This offseason was something else for Los Angeles, and that’s putting it lightly.
At long last, the Los Angeles Lakers landed the second superstar they wanted to pair with LeBron James – Anthony Davis. To acquire Davis, the Lakers traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the rights to De’Andre Hunter (4th overall pick in 2019 draft), two future first-rounders and one first-round pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers also traded Isaac Bonga, Moritz Wagner, Jemerrio Jones and a 2022 second-rounder to the Washington Wizards (with Washington sending cash to the Pelicans) in order to create more cap space to pursue Kawhi Leonard and create a devastating Big Three.
Leonard ended up signing with the in-arena rival Clippers, but the Lakers still have two of the top five players in the NBA and then added several other players to fill out the roster. A team featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis has the foundation to instantly be a contender and arguably makes the Lakers the favorite to make it out of the Western Conference in the postseason. Notably, the Lakers also added Danny Green as a capable 3-and-D wing with championship experience.
Whether the Lakers have placed the right players around Davis, James and Green is the big question. Of the previous young core they’d been building around, Kyle Kuzma is the one the team refused to include in the Davis trade. Los Angeles also signed DeMarcus Cousins to a team-friendly contract to add more punch at the center position. Unfortunately, Cousins tore his ACL recently and will likely miss the upcoming season. In response, the Lakers signed Dwight Howard to a one-year contract, which has Lakers fans feeling conflicted.
But how far can the team go? Is it really championship or bust? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Lakers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are officially happening. It took a lot to get The Brow to Hollywood, but this superstar pairing may very well go down as being one of the best of all-time. This time around, Rob Pelinka did a solid job of making sure the talent surrounding them will be able to contribute as well. New faces such as Danny Green, Troy Daniels and Avery Bradley will bring the 3-and-D thunder in supplementary roles. Quinn Cook is one of the most overlooked, up-and-coming point guards just waiting for an opportunity to prove himself. Everybody wants to talk about Dwight Howard, but let’s not forget how good JaVale McGee was last season either.
Veteran leader Frank Vogel will be the man in charge at head coach — but he’s also got Jason Kidd as his top assistant. That’s really the only thing we should be unsure about, but the talent and experience on paper could make the situation fit seamlessly. James has gotten the most rest he’s had since the summer of 2004. Brace yourselves, Lakers fans: The six-year playoff drought is coming to an end.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
The Lakers began their offseason horribly with a public breakup between the team and Magic Johnson. But bad times don’t seem to last long in Los Angeles. Pairing Anthony Davis with LeBron James makes them a viable championship contender right away. Signing and then losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL was a blow to their depth chart and overall talent, but they have two of the very best players on the planet and most teams will struggle to match the James-Davis tandem — that is, assuming they can remain healthy.
As a bonus, we’ve heard a lot this summer out of Team USA camp about Kyle Kuzma’s improved shooting and defensive. It would help the Lakers incredibly if he’s really improved in those areas, as he was already a top-100 player without the elite three-point range and some sub-par defense. The additions of Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Jared Dudley were all excellent for the team. Of course, the Lakers will live and die by James and Davis.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
The Lakers pulled off one of the biggest moves of the offseason in trading for Anthony Davis. After missing the playoffs last season, the duo of Davis and LeBron James should be enough to catapult Los Angeles back into the postseason. But health is going to be a factor as they’ve likely lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season. James has been very durable throughout his career, but he missed a significant amount of time last year due to injury. Davis also missed games — and throughout his entire career, really — last season with an injury. One major hit to either of those two players and that could be it for the Lakers’ season, the Western Conference is that tough.
The biggest question mark, however, is Dwight Howard. If he’s motivated, he could end up being one of the biggest steals of the offseason. If not? Then the Lakers already shaky depth suffers a big blow. Even if they all stay healthy, the Lakers’ ceiling is probably a 4 or 5 seed out west.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
There is a lot to say about the Los Angeles Lakers’ offseason — but the main takeaway is that they’ve acquired Anthony Davis just one year after signing LeBron James in free agency. That’s categorically a win, especially for a franchise that has failed to live up to its prestige in recent seasons. Having said that, the Lakers did give up Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the rights to De’Andre Hunter, two future first-rounders and one first-round pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. While that is a lot to give up in a trade, pairing Davis with LeBron this season is worth it.
