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Los Angeles Lakers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Here’s to new beginnings as the Los Angeles Lakers embark on their seasonal voyage without the services of one Kobe Bean Bryant for the first time in 20 years. While no one within the organization was looking to kick dirt on his basketball grave, it is understandable if there is at least a slight amount of collective relief among the players as they head into a season with a significantly lower amount of expectations than this franchise is accustomed to. Any 17-win team coming off back-to-back-to-back “worst season ever” showings should be afforded such a luxury no matter what name is on the front of the jersey.

Diehard fans may still struggle to maintain perspective at times, but the freedom that should come from simply being free of the scrutiny that was a result of the extended farewell tour should be liberating for all parties. Newly hired head coach Luke Walton made it clear he intends to judge this team by the progress it shows rather than wins and losses. That’s because while he is obviously new to his official role, he also realizes the pressure that will already be on a team headlined by a second-year point guard and rookie scoring prospect. On top of that, Los Angeles will feverishly be looking for someone to ascend from the pack as the team’s new leader and wear the de facto “face of the franchise” tag.

The veteran additions of forward Luol Deng and center Timofey Mozgov should help with some of the transitioning, but there is obviously a ton of work to do in terms of reestablishing the team’s identity. Walton knows those things have to happen somewhat organically and wants to not only permit the process to take place, but also be afforded the same patience as he adjusts to life at the helm of a talented but still unproven team.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The dream of Russell Westbrook may have died, but with Brandon Ingram joining a core of youngsters that includes D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have reason to be optimistic about their future.

Timofey Mozgov became the poster child of the questionable contract, but he will absolutely fill a need for the Lakers this season. Though well past their primes, Luol Deng and Jose Calderon are each professionals who have been around the block in the NBA, and both know what it takes to be successful in the league.

The first season of the post-Kobe Bryant era will have one less distraction and could possibly result in more wins after just 17 last season. With Luke Walton presumably installing a free-flowing system that will help keep the young guns in Los Angeles loose and engaged, we will likely see some of the talent accumulated pay off this season. Depending on how steep the learning curve is, the Lakers may surprise a few this season and show some fight. The Warriors and Clippers are still far outside their reach, but they should be competitive for the third seed in the division. I’d still be inclined to put the Kings above them since they have the best player, but even that is no guarantee.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Los Angeles Lakers enter the upcoming season without Kobe Bryant for the first time in roughly two decades. This really is the beginning of a new era for the proud franchise and its fans. Fortunately, the team features a core of young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. This strong nucleus will be led by rookie head coach Luke Walton, who will need to do a better job communicating with and developing the young guys than his predecessor Byron Scott did. The team also added veteran free agents Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, plus made a deal for Jose Calderon. Deng and Mozgov were given a lot of money over the next four years, so the Lakers will need real production on the court from these guys and not just leadership in the locker room. Despite overpaying for Deng and Mozgov, the Lakers finally have a path towards rebuilding their team and a bright young coach to lead the way.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Lakers fans are ready to see this team turn the corner, and with young talent just dripping from the roster it’s easy to see why they’re so excited. Brandon Ingram’s name often is whispered in the same sentence as Kevin Durant’s, D’Angelo Russell could be on the brink of something really interesting this season, and we know what kind of young talents the team has in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. On the other hand, they also excitedly doled out the summer’s worst contract to Timofey Mozgov and brought Chinese star Yi Jianlian back into the NBA after his exile spanning the better part of the last four seasons. There’s some fascinating young talent, but outside of Jose Calderon, Luol Deng and Yi, the “youngster” theme on this roster is pretty overwhelming. That means no matter how badly the Lakers faithful want to believe things will turn around quickly, they probably won’t, but at least they can sleep at night knowing things are back on the right track. It’s just going to take some time for it all to marinate.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Lakers will head into training camp without the presence of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant. Through a combination of injuries and Father Time, the franchise has been prepared to move on to the next chapter for quite some time now. The Lakers have plenty of young talent with Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, and this summer the club invested in veteran free agent talent to surround their youth movement. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will be expected to help the young Lakers grow up and mature into top flight professionals and rookie head coach Luke Walton promises to remove the security blanket and throw his youngsters into the fire early. The Lakers will begin life after Bryant on the right foot, but unfortunately it won’t translate into significantly more wins in the short term.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

