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NBA AM: Boston Celtics 2017-18 Season Preview

The Boston Celtics will have a very different look this season. The question is will it be enough to topple the Cavaliers? We look at the Celtics in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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When a franchise returns just four players from the prior season, that’s typically a sign of a rebuild, a strategy not often embraced by teams that were just three wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, this massive roster overhaul comes after the Boston Celtics clawed their way to the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a 53-29 record, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to demoralize them in five games.

After moving down from the No. 1 overall pick (via Brooklyn) in the 2017 NBA Draft to take talented rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics then added Gordon Hayward in free agency and executed a blockbuster trade for Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics are still soundly one of the conference’s elite contenders, general manager Danny Ainge has effectively gone all-in for 2017-18 without sacrificing much of the franchise’s long-term potential.

The Celtics’ revamped roster has set their collective sights on a championship, but here’s how Basketball Insiders envision this season shaking out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Incredibly, the team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season added two star caliber players and a top-three pick in the draft during this offseason.

Talk about a productive summer.

The Boston Celtics are officially a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers Eastern Conference throne after signing Gordon Hayward, adding Jayson Tatum to the mix, and ultimately parting with the Brooklyn pick and their own point guard to bring Kyrie Irving behind enemy lines.

However, this season won’t be the season they finally usurp the King in Cleveland. But, Boston fans should be overjoyed with how the immediate and long term future of their team looks now with the likes of Irving and Hayward on board alongside a bevy of young talent and assets. The return to the glory days of Celtics basketball seems to be right around the corner.

1st place– Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

It is my opinion that adding Kyrie Irving was good for the Celtics. Also, that signing Gordon Hayward was good. Also, that drafting Jayson Tatum was good. Together, all of these good things added to the good things Boston already had on the roster, including last year’s big additions, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, makes for a good team. The coach is good, too. Everything here is good. Big things are on the horizon for the Celtics this season.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

After scores of people ridiculed Danny Ainge for failing to land either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, he absolutely got the last laugh by signing Gordon Hayward and executing a trade for Kyrie Irving. As a result of a fairly busy summer, the Celtics have a ton of new faces and have lost their defensive stalwarts in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. With Hayward and Irving joining Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though, the Celtics probably have enough firepower to win the Atlantic Division.

The reasonable expectation for this team is to give the Cavaliers a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals. My main concern with them is that they simply lack the depth that made them who they were last season. Sure, consolidation is generally a good thing when you’re adding superstars, but the Celtics probably need two more solid rotation players before I consider them to be a legitimate threat to the Cavs atop the East. That, of course, assumes that everyone remains relatively healthy.

Still, Ainge deserves an A+ for what he pulled off this summer, and the Celtics’ next reign atop the Atlantic will likely begin this season.

1st place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The summer’s most active team, the Celtics will suddenly be without three of the five guys they sent out to start Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They landed the offseason’s biggest free agency fish in Gordon Hayward, then engineered a massive blockbuster for Kyrie Irving. These moves also forced them to move on from each of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, though they also picked up Marcus Morris for Bradley. The Celtics undeniably got more talented this summer, but how will potential fit and chemistry issues clash with that improvement? It’s tough to say, though coach Brad Stevens is among the best bets in the league to work things out quickly.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and a top-three draft pick in Jayson Tatum is a big deal. However, we can’t simply forget that guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are no longer with the team. The Thomas hip injury is problematic and he was about to become very expensive, so replacing him with Irving, even at a high price, was probably the right thing to do. Bradley is also about to become very expensive, but his elite perimeter defense and shooting will be missed. Also, I think the loss of Crowder is going to hurt more than most people predict. Having said all of that, the Celtics are primed to compete now and for the foreseeable future. Boston has a nice mix of versatile veteran and young talent to mix and match and I’m confident that Brad Stevens is going to figure out how to best utilize it. I don’t know if Boston has enough to take down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I think the potential to do so is there.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Simply put, Irving is one of basketball’s best offensive players without a doubt. Whether Irving is looking to create his own shot or wants to feed off of his teammates as a spot-up assassin, the 25-year-old can do it all. Although Cleveland ultimately came up short against the Golden State Warriors, Irving managed to improved in the playoffs once again, this time tallying 25.9 points to go along with 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. With the ball, Irving is immensely talented and creative in both pick-and-roll or isolation situations, particularly so when the game hangs in the balance.

