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NBA AM: Miami HEAT 2017-18 Season Preview

With their sights set on returning to the playoffs, Basketball Insiders previews the 2017-18 Miami HEAT.

Basketball Insiders

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The Miami HEAT were one of the best stories in the NBA last season. For a team that fell just short of the playoffs, the HEAT certainly played as well as any team in the league in the second half of the year.

Of course, it wasn’t pretty during the first half of the season. The team went 11-30 during their first 41 games and were practically written off by most experts. But this group stayed together and continued to chip away and would compile a 30-11 record in the second half of the season to narrowly miss the playoffs.

This HEAT team opted to bring back most of its free agents this summer and they feel confident with this group moving forward. Will it be enough to return to the postseason?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Miami HEAT.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When Pat Riley is pulling the strings for your organization, anything is possible.

At least, that was the sentiment this summer when the HEAT organization was hopeful that it had a chance at landing prized free agent Gordon Hayward. Ultimately, Hayward wound up in Boston, but that probably won’t keep the HEAT out of this season’s playoffs.

With a healthy Dion Waiters alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, Miami has a formidable cast to make a run at the playoff spot they missed ever so slightly last season. Missing the playoffs last year did, however, allow Miami to land Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky Wildcat impressed in the summer league and should prove as a valuable reserve during his rookie season.

A weakened Eastern Conference plus an improved HEAT team looks to surely equal a playoff appearance this season.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Miami HEAT overachieved last year, finishing the season .500 and only missing the playoffs because the also .500 Chicago Bulls owned a tiebreaker. They invested significant cash in bringing back essentially the same team for another go and will probably play middling basketball. Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo are nice additions, but not necessarily the kind of star power that pushes a team into the next echelon of competition. Simply by removing some of last year’s competition, though, Miami should be a lower-half playoff seed. Even if they overachieve again this season, their ceiling is probably 47 or 48 wins.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with a respectable (and surprising) 41-41 record, by virtue of losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls, the HEAT was forced to watch last season’s playoffs from the confines of South Florida. After walking away from the draft with Bam Adebayo and signing Kelly Olynyk, though, Erik Spoelstra has a few more tools in the box to keep building.

With an identity and a foundational core that features Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and the re-signed Dion Waiters, the HEAT should rightfully enter the season with renewed hopes of returning to the postseason, especially with the considerable steps back that a few of the teams that finished above them last season have taken. If things break right in Miami and the team is able to stay relatively healthy, a finish as high as fifth in the conference isn’t out of the question. I’d probably still put the Bucks in that fifth seed, but they play the games for a reason… And when the games are played, rest assured, the HEAT will show up and put up a fight for the division crown down in the Southeast.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

After a strong stretch run to close the 2016-17 season, the HEAT will try to capture that magic for an entire year. Miami committed big money to guys like James Johnson and Dion Waiters, plus newcomer Kelly Olynyk, and they’ll need something close to that strong post-All-Star showing from their group to justify essentially locking this in as their team. They’ll continue to run out an offense strong on spacing, captained by Goran Dragic at the point. They’ll rely on Erik Spoelstra’s strong team defensive scheme, something new draftee Bam Adebayo should only help with. A big question will be how much Justise Winslow has to give after a shoulder injury last season—a strong showing could have the HEAT surprising some teams, while a disappointing performance could see them fighting just to make the playoffs in the East. Assuming the median outcome, they should finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeast.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Miami HEAT had limited options in terms of what do with their roster this offseason. Give the HEAT credit for investing in the core of players that overachieved last year, though. Sure, James Johnson’s deal will probably look bad after a year or two, and Dion Waiters will always be a risky player to invest in, nevertheless, with a strong culture in Miami and head coach Erik Spoelstra leading the way, this team has the tools to surprise the league again.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic

As the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, Dragic projects to again be the top offensive player this season. Perhaps it was Dwyane Wade leaving, but Dragic appeared to be more comfortable on the offensive end as the team’s primary ball handler last season.

Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season while shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range. He was afforded the opportunity to run the offense at a faster pace, which best suits his style of play.

In a time where three-point shooting comes at a premium, Dragic certainly has lived up to expectations. He was instrumental for the HEAT all season long and it seems reasonable to believe he’ll continue to be one of the team’s most valuable players.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Whiteside as the team’s top defensive player. He averaged a career-high 17 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season. Whiteside led the league in rebounds and finished fourth in blocks.

Much of what allowed the HEAT to boast a top-five defense last season was having Whiteside down in the paint. While his blocks were down last season from the year before, his presence in the paint still makes things difficult for the opposing players to get clean looks.