All eyes will be on Luke Walton as he makes his head coaching debut with the Lakers this season. Walton did a terrific job with the Warriors when called upon, but many people wonder if his success was simply due to the star-laden roster. This is Walton’s opportunity to show what he can do and silence his doubters. Talking to players this summer, it’s clear that Walton has already started to change the team’s culture and everyone seems excited to play his brand of basketball. This is an intriguing team – a mix of young talent and experienced veterans – but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers seriously competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season. Instead, this year is about getting Walton comfortable, turning things over to him and developing the young core as they buy in to the new system.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s important to note this isn’t solely asking which player will lead the team in scoring, although Russell should certainly have the ball in his hands enough to also challenge for that honor. The Lakers not only need Russell to be a multi-faceted and efficient scorer, but they’ll also need their 20-year-old point guard to be the type of floor general and leader that can also create offensive scoring opportunities for his teammates (3.3 assists per game as a rookie in 28.2 minutes per contest) while fostering a positive chemistry on the court and in the locker room. A tall task for any player, but especially for one as relatively inexperienced as Russell. Regardless, that’s the role these Lakers will need him to fill as they lay the new foundation.

Top Defensive Player: Luol Deng

Serious thought went into placing Ingram in this position given his potential to actually make a serious impact on that side of the ball as well, but he’ll undoubtedly face his fair share of growing pains as he continues to add strength and size to his frame. Deng may be new to the Los Angeles Mix, but the 31-year-old remains an above-average defender that can be utilized at several positions depending upon the matchup. Oft-injured during the middle section of career, the Lakers will also need him to display the type of durability that allowed him to play 72 or more games in each of the last two seasons for Miami.

Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell

Like we mentioned, the Lakers need Russell to be special. No other way to put it. The “ice in my veins” moments are great and will always be a part of the Sports Center package, but this team needs more steak than sizzle moving forward. Russell (13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG as a rookie) is a better athlete than initially given credit and appears to be in better shape than he was at this point heading into his rookie campaign. Russell was a bit turnover prone at times as a rookie and saw his playing time and role fluctuate as a result, but the team has to hope the added conditioning and perhaps a slightly longer rope from the new staff could result in an increase in his overall productivity this season.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

Although unfair to expect a rookie player to “place the team on his back” with any regularity, one of the main reasons the Lakers drafted Ingram was because of his impressive offensive skill-set for a man of his size. Listed at 6’9 and likely right around 200-205 pounds by the time training camp starts later this month, Ingram can shoot over the top of most defenders as well as put the ball down and create off the dribble. Once he possesses the necessary strength to physically compete against the tougher or heavier opponents, this young man is going to be a matchup nightmare – throughout the flow of the game, but obviously in “clutch” moments as well. This team may not have all that many opportunities for moments of that nature this season, but Ingram could be one of the guys they look to go to from an early point in the year.

The Unheralded Player: Larry Nance Jr.

As beloved and appreciated as Nance Jr. is by the fan base on social media, it still feels like a good portion of folks not covering the team and outside of the market doesn’t realize how effective Nance Jr. could ultimately be under Walton. He’s much more than simply a high-flying act, as the 23-year-old former Wyoming Cowboy continues expanding his shooting range and has better touch around the basket than you might think. Nance Jr.’s greatest contribution could actually end up being on the defensive end and on the backboards, especially if he is able to earn additional playing time (20.2 MPG as a rookie in ‘15-16). He’s a high-energy guy that can not only be a disruptor near the basket and in the passing lanes, but also someone that will change ends with the quickest of big men and finish over the top of plenty as well.

Best New Addition: Brandon Ingram

We certainly don’t mean to be repetitive, and while cases could be made for Deng’s eventual impact and even how Mozgov could make a difference as a rim protector and in mentoring other young bigs like second-round pick Ivica Zubac (purple and gold fingers crossed, probably), the reality is Ingram is the best player they added this summer. They took him with the second overall pick because of that fact. Ingram is oozing with talent and potential and isn’t done growing into his frame.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Luke Walton

Walton returns to the organization after actually being traded away as a player at the 2012 deadline. Obviously, his path led him to even brighter things as a member of that successful Golden State Warriors’ staff over the past couple seasons, but few remember that his coaching career technically started back during the 2011 lockout when he took a position as an assistant under John Pastner and the same Memphis Tigers program that featured the exploits of a young Tarik Black. It’s almost shocking how quickly we’ve come full-circle, as Walton now has the opportunity to coach Black and this talented group of players for the organization he experienced so much success with as a player.