Beyond Davis, the Lakers also brought in Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Troy Daniels, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and Talen Horton-Tucker, while re-signing several of their veterans. Green should be a major contributor and will help spread the floor for LeBron and Davis to operate closer to the basket. Unfortunately, Cousins went down with an ACL tear and will likely miss the upcoming season. Overall, the Lakers put together a talented, though imperfect, roster around James and Davis.
The Lakers have the talent to make it to the NBA Finals this year, but that will be determined in large part on how well Frank Vogel can sort out and optimize this team in his first season as its head coach.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
There are times in life where you have to go all-in and when you have LeBron James on the roster, you don’t waste those opportunities. Yes, the Lakers paid a hefty price to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans but, let’s be honest, none of the guys they gave up are future All-Stars, let alone All-Stars while James can still influence a game. The Lakers are better today than they were at the end of the season and, while they will lack assets to add to the team, they have two of the top five or so players in the NBA — that is usually enough to be respectable.
The other part is this: Every time James has been counted out, he’s won the MVP that following season. He may not have another MVP in him, but when you look at how much he changed his body for Space Jam 2 and how motivated all the involved parties are, then the Lakers should be among the top four in the conference and that’s worth the price paid for Anthony Davis by itself. Coaching and three-point shooting is a question, but in the NBA, stars win you games and the Lakers have two of the game’s brightest.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
In addition to their blockbuster acquisition of Anthony Davis, the Lakers managed enough cap room to sign Kawhi Leonard, but the NBA Finals MVP chose to go the Los Angeles Clippers instead. The Lakers pivoted to fleshing out the team with role players like Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins and Avery Bradley.
Unfortunately, Cousins suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team will likely end up with a $1.8 million Disabled Player Exception for Cousins, but that may not be enough to use for a significant replacement. Instead, the Lakers added Dwight Howard on a non-guaranteed minimum contract as the team’s 15th standard NBA contract (the team has 14 fully guaranteed).
Looking ahead, the Lakers need to pick up the team option on Kyle Kuzma before November. Outside of LeBron James, the rest of the team’s players are on one- or two-year contracts (many with player options). The most notably is Davis, who can leave as a free agent next summer. Obviously, his happiness is the team’s top priority as to make sure he chooses to stay long term.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis is top-10 — arguably even higher — player in the NBA and, when healthy, he is an MVP-caliber level player. But Davis has been out of the spotlight for some time and has never played with a player of James’ stature either. James and Davis both spend significant time playing at power forward while being the focal point of the team’s offense. With the potential for significant overlap, it will be interesting to see how this dynamic will be managed. Last week, Davis shared his thoughts on the matter:
“I’ve kind of been a focal-point player my whole career, especially in New Orleans. But, first off, to have a guy like LeBron, someone of his caliber, go tell management and ownership and the coaches that he wants me to be the focal point is an honor,” Davis told Yahoo Sports.
Davis and James appear to be on the same page with an emphasis on building up Davis as the team’s workhouse. Going into his 17th season, James has had a super-human ability to stay healthy thus far. That luck seemed to run out a bit last season with a groin injury. While James did recover and return, the Lakers’ season was lost while he was away and James appeared somewhat slowed before being shut down toward the end of the season. Considering the age and mileage James has put on his body over his career, it makes sense for Davis to be the main focal point for this team.
“I know what comes with that and that’s a lot of heavy lifting. I want to be able to do that. I think I have the capabilities of doing that. And obviously, with the team’s support, it’s going to be a lot easier on me. We have a great team,” Davis said.
Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis
Earlier in his career, James was a defensive menace and could guard every position consistently and effectively. James has scaled back his effort on defense in the last few seasons, which makes sense considering that aforementioned millage. That means Davis is the most consistent and dynamic defensive player on the Lakers’ roster, bar none.
“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable in order for us to take on the challenge of being the best we can defensively.”
It’s interesting that Davis would not only speak about keeping himself and his teammates accountable but that he included James by name.
“[W]e’ll have a good chance of winning every night. I want to make sure me and LeBron are on the All-Defensive Team. And for me personally, I just want to be the Defensive Player of the Year. If we’re able to hold teams under 100, which is probably unrealistic but it should be our goal, I think we’ll have a shot at winning the title.”