His trade demand exhibited the desire to be a franchise’s top option offensively, a role Irving hasn’t held since LeBron James re-signed with Cleveland in 2014. The future dynamic between the Celtics’ new 1-2 scoring punch hasn’t been defined, but Irving may be headed toward his most fruitful season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart

Nearly by default, Marcus Smart is the clear leader in this category. With the departure of Avery Bradley this summer, Stevens will badly need a defensive bulldog to play a large role in the backcourt. Smart’s slower offensive development has kept him from becoming a star, but there’s no denying his hawk-like instincts and ruthless intangibles. Using his hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, Smart hounds opposing players and aggressively takes advantage of their mistakes.

In 2016-17 alone, Smart totaled 14 games with three or more steals, even reaching an absurd tally of eight in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers just before the All-Star break. Today, Smart is an extremely versatile defender, often capable of guarding every position on the floor despite the difference in height. It’s been said every year since Smart was drafted in 2014 – he owns a career three-point mark of 29.1 percent – but if he develops a more consistent jumper, the sky’s the limit for the enigmatic guard.

Unless the Celtics and Smart agree on an extension before the regular season begins, he’ll be a restricted free agent next July. With a huge role on the table and plenty of money up for grabs, expect Smart to run with the opportunity and become one of the Celtics’ big-time glue guys, even if he’s not a starter.

Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward

Hayward has long been on the shortlist for the NBA’s most underrated, but that will likely change in Boston this season. Since the Utah Jazz drafted Hayward in 2010, the 6-foot-8 small forward has improved in every consecutive season and posted career-highs in points (21.9), rebounds (5.4) and field goal percentage (47.1)* during his final campaign in Utah. Despite his low usage for a star (27.6), Hayward was the key linchpin behind a Jazz team that reached the playoffs’ second round for the first time since 2009-10.

As a versatile offensive wing, Hayward has blossomed into a reliable shooter from nearly every spot on the court. Defensively, Hayward was a difficult assignment in 2016-17 and he was more than happy to launch from long range (39.8 percent) or penetrate (5.9 FTA) depending on the situation. In 2013-14, Hayward averaged 5.2 assists per game and the Celtics will tap into his efficient playmaking abilities in Stevens’ fluid offense.

* If you don’t count his rookie season percentage of 48.5, in which Hayward only attempted 4.1 shots per game

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No matter what situation, moment or deficit is at hand, nothing is impossible or too big for Irving. Even on a team that often deferred to James in the waning moments, Irving’s fourth quarter explosions were always an incredible joy to watch in Cleveland. Armed with an arsenal of ankle-breaking crossovers and an uncanny ability to finish around the rim, there’s no defender that enjoys guarding Irving as the clock ticks toward the final buzzer.

The Boston faithful fell in love with Thomas’ volume shooting late in games and his average of 9.8 fourth quarter points trailed only Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, so Irving undoubtedly has huge shoes to fill. But if Irving’s stellar track record – see Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – is any indication, the Celtics will adore their new franchise point guard all the same.

The Unheralded Player: Al Horford

Al Horford was the Celtics’ big-time free agent coup in 2016, a precursor to this summer’s onslaught of roster changes. And yet, the four-time All-Star took plenty of criticism, even as Boston battled their way to the conference’s No. 1 seed. For $26.5 million, fans argued, Horford should be contributing more than 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, Horford’s influence on both sides of the ball extends beyond the box score.