Walton may no longer have the luxury of coaching a team that is immediately within the title mix, but he’s certainly not returning to bare cupboards in terms of talent to work with. With any young coach, especially those also faced with the challenge of guiding primarily young talent, fans and the organization must have patience with this process since there will undoubtedly be games that lead to questions in the early going. Beyond the need to end the trend of having a revolving door on the bench (Walton is the fourth head coach since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011), he’s being asked to oversee a total shift in culture and direction. Players are noticeably excited about the opportunity to play in his new system, which is obviously a good thing, but now comes the time to actually adapt the approach and learn how Walton wants the game played.

While much has been made about how well the offense will fit some of these players, the real challenge for Walton and staff will be in establishing a defensive identity with this roster. Not only will this staff have to continue teaching defensive principles, but they’ll also be tasked with the duty of convincing young players to take as much (if not more) pride in shutting someone down as they take in scoring on them. It may take time, but Walton is definitely equipped with a strong supporting cast of assistants to ease his transition into the head role. Former Laker player/coach Brian Shaw joins Jesse Mermuys and Mark Madsen, who was also retained by the organization. Casey Owens and Will Scott have also reportedly been promoted into assistant and coordinator roles as well.

2. Julius Randle

Perhaps the most interesting roster “battle” – or at least positional juxtaposition – could come from Randle and Nance Jr. While significantly chiseled and in much better shape than when he joined the organization, Randle is still a guy that wants to lower his shoulder and bull-rush you around the basket. Injury to his right hand aside, Randle has reportedly been working like a madman to improve all facets of his game this summer. Being able to keep the defense in a vulnerable position by continuing to add touch and range on his shot will likely be key to his ultimate success on the offensive end at this level, but he also needs to take a step forward as a defender. He was a walking double-double in ‘15-16 (34 total) and was at least willing to challenge at the rim some of the time, but fell prone to the same lapses, poor angles and improper footwork that tend to plague young defenders. He also tended to get himself into early foul trouble due to those undisciplined tactics and poor positioning, especially early in the year.

Playing alongside more able-bodied defenders could and probably should help, but Randle will also need to improve his attention to detail and at least provide a consistent effort on that end if he wants to keep Nance Jr., Deng and others from potentially taking some of his playing time. It wasn’t exactly clear why the last coaching staff didn’t look to utilize more Russell-to-Randle pick-and-roll action – if for no reason other than to simply make scoring a bit easier for him – but we should probably expect to see more of it moving forward. Being able to effectively score around the bucket with his right hand and spread the defense out with the jumpshot are each vital, but sometimes giving a young player that extra space or step with some good pick-and-roll action can also make the difference simply from a confidence and comfort standpoint. The concern could have been with Randle’s ability to change directions once he gets his momentum going, but the 21-year-old did show improvement with his awareness and body control throughout the year.

If you’re the Lakers, you might secretly love the idea of Nance Jr. functioning as a driving force behind Randle. As someone who has actually shown a fair amount of poise and maturity at an early age, Randle seems to possess a singular focus on simply being the best player he can be, and that will permit him to embrace the challenge in a manner that should be positive for both parties. The two of them could wind up pushing one another to the next level as players, and that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

3. Jordan Clarkson

Due to the traffic sensational headlines can garner during the free agency period, Clarkson’s four year, $50 million deal was somewhat swept under the rug this summer, but it has the potential to become an absolutely phenomenal value contract for this team. Clarkson (15.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG in ’15-16) may not have had the chance to join his teammates on Team USA’s Select squad, but that doesn’t mean the young man hasn’t been putting in serious work in the gym and weight room this summer. Fans and opponents alike may be in for a surprise when they see the results of his dedicated workout regimen as the third-year guard really appears to be exhausting all efforts in order to continue improving.

Clarkson was impressive as a rookie, particularly for a late second-round pick the Lakers actually purchased from the Wizards. He showed a solid level of improvement in year two, but if the 24-year-old can take yet another step as a playmaker and defender under the new regime then his deal would quickly become a steal. You don’t simply become a solid perimeter defender overnight, but Clarkson shows the physical tools of someone that is far more capable than he’s been in that department through two years.