Whiteside finished fourth in the league in defensive rating (99.9), fourth in defensive win shares (5.3) and fifth in block percentage. He held opponents to 51 percent shooting within six feet of the rim. To put that into context, Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green held opponents to 48.3 percent shooting at the same distance.

Whiteside squashed any doubt about how he’d perform after signing a monster contract summer. Now, it’s time to show that he can maintain his dominance on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

Without Dwyane Wade in the picture, Dragic proved to be a great leader for the HEAT on the court. He benefited by the opportunity to get out and run last season and was very effective getting his teammates involved.

Dragic has proven over his nine years in the NBA that he can be very good at attacking the basket and kicking out to the open man when needed. As we’ll cover in the next section, he led the team with 81 total points in clutch situations and came up with several big plays throughout the season.

When the HEAT needed a big play, the team could count on Dragic to make it.

Top Clutch Player: Tyler Johnson

While we could have highlighted Dragic here, we are going to take a look at Johnson during clutch moments last season.

Of course, we can’t forget when Dion Waiters hit the game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors with .6 seconds left to continue the team’s 13-game winning streak. Memes were created with Waiters’ pose following the shot, t-shirts were made and Twitter exploded after it. It was arguably one of the top moments of the season for the HEAT.

As Waiters came up with the shot of the year against the Warriors, Johnson was quietly one of the team’s best clutch performers last season. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Johnson ranked as the team’s second-best player in these moments.

While Dragic led the team with 81 total points last season in clutch situations, Johnson was second on the team with 67 points. He shot 44.9 percent (22-of-49) from the field and 45 percent (9-of-20) from three-point range in clutch situations.

Johnson’s percentages were actually slightly better than Dragic’s and he was the team’s top three-point shooter during these moments. Many HEAT fans may remember his performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he scored eight of his 24 total points during overtime to help the team to a key win.

For the HEAT, having all three of these players in Dragic, Johnson and Waiters on the roster has been very beneficial. An argument can be made for each player as the team’s best clutch player and it’s likely a good problem to have for head coach Erik Spoelstra.

The Unheralded Player: Udonis Haslem

Each year, we highlight players in this category that don’t receive nearly as much love as they should. Haslem is a perfect candidate for this title and it isn’t even close.

Haslem serves as the team’s captain and is the leader in the locker room. While Haslem hasn’t played much over the past couple of seasons, he serves a much larger role than that. Haslem is the HEAT’s voice and heart and soul of the team. The leadership that he brings to the team is clearly very valuable to the HEAT to bring him back for a 15th season.

Ask any current or former HEAT player what Haslem means to the team and it likely won’t take long before they mention his leadership skills, toughness and professionalism. It speaks volumes for his character for the team to bring him back for another season.

As the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, Haslem has become a strong mentor for the team’s younger players. He even spoke to members of the summer league team on exactly what it means to be a part of the HEAT culture.

It’s obvious that Haslem has earned a place among the franchise’s all-time greats and he’s back for at least one more season.

Best New Addition: Kelly Olynyk

Given that the HEAT opted to retain most of its roster, the best new addition candidates basically came down to Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo. While Adebayo certainly has potential, we opted to highlight Olynyk here.

Now, the decision to sign Olynyk to a four-year, $51.2 million contract was a bit out of left field, but his addition figures to help bolster the team’s frontcourt depth. With the addition of Olynyk, the team now has Hassan Whiteside, Olynyk and Adebayo on the depth chart in the frontcourt.

Olynyk figures to be a welcomed addition to the team given his ability to space the floor, which is something the HEAT have lacked in recent years. He averaged nine points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists per game last season for the Boston Celtics while shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range.

HEAT fans may remember one signature performance by Olynyk during last season’s playoffs. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Olynyk recorded 26 points, four rebounds and four assists on 10-of-14 shooting from the floor to help the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While those sort of performances may not happen regularly, Olynyk has proven that he can be an effective scorer off of the bench or as a starter.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

It is becoming a yearly tradition to highlight head coach Spoelstra for the HEAT. It was easy to disregard the accomplishments he had with the Big Three, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that he can coach very well no matter who is on the team.

Coaching a roster that didn’t boast too many household names, Spoelstra nearly led one of the best comebacks in regular season history. As the team once sat at 11-30 last season, it would have been easy for the team to throw in the towel and begin looking ahead to the offseason. In fact, many believed the HEAT were better off tanking and positioning themselves for a better draft pick.

Instead, Spoelstra stuck the course and so did his players. After beginning with a lowly 11-30 record, the team finished by going 30-11 in the second half of the season. It was the best second-half record ever by a team that missed the playoffs. Many even believed he had a legitimate argument to win Coach of the Year–he finished second.