Top Playmaker: LeBron James
James has been the lead ball-handler on every team he has played on and that doesn’t figure to change this season. With his size, athleticism, court vision and unselfish approach to the game, James is one of the most devastating playmakers in the game. With Davis running on the fast break, dropping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls and carving out space near the basket, James will have even more opportunities to tally up assists. With all due respect to Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, Davis is on another level as a big man and should draw significant defensive attention each time the Lakers are on offense. With extra space to operate, James may be in for one of his most efficient seasons as a playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: LeBron James
Davis could end up wrestling this title from James at some point — but, for now, James’ multifaceted arsenal and unlimited experience in tight games give him the edge. Davis has had big moments but he doesn’t have the proven track record that James has. Very few in NBA history do, to be fair. There was a time early in his career where many argued James was not clutch and didn’t have the mentality to be a go-to player in clutch situations. James has proven that theory wrong and is still one of the toughest covers in the most important situations.
So, until proven differently, the responsibility for top clutch player falls to James.
The Unheralded Player: JaVale McGee
Despite his reputation for being clumsy, JaVale McGee offered reliable contributions on the offensive and defensive side of the ball last season. Bringing McGee back gives the Lakers another solid option at center, which will allow Davis to play at his preferred position of power forward. So long as Davis is allowed to play many of his minutes at the four, the Lakers will have to competently man the center position — of course, Cousins’ injury complicated this plan.
McGee represents as good a player as the Lakers can reasonably expect and has already proved he can stay focused through the long NBA season without causing the team headaches. Dwight Howard might prove capable — but, between the two, Howard is the long shot and McGee is the safer bet. Go figure.
Best New Addition: Anthony Davis
There isn’t as much to say here except that Davis is a spectacular get for the Lakers. Multiple young players and numerous draft picks were required to wrestle Davis away from the Pelicans. But when you have a player like James and available assets, you make moves to solidify a championship-worthy team. If the Lakers win a championship as the result of this trade while keeping Davis as a long-term asset, this trade is easily worth the risk.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kyle Kuzma
So much rests on the shoulders of Kuzma. He is talented, can score and is young, so we can reasonably expect him to improve this season. As the third option on a team that features two generational talents, the Lakers are optimistic that Kuzma is up to the challenge of being the team’s third option. However, Kuzma’s three-point shooting dropped significantly from his rookie season. While that is not the most positive sign, Kuzma should expect to have less attention paid to him now that the Lakers have James and Davis powering the offense. Kuzma isn’t known as any sort of defensive stalwart but has the tools to be an effective team asset.
2. Frank Vogel
The Lakers moved on from Luke Walton this offseason. A favorite of Jeanie Buss, Walton helped oversee the development of many of the team’s younger players and guide the franchise through their recent multi-season drought. Walton is now in Sacramento and, thusly, now begins the Frank Vogel era.
James has played against Vogel-coached teams for years and had some high-profile playoff matchups against the Indiana Pacers earlier in his career. Should Vogel be able to build a strong enough defensive unit centered around Davis while hiding players like Kuzma, the Lakers will likely be one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.
Unfortunately, there was some drama surrounding Vogel’s hiring. Vogel was famously the second choice of the Lakers after negotiations with Tyronn Lue broke down. Further complicating Vogel’s hiring is the supposed mandate that any head coach would be required to have previous head coach Jason Kidd as a high-profile assistant coach. If Vogel struggles to meet expectations early in the season, we may hear calls for Kidd to take over the top job.
3. JaVale McGee
Last season, the Lakers took numerous swings on capable veterans with checkered pasts. Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley are long gone. Rajon Rondo has had moments but is inconsistent and last season was often one of the sources of drama that hurt the team. Of this group, count JaVale McGee as the exception.
As a major silver lining, McGee put his head down and did whatever the team needed. McGee offered a lob threat on offense, as well as someone who could defend the rim, rebound and score on put backs. While the Lakers made bigger acquisitions, bringing back McGee at a low cost will be a key roster-building move, especially considering Cousins’ injury and the questions that always surround Howard.
4. Quinn Cook
Quinn Cook doesn’t put up monster numbers and probably shouldn’t be the starting point guard for a contending team. But Cook has developed into a steady hand at point guard, reliable converts and has a championship-level experience from his time with the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers signed Cook to a reasonable contract and should definitely benefit with him on the roster, especially considering Rondo’s injury history and the relative inexperience of Alex Caruso. Additionally, Cook can play effectively off the ball and has logged time playing alongside point forwards like James.