The freedom of the new system will also need to come with discipline. Clarkson can get a bit “out over his skis” when attacking at times, but he can be the type of interchangeable player you want when adopting a less constrained system. He was up to 34.7 percent from deep with about as disjointed an offensive system as you can imagine, and should see far more quality looks moving forward. If Clarkson can consistently knock down the deep ball while developing into a player that can at least adequately defend a couple positions (as is the ultimate hope), the Lakers will be in business.

4. D’Angelo Russell

If Russell is truly that transcendent type of player that some scouts and analysts believed he could be when coming into the league, then we should start to see significant strides in his game on both sides of the ball as early as this year. Last year may have appeared to be an unmitigated disaster considering his difficulties with professionalism, with maintaining his role and even position on the court at times, but Russell did show some real flashes of brilliance at certain moments. Not quite enough to offset some of the sophomoric behavior and antics for some, but he was able to do enough to make the organization at least appear to remain comfortable with the idea of Russell at the helm.

Russell showed a clear ability to shoot the ball from distance at this level as the season wore on (38.8 percent or 57/147 from the start of February through the end of the season) and actually has a nice post-up and mid-post game you should probably anticipate seeing more and more of (especially against small or smallish opponents – yes, you, Isaiah Thomas and the like), but we have yet to see him consistently embrace being a playmaker as a Laker. After being intoxicated by comparisons to greats like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd when it came to his passing, it seemed as though Russell was a bit more comfortable attacking NBA defenders as a scorer than he was with generating offense for others.

To be clear, the 2015-16 Lakers didn’t have an awful lot of players capable of capitalizing on his creativity, but Russell also appeared to struggle against defenders that applied heavy pressure at times and he often adopted the “put your head down and go get a bucket” mentality many of today’s top scoring guards employ. With Walton likely to utilize a system similar to the one he was a part of in Golden State, there should be plenty of opportunities for Russell to display just how much ice his veins possess, but these Lakers need him to be dynamic and all-around offensive presence he was once advertised as being if they are to take the next step as a unit.

5. Brandon Ingram

We’d ask everyone to write, “I will not unfairly expect Ingram to immediately play like Kevin Durant” 100 times on the chalkboard if we thought it might help… but it won’t. Not with Ingram being built so similarly and being such a capable scorer at the same position. Especially not with guys like Durant himself making mention of it, as he did when the two faced one another during this summer’s Team USA training camp. While fans can’t be faulted for finding it difficult to curb their enthusiasm when it comes to this team, it will do all parties involved a service if a bit of patience is utilized with Ingram.

He’ll undoubtedly have some nights that look incredible along the way, but they’ll probably be balanced with some rough ones against certain teams, especially in the early portion of the season as he adjusts to the pace and physicality. As a swingman, Ingram is not only going to have to figure out how to consistently score against top defenders and schemes expressly designed with limiting his comfort in mind, but he’ll also be charged with the responsibility of at least slowing down some of the league’s most dynamic scorers on the other end.

Much like the reality that Russell was faced with as a rookie, Ingram will likely see a steady diet of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Andrew Wiggins, Gordon Hayward and probably even Rodney Hood all within the first 30 days of the regular season. Good luck with that.

“Don’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows” may be one of the more commonly used clichés in sports when dealing with a young team or player, but it will need to be the approach taken with Ingram and most of these players. As long as they continue to show progress along the way, that’s all that can be fairly asked. If what we’ve seen from Ingram while a member at the University of Duke and during the Last Vegas Summer League are any indication of what is to come, then we have a feeling fans will be more than willing to wait for his total development.

6. Luol Deng

While Deng’s contract partially swept up in the general disappointment and outcry over the Lakers failing to bring in some of the summer’s top names, he is actually a really good addition to this team. He may be 31 and have some miles on his body, but as mentioned, he remains a relatively versatile defender that can be depended upon to knock down the deep ball at a respectable level (34.4 percent in ‘15-16, 35.5 in ‘14-15). Whether he’s used primarily at the small forward or Walton elects to move him around according to the lineup and opponent, Deng’s value won’t be limited to the box score.

He is the perfect guy for a locker room in need of guidance and professionalism. Last year in Miami really exemplified how Deng has somewhat seamlessly transitioned from being a primary focus and one of the main options of the offense – as he was throughout his time in Chicago – to a jack-of-all-trades member of the supporting cast. Quite honestly, it could have made a bit more sense for a player of Deng’s capability to join a roster that is closer to being an immediate playoff team.

