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Miami HEAT 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Miami HEAT landed a star in the off-season and were able to right-size their roster in the process, but the question is will that be enough for the HEAT to be more than a middle-tier playoff team? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Miami HEAT in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The post-Lebron era of the Miami HEAT has seen the team stuck in a cycle of being competent enough to compete for the playoffs, but not talented enough to take the next step. The team has only made it out the first round once in the past five seasons when they lost in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra has been a mainstay, and the team staying somewhat competitive can be largely attributed to his stewardship. After a shaky transition season following James’ departure, Spoelstra helped mold a defensive identity for the HEAT, as the team has finished in the top ten in defensive rating in each of the last four seasons.

After a brief detour to Chicago and later Cleveland that started in the summer of 2016, the prodigal son Dwyane Wade returned to Miami during the 2017-18 season and rode off into the sunset with his farewell tour last season. Wade’s retirement signaled the end of an era, and the HEAT wasted no time in transitioning to their next chapter.

In a blockbuster move, the HEAT agreed to a sign-and-trade with the 76ers, receiving Jimmy Butler and Meyers Leonard in a four-team deal. Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson were sent out of Miami as a result, going to Portland and Philadelphia, respectively.

The HEAT will now revolve around the enigmatic Butler and begin their journey towards the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their advancement through those playoffs may come down to the rest of their roster, and what names it is comprised of as the season goes on.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Jimmy Butler and Pat Riley finally had their wishes granted. The former wanted to be the number one option on a team, while the latter desired to have a superstar name leading his. Butler should have no problem playing next to Goran Dragic, a longtime heady veteran point guard who should bring a reliable secondary presence as a distributor and scorer. With Hassan Whiteside gone, Bam Adebayo is poised to have a breakout season with more minutes and an improved playmaking skill set. The same goes for Justise Winslow, who was tremendous with the ball in his hands last year. Tyler Herro’s rookie season could be a fun one to watch if the summer league was any indication of his true abilities. Don’t forget that Dion Waiters is on his way back as well. Erik Spoelstra’s bunch has grinded through the post-Big 3 days, but this offseason has the potential of taking the HEAT out of basketball purgatory and into a postseason run in the Eastern Conference.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The HEAT have more talent than they get credit for. Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Justise Winslow are all very nice pieces. They also have among the best Coach-GM/President combination in the league in Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley. But let’s not get too excited – while their division is theirs for the taking, there will be more than enough competition for them in the Eastern Conference. The HEAT are going to have to either add more talent, or a number of their players will have to have career years to secure a top-four playoff seed (and maybe to secure one at all). Fortunately for the HEAT, at least Bam Adebayo intends on doing just that with the starting center position his for the taking. If Adebayo has a breakout year, the HEAT could be more dangerous than most people expect.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

The HEAT made one of the biggest moves of the offseason by bringing in Jimmy Butler. Butler gives Miami a true superstar and go-to player. With the pieces already in place, Butler’s presence should be enough for a return to the postseason for the HEAT. One of the bigger storylines for the HEAT this season is going to be the development of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Adebayo seems like one of the best kept secrets in the NBA. He’s emerging a potential double-double threat and an elite defensive player. Herro had a great summer league and figures to be in the rotation right away as a rookie due to his sharpshooting from three. The next big question is Dion Waiters. He’s missed significant time since arriving in Miami due to injuries, having played in a total of 120 games over three seasons. If he’s healthy and ready to go, there should be playoff basketball in South Beach.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Miami made one major move this offseason – a four-team deal involving the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers. Among other things, the deal resulted in the HEAT trading Josh Richardson to the 76ers and Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers, while Miami received Jimmy Butler on a four-year, $140,790,600 contract (player option in the final season via sign-and-trade from the 76ers) and Meyers Leonard. Miami is taking a gamble that Butler can be the number one guy at age 30 and that Richardson won’t be a major loss. Butler will need to help Miami draw more talent in the future since this team as constructed doesn’t have enough top-tier talent to realistically make a run to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference this season. Miami is often a free agent destination, so it may end up working out for the HEAT. Overall, I think Miami had a pretty decent offseason, but I’m not convinced acquiring Butler is going to benefit the HEAT in the long-term, especially with Richardson now playing in Philadelphia.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For some time the Miami HEAT have been a scrappy team just good enough to be in the playoff hunt, but lacking the star power to close the deal. That changed with the arrival of Jimmy Butler this summer. Not only did the HEAT get the star they long coveted, but they also dumped off a ton of salary that wasn’t productive and did so without giving up incoming rookie Tyler Herro or veteran guard Goran Dragic. It is easy to overlook Miami with the sheer volume of star movement, but the HEAT were almost good before they got Butler, and they got Butler. While there are still lots of questions surrounding how this all fits together, Miami looks like a sleeper team to sneak into the top four in the East, and that would be impressive considering they did not have to bottom out to get there.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The HEAT pulled multiple strings to acquire Jimmy Butler via sign-and-trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. The move locked in a hard cap at $138.9 million, which required Miami to shed contracts just to make the Butler deal legal. The team is still very close to that limit with 17 players, five on non-guaranteed contracts, although Duncan Robinson appears to be a lock to make the roster with $1 million of his $1.4 million minimum contract guaranteed. Kendrick Nunn also has $150,000 guaranteed.