The 11-year veteran is now on the wrong side of 30, but Horford is a Swiss Army Knife of versatility for Boston. Defensively, his ability to effortlessly switch on screens and stay with driving opponents makes him an invaluable piece to Boston’s puzzle. Rebounding is still a team-wide weakness, but Horford was Boston’s best rebounding big man last season – Bradley grabbed more than anybody else and ranked No. 2 with 6.1 per game.

Like it or not, the Celtics will need Horford’s reliable numbers after shuffling Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko out the door this offseason.

Best New Addition: Marcus Morris

Yes, Irving and Hayward are Boston’s best new additions, but in the interest of sharing the spotlight, there’s another arrival that deserves attention as well. This summer saw the departure of both Crowder and Olynyk, but Marcus Morris should be an excellent replacement for the Celtics. Morris started 79 games for the Detroit Pistons last season and averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds as the team’s small forward. While he’ll be asked to fill a slightly different role with the Celtics, Morris should fit in nicely on the roster and in Stevens’ offensive and defensive systems.

Although he only converted on 33.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season, Morris has developed into a reliable 3-and-D player nonetheless. For almost two years, Morris has been hailed as one of the league’s top LeBron-stoppers as James averaged just 22 points against the Detroist Pistons in 2016-17, according to Boston.com. Another tidbit worth noting: Morris has played in 399 of 410 possible games over the last five NBA seasons, a near-perfect bill of health for the hard-nosed forward.

– Benny Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Danny Ainge

Gifted a treasure trove of high-level assets by the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, Ainge quickly changed the fortunes of a franchise headed for an inevitable rebuild. The combination of hungry youngsters and the eventual emergence of Thomas jumpstarted the Celtics’ latest revival, a streak often attributed to the general manager’s overall savviness in trades and drafts. Unpredictable in nature, Ainge has been calculated in his moves thus far, looking to contend and build for the future at the same time.

When Ainge needed cap space to sign Hayward, he made the difficult decision to move Bradley instead of Crowder or Smart. While Bradley was beloved by fans and essential to the roster’s core DNA, the forward-thinking Ainge traded the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent instead of Crowder’s team-friendly deal or Smart, who will be restricted in 2018. After selecting Jaylen Brown in 2016 and moving down for Tatum this June, Ainge was comfortable enough to move Thomas, Crowder and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder to acquire Irving.

The Celtics haven’t conquered their James-sized problem quite yet, but Ainge deserves credit for the bold direction he’s taken the franchise this summer alone.

2. Brad Stevens

Year after year, Stevens continues to build his case as one of the NBA’s brightest coaches. Stevens is lauded as a tactical mastermind and his approach to the Xs and Os helped Boston to a 108.6 offensive rating last season, the eighth-best mark in the league. Out of timeouts, the Celtics are deadly and Stevens excels at utilizing screens and deceptive movements to create easy shot opportunities. Unanimously liked in the locker room as well, Stevens is able to squeeze every ounce of talent from his roster each season.

Reuniting with Hayward is not only a fantastic storyline for the 2017-18 season, but he’s another uber-efficient talent for Stevens to weaponize as he sees fit. Truly historic results from both Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni have stolen the coaching spotlight away from Stevens during recent award seasons, but it shouldn’t be long before the well-received leader earns a trophy of his own.

3. Jaylen Brown

At this point, there’s no stopping Brown’s hype train and his expectations as a hooper have never been higher. After encouraging stints at both the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues, many have tipped Brown as the favorite to supplant Bradley as a starter. Brown is an energetic, enthusiastic defender and his athleticism should make him a highlight machine alongside Irving.

Stevens hasn’t chosen between Brown and Smart quite yet, but the sophomore will see a major boost in minutes this season either way. As Basketball Insiders wrote last month, nobody benefitted more from the Irving-Thomas deal than Brown – now it’s time to prove it.