– James Blancarte
The frontcourt. Davis, James and Kuzma could make for a dangerous frontcourt, especially on offense. Danny Green can play in the backcourt but can easily slot into the frontcourt to defend an opposing elite small forward. Even Jared Dudley can offer some additional versatility on both ends of the court at either forward position. McGee and Howard will battle it out for the starting center position but both are poised to contribute regardless. At all times, there should be a capable combination of players manning the frontcourt and carrying this team.
– James Blancarte
Guard play and, obviously, relative heath. On the first note, the Lakers will be relying on some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. Adding Green to that list doesn’t do enough to address all of the issues this group will likely face. Lakers fans need to brace for the likelihood that Rondo will again be the starting point guard for the team.
When he is focused and playing well, Rondo helps to set up teammates well as a distributor. Unfortunately, Rondo’s mercurial personality can lead to drama for the Lakers. Rondo’s antics could splinter a team that features so much talent and many strong personalities. Additionally, Rondo’s defense leaves a lot to be desired. He’s also on the back end of his career, so there isn’t much reason to believe that will change this upcoming season.
Whether anyone can surpass Rondo at the position is up in the air. Caruso played well at the end of last season, and is a bit of a folk hero for Lakers fans, but will have to show he can play well when it matters most. Regardless, the Lakers could use an infusion of talent in the backcourt.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can this team win it all this upcoming season?
This team has the top-end talent necessary to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. While many have the Lakers as a top-five favorite to win the championship next season, it’s not clear they have what it takes to overcome other top teams like the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks. The answer to this question will be heavily based on how quickly this team can build chemistry and identity under their new head coach, Frank Vogel. If they can do this, the Lakers have a respectable chance of competing for the championship this upcoming season.
– James Blancarte
The X-Factors: Portland
Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.
In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.
Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.
We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?
For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.
Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.
Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.
Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.
Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.
Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.
Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.
Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.
Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.
Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.
All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.
Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.
The X-Factors: New Orleans
Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.
Basketball is back, baby.
Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.
Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.
To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.
Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.
But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.
Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.
Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.
And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.
Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.
Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.
The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.
Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.
At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.
But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.
Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.
Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.
With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.
At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.
But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.
In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.
If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.
Looking Back At The Draft: The No. 12 Picks
David Yapkowitz assesses the 12th picks made in recent NBA Drafts and identifies the hits, misses and everything in-between.
The further you get into the NBA draft, the harder it is to categorize hits and misses. There aren’t many expectations with later draft picks, especially in the second round. If a player ends up panning out, then great. If they don’t, it’s no big financial loss for the team and they can easily cut ties. When you’re still in the lottery, however, you probably expect a little more than just an average player. Superstars are never guaranteed, especially with late lottery selections. But you probably would expect to have a quality rotation player if not probable starter with a late lottery pick.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re continuing our look back at the draft, pick by pick, with each of the No. 12 picks going back the last 10 drafts. Let’s see how those picks have panned out.
Steven Adams – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2013
The OKC Thunder didn’t have a lottery pick in the 2013 draft, but they acquired it from the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden trade. With Adams, the Thunder certainly hit the mark. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo (who 13 other teams in addition to the Thunder passed on) and Rudy Gobert are players picked after Adams who have fared better.
Adams has become one of the best defensive players and rebounders in the league as well as a great screen setter and roll man in the pick and roll. He plays his role to perfection and is a starting-caliber center. He may not have hit All-Star status, but he is a legit starter and with a lottery pick, that’s probably what you would expect.
Gerald Henderson – Charlotte Bobcats – 2009
I’m going with a hit on this one. Henderson played nearly all of his eight-year career with the Bobcats with the exception of his final two years with the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers respectively. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement due to nagging injury issues.
But for the eight years he was in the NBA, he was a capable scorer and mostly a starting-caliber wing player. As mentioned, with a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you should expect. Henderson averaged double-digits in scoring for most of his career and he shot in the mid-’40s from the field. If not for injuries, he probably would have played in the NBA for a few more years.
Xavier Henry – Memphis Grizzlies – 2010
Going back to the last ten drafts, Henry is the only player picked No. 12 that I would consider to be a miss thus far. He had some hype coming out of Kansas and was expected to be a first-round pick and NBA contributor. He didn’t play much as a rookie with the Grizzlies and was traded to the New Orleans Hornets.
He showed some brief flashes with the Hornets but never really was able to sustain any sort of consistent success. He got hurt during his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and that pretty much ended his NBA career after five years. He’s had a couple of G League appearances since then but didn’t really show that he was ready for an NBA return.