However, Deng makes sense for L.A. While developing young talent, you need a glue guy like Deng to contribute and hold things together during the difficult periods that will come over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Similar to what guys like Joe Johnson (Utah Jazz) or even Al Jefferson (Indiana Pacers) did in accepting similar supporting roles, the fact that Deng decided to join this team at this time should absolutely be taken as a positive. Sure, money and the length of his deal (four years, $72 million) are factors, but Deng still has plenty to offer and could play a pivotal role in helping with the development of several others on the roster.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Lakers used cap space to acquire players like Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac and Yi Jianlian. Now over the cap, the Lakers still have their $2.9 million Room Exception – although their roster is full with 15 guaranteed players. The Lakers are looking to get out of Nick Young’s salary ($11.1 million over two years), which could open a roster spot for Zach Auguste, Travis Wear or Julian Jacobs.

Yi’s contract is unique in that it’s minimally guaranteed, ramping up by games played (20, 40 and 59), making Yi a potential trade piece starting Dec. 15. Looking ahead to next summer, the Lakers project to have at least $26.6 million in cap space, and more if they can get out of Young’s contract. That assumes the Lakers do not finish with a top-three pick in the 2017 lottery, instead sending their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers also have three easy decisions to make before November – the rookie-scale options for D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are all no-brainers.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The added talent will definitely help, but the refreshing feeling around the team with the new direction already appears to be taking effect. Although down the road there could be some revised appreciation for the time they played for the previous staff, to a man, the players have each expressed great optimism about the current trajectory. Also, as mentioned, while a certain level of pressure will always come with playing under the bright lights of Staples Center and for this organization in general, at least this team won’t have anyone truly expecting them to compete for a playoff spot in the ever-challenging Western Conference for at least another year or so. The transition to a more free-flowing and uptempo style should not only be a far more entertaining product for the fans, but should lead to guys actually having more fun while out there on the court.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Deng, Mozgov and perhaps Lou Williams aside, the majority of the core is still littered with early 20-somethings and guys that have less than three years of NBA experience. Randle was still in high school in 2013 and missed a year of action due to a leg fracture. As talented as he may be, Ingram was still playing high school basketball in Kinston, North Carolina in March of 2015. The NBA isn’t very forgiving on rookies and inexperienced players (see: last season), so there may be some games that look eerily similar to the more disappointing of nights over the past few seasons; but the main difference will be the team should actually be headed in a definitive direction these days. For fans, more disheartening than anything else over this stretch of futility was the fact that it at least appeared the front office may have been a bit lost over the past few years.

The decisiveness with which they locked in on Walton coupled with all the spoils of their recent inefficacy -whether gathered intentionally or with a bit of luck along the way- at least present the appearance of a stable and clear-cut plan. Their lowest point also happened to coincide with the league shifting both from a financial/structural and on-court standpoint. Laker fans may shake their heads in disapproval, but the truth of the matter is to have potentially turned it around in as quickly as four years on the heels of losing the organization’s long-time patriarch in Dr. Buss and having to figure out the eventual hierarchy, influence and control between two very different siblings in Jeanie and Jim Buss, all while watching an aging superstar transition away would be a bit of a miracle when all things are considered.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

The biggest question for this team will be: how long does it take them to individually develop so they can collectively improve? If a couple of the young guys were to actually take the next step on both sides of the ball while the other young prospects at least showed a steady rate of improvement, then a win-total as high as the upper-20s (or perhaps even low 30s if everything were to break somewhat favorably) is attainable. That prognosis may be a bit gloomy for some and is almost certain to outright anger others, but that’s why we’ve preached “perspective” throughout the preview. If the Lakers were to somehow reach a win range of even 28-32 games it would take a remarkable 11-15 game improvement from one season to the next, which would be a great accomplishment for any rebuilding team. Walton set the tone by establishing progress as his determining marker and that has to be the mindset and approach for everyone within the organization moving forward. This steady, even incremental advancement may be new for some of the younger amongst the fan base, but, by and large, these are the steps most franchises have to take when building a winner. The Lakers may not quite be there yet, but it is nice to see them headed in that direction once again.

– Jabari Davis

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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

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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