4. Jayson Tatum

Leading up to June’s NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz was the unanimous choice for the No. 1 overall pick. When Ainge eventually traded down for Tatum, some onlookers were initially confused. With Thomas set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018 and openly searching for an expensive deal, Fultz would have been an appropriate replacement. But after the Irving trade in late August, Ainge’s master plan became much clearer: Brown and Tatum are the future of the franchise.

For what it’s worth, Tatum’s first summer league entry was an undeniable success and the rookie immediately exhibited an ability to score at the NBA level. His role will certainly be limited this season, but Tatum’s positional fluidity should earn him opportunities to contribute, albeit small ones. However, if an injury strikes, it’ll be interesting to see if Tatum can thrive in a high-intensity role.

– Benny Nadeau

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics made their big move in acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team started the summer under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, landing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Now over, Boston used their $4.3 million Room Exception on Aron Baynes. Outside of additional trades, the team can only bring on additional players on minimum contracts.

Next summer, the Celtics will be over the league’s projected cap of $102 million. They’ll need to decide on the 2018-19 options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier before November. Marcus Smart is eligible for an extension until the start of the coming season.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

With just Horford, Smart, Rozier and Brown returning from last year’s team, it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly the Celtics will excel at this upcoming season. The onus here falls on Stevens to put together a cohesive unit as quickly as possible, but many of their strongest traits could return this winter. In 2016-17, the Celtics made 12 three-pointers per game, third-most in the league and equal to the supercharged Warriors’ total.

Thomas, Crowder and Bradley accounted for 7.4 of those 12 aforementioned three-pointers last season, but the arrivals of Irving (2.5), Hayward (2.0) and Morris (1.5) should make the Celtics one of the league’s best shooting teams in 2017-18. Despite their reliance on young talent, the Celtics should continue on as a solid defensive unit – their 105.5 defensive rating was twelfth-best in 2016-17 – even without Crowder and Bradley in tow. Hayward and Morris are underrated defenders and if the youngsters (Brown, Smart and Rozier) are able to provide quality minutes in their increased roles, they’ll frustrate opposing teams for at least another year.

– Benny Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Despite the Celtics’ intense makeover, they’re still lagging behind in the rebounding department. In 2016-17, Boston grabbed just 42 rebounds a game, the NBA’s fourth-lowest mark. It bears repeating that the 6-foot-3 Bradley was Boston’s second-best rebounder last year as well. To shore up that front, the Celtics added both Ante Žižić and Daniel Theis to the roster this summer, but the former was included in the Irving-Thomas trade. At 25 years-old, Theis is a three-time German League champion and could be a valuable pickup behind Horford.

Additionally, the Celtics signed Aron Baynes as well, a 6-foot-10 center that spent the last two seasons with Detroit and averaged 4.4 rebounds last year. Still, the two new centers are unlikely to reverse Boston’s rebounding misfortunes alone. Although Boston has taken steps to address their biggest weakness from 2016-17, they’ll likely struggle on the boards for most of the season once again.

– Benny Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Following the Irving-Thomas trade, can Boston finally topple Cleveland?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question, but we won’t have a better idea until Thomas returns from that long-term hip injury, whenever that may be. The Cavaliers coasted through the regular season in 2016-17 and ceded the No. 1 position to Boston in the process, all before annihilating them in the conference finals. Ultimately, as long as Thomas is healthy come playoff time, Cleveland remains the odds-on favorite to reach the championship for the fourth straight season.

Derrick Rose is not an equal-level replacement for Thomas, but he’ll get the job done on most nights. Crowder, on the other hand, instantly becomes Cleveland’s third-best forward behind Kevin Love and James. Even if the Celtics can’t overcome the Cavaliers this season, this won’t be the last time this burning question is asked, particularly so if James leaves in 2018.

Although Hayward, Irving and Horford will form a fearsome trio in 2017-18, the future is still incredibly bright as well. Anchored by Stevens and guided by the internal development of Smart, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics’ franchise is looking quite strong these days.

– Benny Nadeau

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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