The Middle of the Road
Taurean Prince – Atlanta Hawks – 2016
Again, for a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you expect your selection to develop into. Prince is here under the middle of the road rather than hits because it’s still too early in his career to determine if he is truly a full-time starter.
With the Hawks, he certainly looked the part. After a so-so rookie year, he stepped up in a big way, becoming a scorer and deadly three-point shooter with solid defensive capabilities. When he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, he was considered to be a big pick up. This season, although he started in 61 of the 64 games he suited up in Brooklyn, his shooting suffered and he wasn’t as effective as he had been in Atlanta. There is still time for him to be considered a hit though.
Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets – 2012
Lamb is another player who had some high expectations coming out of college but got off to a rocky start in the NBA. He showed some flashes in Oklahoma City but was wildly inconsistent. But like many players, a change of scenery seemed to be all he needed.
He broke out when he arrived in Charlotte, becoming a solid bench scoring threat and becoming more of a regular in the starting lineup as the years went on.
He rightfully earned himself a solid payday from the Indiana Pacers and he started 42 of the 46 games he played in. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a season-ending injury in February. The Pacers are hoping he can bounce back from that.
Luke Kennard – Detroit Pistons – 2017
Another player that is still a little early to categorize. For now, he appears to be a middle of the ground type player. This is only his third year in the NBA, and he’s shown improvement each year. This season was a breakout year for him.
Since coming to the league, he’s been a very good three-point shooter. This season he was knocking down 39.9 percent of his attempts. His scoring has gone up every season and this year he had broken through to double-digits. He has some injury concerns, and he was actually out when the NBA suspended the season. But if he can bounce back healthy, then he certainly looks like a solid pick at No. 12.
The Role Players
Trey Lyles – Utah Jazz – 2015
In a league where the game is changing and traditional big men aren’t as common as they used to be, Lyles fits right in. Lyles seemingly was another case of a player who needed a change of scenery to find his niche. He wasn’t able to stick in either Utah or Denver, and it wasn’t until this season, his first in San Antonio, that he looked like a capable role player.
Lyles became a regular starter for the Spurs, and again, that’s what you want from a lottery pick. He isn’t included in the hits yet because this is the first season out of his five that he’s shown this. He doesn’t have a big enough sample size. He shot a career-best 38.7 percent from three and if he keeps this up, he’ll be a good pick albeit a late bloomer.
Alec Burks – Utah Jazz – 2011
Burks once looked like he was going to become more than just a solid NBA player. He might have had borderline All-Star potential. At least a starting-caliber shooting guard. But unfortunately for him, his career was seemingly derailed by early injuries.
He has since bounced back though. He’s reinvented himself as a scoring threat off the bench. He put up a career-high 16.1 points per game with the Golden State Warriors in the first half of the season. On a playoff team though, he’s a second unit player and that’s exactly what the 76ers were hoping for when they traded for him. He only had 11 games in Philly before the season was halted, but he’s done well to change his game and be effective despite major injuries.
Too Early to Tell
Dario Saric – Orlando Magic – 2014
I’m introducing a new category here, the too early to tell group. These players either don’t have a big enough sample size, or they have had circumstances that may have hindered their abilities. Saric falls into the latter part of that. He’s been a solid starting stretch-four when he’s gotten consistent playing time. But he struggled to adapt to being thrown around in different roles and inconsistent minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. He’s a pending restricted free agent who might not figure to be in the Suns future plans. Quite a few teams should consider throwing an offer his way.
Miles Bridges – Charlotte Bobcats – 2018
It’s a bit too early to make any major assessments on Bridges. This is only his second year in the NBA, a season that has been cut short. He mostly came off the bench as a rookie and had a pretty solid year with some aspects he could certainly improve upon. He looked much improved this season albeit some areas he could still work on.
He became a regular starting small forward for the Bobcats this season. He upped his scoring and rebounding and he’s often asked to guard multiple positions. He’s young and has a lot of room to improve. I don’t quite feel comfortable yet placing him in one of the above categories so that’s why he’s too early to tell. The future does look good for him though.
The later you go in the draft, the fewer expectations you put on the player you drafted. Franchise level players are not common, there are only a handful in the league. But at least with first-rounders, and especially a lottery pick, you’d expect to get at least a quality rotation player.
Judging by the production of the all the No. 12 picks for the past ten years, it’s safe to say that they all have, or look like they will pan out in some capacity. Only one of them is a sure-fire miss.