The team is hoping they can ride that momentum into the 2017-18 season and it seems reasonable to believe they’ll pick up right where they left off.

2. James Johnson

The HEAT prioritized retaining most of its roster this offseason and most fans were delighted to see a new contract for Johnson. After having a career year, Johnson made the decision to hand him a new four-year, $60 million contract an easy one.

In 76 games last season, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. It was by far the best season of his eight-year career after having stops in Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento and Memphis.

The team signed Johnson to a one-year, $4 million deal last offseason and it’s safe to say he exceeded expectations by a longshot. He committed to himself by getting better on the court and off of the court. He transformed his body by dropping nearly 40 pounds of weight and nearly eight percent of body fat thanks to the HEAT’s training staff.

Based on his progress and improvements during his first season with the HEAT, we expect Johnson to become a valuable piece to this team.

3. Josh Richardson

Richardson is just the latest in a long line of success stories in the NBA. As a former second-round pick by the HEAT two years ago, it was reported earlier this week that he has agreed to a four-year, $42 million contract extension with the team.

Although Richardson was hampered by injuries last season, the HEAT have seen enough in him that they believe he can continue to develop and become a meaningful player in the future. In 53 games last season, Richardson averaged a career-high 10.2 points.

Richardson has proven to be one of the team’s best shooters. During his rookie campaign two years ago, he shot 46.1 percent from three-point range. He struggled shooting last season after converting on just 33 percent of his three-point shots, but that dip in shooting could be due to dealing with knee, ankle and foot injuries.

He did show flashes of great play during the final month of the regular season. In six April games, Richardson averaged 15 points, 3.2 rebounds and three assists while converting on 53 percent of his three-point attempts. It should be fun to see his progress should he stay healthy this year.

4. Dion Waiters

Waiters has already established himself as a fan favorite after just one season in Miami. Of course, it helps that he hit a game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. His pose after hitting that shot has been plastered on memes, t-shirts and social media. It’s safe to say that HEAT nation has fully embraced him.

Waiters opted to sign a one-year, $2 million contract with the team last year, in essence, betting on himself. It worked. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $52 million contract.

Last season, the guard turned in nearly his best season to date after averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 46 games. He also shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. As he begins his second year in Miami, look for him to continue to make the highlight reels and stir it up on social media.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

Miami went under the salary cap this summer to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to multi-year deals. The HEAT still own their $4.3 million Room Exception but may be invested already in a full roster of 15 (with 13 guaranteed players plus two partials in Rodney McGruder and Okaro White).

Next summer, Miami projects to be over the cap with heavy investments in Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and their recent signings. Before November, the HEAT need to pick up Justise Winslow’s 2018-19 team option.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The HEAT had excellent chemistry on and off of the court last season. With the additions of several new players last season, it seems remarkable.

They showed this strength during the team’s improbable second-half run. Multiple players stepped up during this stretch to help the team rise up in the Eastern Conference. Some teams may have opted to give up once they went 11-30, but this group stayed together and nearly made the playoffs.

Based off of the success the team had in the second-half of last season, the front office opted to bring back the majority of their free agents. They re-signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson, while they opted to keep Wayne Ellington on the roster, as well.

The team now has a ton of depth and appears to be in good shape for next season.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

If you look at this HEAT team on paper, they don’t project to have many weaknesses. The offense ranked 16th in the league in efficiency. The defense was ranked inside the top five and head coach Erik Spoelstra is widely regarded as one of the best head coaches in the game.

But one area in which can be seen as a weakness could be the team’s lack of superstar talent. While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are certainly good players, they’re not superstars. The HEAT have serviceable players at each position, but is it enough to get them deep into the playoffs?

Many have wondered if this HEAT team will be able to duplicate its second-half success with its current roster. Of course, the team has certainly tried to sign some of the league’s top free agents over the years, but have come up just short in doing so.

The HEAT figure to be in the race for a playoff berth all season long, but the lack of superstar talent could be what ultimately prevents them from making a deep playoff run.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

After keeping its core together, will that be enough to make a run at the playoffs?

In what many project to be a weaker Eastern Conference this season, the HEAT will find themselves back in the postseason this year. They came up a tiebreaker with the Chicago Bulls short from making the playoffs last season and likely would have been a problem for the Boston Celtics in the first round. Now, they’re armed with a few more weapons and have depth all across the board. It’s not a matter of if they make the playoffs, but rather a matter of how high they can climb up the standings and whether or not they have what it takes to advance.

— Cody Taylor

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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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