The HEAT have their full Mid-Level ($9.3 million) and Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions, but the hard cap restriction may force them to go unused, unless the team finds a significant cost-cutting trade. Players on the last year of their contracts like Goran Dragic ($19.2 million) and Meyers Leonard ($11.3 million) could be moved if Miami can find a suitor.

Miami also needs to pick up the team option on Bam Adebayo before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

The HEAT finished 26th in offense last season and have struggled to reach league average over the last five seasons. They put their chips on the table this summer to acquire a player who could help reverse that trend in Jimmy Butler.

Butler, a maestro in the pick-and-roll and a solid pull-up shooter, will have the ball in his hands quite often and will be asked to conjure up quality looks for the HEAT offense whenever he is on the court. He is an elite isolation scorer, scoring 1.01 points per possession out of those plays last season, per NBA.com.

The HEAT roster will be conducive to the pick-and-roll and isolation heavy offense that Butler prefers. They have constructed the roster with multiple players who will be content to expend their energy on defense while spacing the floor on the other end.

This will be Jimmy’s team, and the offense will be his to control. If you need any further proof of his credentials, just remember his nickname, Jimmy Buckets.

Top Defensive Player: Bam Adebayo

There are a few options on the HEAT roster to choose from here. Butler has been a consistently strong defender throughout his career, but his large offensive burden and age may lead to a slip on that end. Considering the center position is usually the most impactful defensive position, Adebayo figures to be the HEAT’s lynchpin.

With Whiteside now in Portland, the third-year player will be asked to control the middle. The third-year player has the tools to patrol the paint; he is bouncy and possesses a seven-foot-one wingspan, and the HEAT will hope his instincts continue to improve as he gains more experience.

The HEAT allowed 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the court compared to him off last season, per Cleaning The Glass. This gap could be even larger this season, without the alternation of minutes with Hassan Whiteside.

Top Playmaker: Jimmy Butler

Butler will be not only the HEAT’s best scorer, but their best playmaker as well. Perhaps it is overshadowed by his isolation effectiveness, or perhaps it is a product of his tendency to be embroiled in locker room drama, but Butler seems to be underrated in regards to his creation for teammates.

His assist percentage has been consistently in the top 10 percent of the league for his position over the last four seasons, per Cleaning The Glass. His passing out of the pick-and-roll is a particular strong point, and he possesses the vision to find teammates on the weak side of the court when controlling the ball in these sets.

In each of the last two seasons, both Minnesota and Philadelphia have shot significantly better as a team with Jimmy Butler on the court. Both saw the biggest improvement in their shooting percentage with shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. Butler should have the same effect in Miami, where his driving and passing ability can lead to open lobs and three-point attempts.

