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Luka, Trae and the Perfect Trade

Luka Doncic and Trae Young will be forever linked. The two young superstars meet again Wednesday night in Atlanta. Chad Smith looks back on the draft-night trade, and how their vastly different playing styles ultimately produce the same results.

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Typically, it is the two guys at the top of the draft that are forever linked. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Even the near misses like LeBron James and Darko Miličić or Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. The careers of these top two selections will always be compared to one another.

But the 2018 NBA Draft was different. This class was oozing with talent ready to blossom. The top five picks from this draft made the All-Rookie First Team. That was the first time this had happened since 1984; about 15 years before any of these players were even born.

With apologies to Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. and many others, the two best players in this draft have been Luka Dončić and Trae Young. It is even crazier when you remember that they were actually traded for each other.

Out of the 60 players drafted in 2018, Dončić and Young are the only two that have made an All-Star appearance. Dončić won Rookie of the Year and has the most win shares (16.0) of any player in the class. Young is third (11.6) and, last season, became just the fifth player to average 29 points and 9 assists in a season, joining Oscar Robertson, Tiny Archibald, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

The Hawks and Mavericks made the deal on draft night, with Atlanta also receiving a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, which they used to draft Cam Reddish 10th overall. Obviously, Atlanta knew that Dončić was the real deal, but the extra pick is what Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said made the deal worth it. “I’ve always taken the strategy with the draft, to use a baseball strategy: The more swings you get, the more chances you have to get a hit,” Schlenk said on The Woj Pod. “To be able to take one lottery pick and essentially turn it into two, that made sense to us.”

Dončić’s fit in Dallas made perfect sense, joining fellow international legend Dirk Nowitzki as the team was ready to turn the corner sooner rather than later. He was ready to play major minutes right away, having just won the Euroleague MVP. The transition of the face of the franchise was well in place, with Nowitzki in the twilight of his NBA career. The worry most scouts had with Dončić was that he had reached his ceiling, or something close to it, during his international career, while others were unsure as to whether he would make the commitment to get his body in NBA shape.

It was different for Young. While some questioned his shot at the NBA level, many scouts pointed out that his size would render him, at best, ineffective on the defensive end.

Looking at the two point guards, each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Dončić is much bigger and can use his size to his advantage. While smaller, Young is able to use his quickness and agility to create space and is able to lean more on his athleticism. While neither are known for their defensive prowess, both are phenomenal offensive players. They are elite on that end of the floor, but the way they operate is not all that different.

Needless to say, both of these guys have limitless range. They have displayed the ability to knock down shots that are well beyond the 23-foot, 9-inch arc. They can also both finish at the rim, though they do so in different ways. The end result for Dončić is either a tricky euro step layup or a kick-out to an open shooter. Young gets to the basket quickly, but usually lobs it up to John Collins, Clint Capela, or one of Atlanta’s other athletic wings.

Whether a lob at the rim or a pass to an open shooter, the assist numbers for these two have been off the charts. Young has a higher career assist average (8.6 to 7.5), but the success rate of a dunk is much higher than a three-point shot. Dončić has the heavy advantage in rebounding, which is to be expected given their size difference. Interestingly enough, their steals (1.0 to 0.9) and blocks (0.3 to 0.2) averages are very close, with Dončić leading in both categories. The numbers are even closer when looking at per-36 minutes and per-100 possessions.

Dončić has collected more individual accolades and seen greater team success, but Young may be turning the corner on both categories this season. One place where Dončić has been that Young hasn’t yet visited is the postseason. Expectations were high for both teams entering this season, with Atlanta winning the offseason with all of their moves and Dallas ready to build on their playoff run last year.

In his first career playoff series last year, Dončić averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He scored 42 points in Game 1 in the Mavericks’ series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the most in NBA history by a player in his playoff debut. After Game 2 he scored the most points (70) in his first two games of anyone since the NBA/ABA merger.

Dončić recorded a triple-double in Game 3 and followed that with a monster Game 4 performance where he recorded 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists. That was capped with his 28-foot buzzer-beater to win the game. Not bad when you consider he did all of that on an injured ankle and without Kristaps Porziņģis.

The 2020-21 season is now past the quarter mark and both players have already gone through a slump. Young went through a rough patch a couple of weeks ago and now Dončić, as the Mavericks have lost six games in a row, is shooting a career-low from beyond the arc. In fact, only Kelly Oubre has a worse three-point percentage. The Hawks have a much more talented roster this year, though many of their new pieces have yet to hit the floor together.

Like most teams this season, the Hawks and Mavericks are struggling to have their full rosters available for most of these games. Dallas finally had their full complement of players last night in their game against the Phoenix Suns. Both of these young stars must find a way to keep shouldering the offensive load but also find ways to improve individually on defense. Their postseason fate will depend on it.

As badly as some people want to compare Dončić to LeBron James and Young to Stephen Curry, these two have their own legacies to fulfill. Those legacies are often defined by playoff success. Records and statistics mean nothing without the hardware.

We’ll have to wait a while to see who will ultimately end up with the most championship rings. The Basketball Gods might even bless us with an opportunity to one day see these two meet in the Finals.

For some reason, there always has to be a clear-cut and obvious “winner” in every trade. While it’s way too early to put a final grade on this one, it’s fair to say that both teams have already won.

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NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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