession advantages nearly one-and-a-half times the season-long marks of historically great teams in Golden State and San Antonio. This includes a nine-point win over the full-strength Cavaliers in which MKG played his personal season-high of 36 minutes.
The sample (just 205 minutes) obviously begets a healthy grain of salt with these numbers, but this looks and feels like much more than some hot-shooting outlier. Kidd-Gilchrist is among the game’s premier three-position defenders, and he’s a terror in a lineup with four other above-average offensive players: The Walker-MKG-Batum-Williams-Zeller unit, this year’s presumed starting five, more than doubled those Spurs and Warriors’ per-possession domination last season.
His limited shooting hurts much less in units like these, and Clifford now has many more options available to deploy similar lineups that mask MKG’s weaknesses and emphasize his elite skills. Kidd-Gilchrist can play virtually 100 percent of his minutes with at least three long-range threats, and Clifford could even juice things to the max by sliding him up to power forward and running Kaminsky at center.
As Jonathan Tjarks suggested on a recent Basketball Insiders podcast, these kinds of lineups could emulate Billy Donovan’s usage of Andre Roberson as a roll-man in Oklahoma City last year – MKG is a good finisher at the rim with enough passing instincts to survive, and a Walker-MKG pick-and-roll with gravity-inducing shooters dotting the perimeter could throw even good defenses out of whack. And of course, at just 22 years old with a lost season behind him, Kidd-Gilchrist may not have reached his offensive ceiling yet.
With MKG back in the fold, the outline of a tough out for the Cavaliers begins to take shape.
Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist are two of the conference’s best-suited LeBron defenders (to whatever degree such a thing even exists), and having both presents a fascinating option against Cleveland’s bread-and-butter James-Irving two-man game: Put MKG on Kyrie. He should be fully past any injury residuals come playoff time, and has enough athleticism to stay with Irving when he’s 100 percent.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s resulting ability to switch Irving-James actions and negate the instant mismatches that carried the Cavaliers to a title last year could be a really big deal. This leaves Walker on J.R. Smith, an iffy option to be sure, but there are no perfect scores against the defending champs defensively. The Hornets have the personnel to funnel things differently than nearly any other Eastern Conference challenger.
Speaking of funneling, no big man in the NBA has had more success against a downhill-rolling LeBron than Hibbert over the last several years. Maybe this isn’t 2013 Indiana Hibbert anymore, but those willing to write the 29-year-old off completely after a year in NBA defender’s purgatory under Byron Scott are jumping the gun. Hibbert was still an elite rim protector during his last season under a competent coach; his effect on James in their playoff matchups was real, and he alone offers more of a challenge at the rim than all three of Cleveland’s Eastern opponents in last year’s postseason combined.
It may not be enough to topple the Cavs, but the Hornets match up with Cleveland in a unique way that might give them more problems than anyone else in the conference. Walker will make Irving work on the defensive end, just as Batum will with James; Clifford has both the personnel and the chops to play the matchup game if Tyronn Lue tries to hide either of these guys elsewhere.
Williams is a strong foil for Kevin Love, a shooter who can stretch Love out on one end and do just enough against him down low on the other. MKG can check either of Cleveland’s stars, and one of he or Batum can be on the floor for 100 percent of LeBron’s minutes in a given series. Guys like Zeller and Kaminsky have the foot speed to do better than previous challengers against the Channing Frye bench units that smashed the East last May.
The Hornets were already better than you thought they were, and they’ve only improved after one of the best offseasons in the league. They’re primed to compete for the two seed in the East, and could stand above starrier names as the greatest challengers to the conference’s dominant defending champion.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.