Top Clutch Player: Dion Waiters

Dion Waiters will reprise his role as the sixth man this season, armed with irrational confidence and a deadly step-back jumper. His fearlessness in big moments makes him a go-to option for the HEAT in the waning moments of a tight game.

Yes, Jimmy Butler hit multiple huge shots and a couple of buzzer-beaters last season. Waiters, however, shot 51.4 percent in the clutch two seasons ago, his last fully healthy season. For comparison, Waiters’ field goal percentage overall was a mere 39.8 percent. To say the Syracuse product raised his game in the clutch would be an understatement.

After an injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign, Waiters will be hungry to once again take the stage in the final minutes. If the ball ends up in his hands down the stretch, he may just break a few hearts.

The Unheralded Player: Goran Dragic

Goran Dragic is often overlooked as the offensive engine for this team. Two seasons ago, Dragic was the team’s lead ball-handler and helped power the offense just enough to make the playoffs, as the HEAT finished sixth in the East. Last season, Dragic missed extended time with injury, and the offense slipped as a result.

Now, the Slovenian is expected to be healthy for the upcoming season. Albeit with a reduced role, Dragic will still be a very important player for this HEAT team.

In the few games he played last season, Dragic had a profound effect on the team’s transition offense. The HEAT scored 124.2 points off of 100 transition plays coming from a live ball rebound with Dragic on the court, compared to just 99.3 points per 100 plays with off, per Cleaning The Glass.

Dragic will push the pace and help the HEAT generate easier looks, something they may sorely miss when Butler is resting.

Best New Addition: Jimmy Butler

With apologies to Meyers Leonard, this designation can only be given to one person. Butler is the best offseason acquisition that the HEAT has made since the summer of The Decision when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

As mentioned above, Butler will immediately be the fulcrum of the HEAT offense, and the team will run through him on that end. Butler is no slouch on the defensive end, and he should guard the opposing team’s best wing player when the games matter most.

All in all, Butler is a four-time All-Star, a four-time All-Defensive Team selection, and two-time member of the All-NBA Third Team. He will command attention on and off the court, and the team’s postseason hopes will rest on his shoulders.

– Quinn Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra is the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA, behind only the legendary Gregg Popovich. He was hired by the HEAT at the end of the 2007-08 season and has been manning the sidelines ever since. He helped lead the team to two NBA championships with the Big Three and has firmly cemented himself as of the league’s premier head coaches.

A sign of a great coach is the ability to mold a team’s identity to fit the personnel, and Spoelstra has done just that. During the Big Three era, he propelled the team to new heights and ushered in the small-ball era by moving LeBron James to the four, with Chris Bosh playing as a stretch five. He also employed a frenetic, trapping defense that played to the strengths of both James and Dwyane Wade.

In recent years, Spoelstra has changed his defensive scheme to fit the more conventional center in Hassan Whiteside and has kept his team near the top of the league in that department. He also has moved to a more free-flowing offense featuring a heavy dose of dribble-handoffs, due to a roster lacking elite isolation scorers and pick-and-roll players.

With the new additions for this season, Spoelstra will likely have some new wrinkles planned. History tells us that he will be able to push the right buttons.

2. Meyers Leonard

After spending the first seven years of his career with the Portland Trailblazers, Leonard will now suit up win Miami after being included in the four-team Jimmy Butler trade. While all of the focus has rightfully been on the Butler acquisition, Leonard will also be a solid contributor to the HEAT this season.

Leonard was a beacon of efficiency last season in Portland. He shot 46 percent from three last season on 107 attempts, and 76 percent from the rim on 83 attempts. While the volume is a bit low, the accuracy is elite. If Leonard can continue to be an elite floor spacer off the bench for Miami, he will be a valuable bench piece going forward.

3. Justise Winslow

Winslow, a member of the HEAT since the 2015-16 season, has improved each year he has been in the league. Last season, he reached his highest usage and was at his most efficient since entering the league.

Most encouraging has been his three-point percentage jump. After laying bricks in his first two seasons, Winslow has shot 40 and 38 percent from deep in his two most recent campaigns. His usage will likely decrease as Jimmy Butler will have the ball often, so his efficiency may rise even further.

The Duke product also brings value on the defensive end. He is a strong, physical defender that can guard 1-3 and even some small fours effectively. The HEAT were 3.7 points per 100 possessions stingier with Winslow on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. He will be a key piece this season and will likely be asked to do the heavy lifting on defense so Butler can reserve his energy for the other end.

4. Tyler Herro

The rookie from Kentucky was selected 13th by the HEAT in the 2019 draft and, after a standout Summer League performance, figures to be a factor in the rotation this season.

He averaged 19.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the Las Vegas circuit. His efficiency was a bit low – he shot 33 percent from deep and 42 percent overall – but that can be attributed to his role as the focal point of the HEAT’s Summer League offense and attracting the most defensive attention.

As a bench piece this season, Herro will mostly be asked to knock down spot-up looks, which was a specialty of his in college. He also has a good handle, is a nifty passer and is able to attack closeouts and make plays off the dribble.

He will be a work in progress on the defensive end, but he projects to be a nice role player for this HEAT team and could take on a larger role as a secondary playmaker as he matures.

– Quinn Davis

STRENGTHS

There is no shortage of veteran leadership in Miami, where the team boasts several experienced players that should make for a strong locker room. Udonis Haslem will return for another season after mulling retirement, and he brings a respected presence. Jimmy Butler, while not without his past drama, is a respected veteran who will command attention. He took on a mentorship role in his stint in Philadelphia last season, and he should do the same with the likes of Justise Winslow, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn next season. Former MMA fighter James Johnson will also bring a battle-scarred presence to the team.

Additionally, the team will be strong on the defensive end as long as Spoelstra is at the helm. They have the personnel to be in the top 10 for the fifth straight season and could shoot even higher if Butler brings consistent effort and Adebayo continues to improve.

– Quinn Davis

WEAKNESSES

Outside of Jimmy Butler, the team may have trouble creating quality looks on offense. Dion Waiters is a likely candidate to take on playmaking duties while Butler rests, but his passing leaves a little to be desired, and he tends to be rather streaky.

Goran Dragic is another that some may point to as a potential creator, but his explosiveness continues to wane as he ages. Dragic also missed about half of last season due to injury, and the HEAT will need him at full strength if he is to carry some of the offensive load.

Another issue could be the rim protection behind Bam Adebayo. The HEAT rounds out their big man rotation with Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard, both of whom have not provided much resistance at the rim in their careers. While this weakness may be mitigated with some creativity from Spoelstra, it is certainly something to monitor as the season plays out.

– Quinn Davis

The Burning Question

Will the HEAT add a second star this season?

The NBA summer of 2019 was defined by superstar duos. Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers to pair with Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George moved mountains when it was announced they would both be suiting up for the Clippers, and Russell Westbrook was traded to the Rockets to form an electric backcourt with James Harden.

The HEAT, meanwhile, traded for Jimmy Butler, and have since been rumored to be in the running for any and all available superstars to form a duo of their own. They were rumored to be the leader for Westbrook before Houston was able to outbid them.

After Chris Paul was sent to Oklahoma City as part of that trade, many pegged the HEAT as a top suitor for the future Hall of Famer. Paul’s gargantuan salary makes trading him a tall task, as the HEAT do not currently have much cap flexibility. It is also unclear how much the HEAT value Paul as a second superstar considering his age and slip in production last season.

With Butler in the fold, the HEAT figure to be a competitive group, but without a significant acquisition, they will struggle to keep pace with the elites. At a glance, the options they could add in the short term are limited. Bradley Beal is typically mentioned as the star who needs a change of scenery, but the Wizards have made it clear that they are not interested in moving him at this time.

It seems unlikely that a second star will suit up for Miami this season, but the NBA is a fluid environment. One locker room incident or a sluggish start to the season could lead to a trade request from Beal or another major name before the deadline. The HEAT is also helmed by master negotiator Pat Riley, who orchestrated the formation of the Big Three in 2010. He will leave no stone unturned in the quest for a title.

– Quinn Davis

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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