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NBA Daily: Al Horford Is The Most Important Celtic

Al Horford’s rare skill set should be the engine to the Celtics’ success this season, which is why he’s the one player they can’t afford to miss substantial time.

Matt John

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Last month, Sports Illustrated published their list of the top 100 players in the NBA of 2019. The Boston Celtics, who are widely expected to be one of the league’s best teams this season, had six of their players named on the list.

Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were all listed. That should make the Celtics very proud of the copious amounts of talent they have on their squad. The most surprising wrinkle in these rankings was that, of the six Celtics that were on the list, Horford ranked the highest at No. 16.

It should be noted that these rankings are completely subjective – Horford was ranked No. 34 on ESPN’s top 100 list – so once this season concludes, putting Horford up that high could end up being foolish in comparison to the other Celtics. There’s no telling how much better Tatum and Brown could be as they enter another year in their very promising careers. There’s also no telling how good Hayward and Irving could be since they are coming off season-ending injuries.

Should all four of those guys live up to expectations, then Horford could very well be the Celtics fifth-best player in terms of talent. However, talent is not what makes Horford such a valuable player. What makes Horford a plausible No. 16 ranking is that he is the one player that the Celtics can’t afford to lose.

The Celtics have shown adversity when losing their most talented players on paper. Shortly after Hayward went down, the Celtics ripped off a 16-game winning streak because their wing depth kept them strong. After Irving went down, they still came within a few shots of making the NBA Finals because their guard depth kept things afloat. That is not to take away from how crucial both Irving and Hayward will be to the Celtics season, but Boston demonstrated last season that they can do just fine without them. The same cannot be said about Horford.

It sounds odd because when you look at his regular numbers, they won’t blow you away. His averages of 13 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game have earned him the nickname “Average Al” by some of his critics. What he does on the court doesn’t exactly scream elite, either. For his size, Horford is one of the best floor spacers, dead-eye passers and all-around versatile defenders, among having other skills that he has compared to other players that play the same position.

The reason why his skill set gets overlooked across the league is that we’ve seen bigs who have some of the same skills that Horford does. What separates him from them is that there aren’t that many bigs out there who can do all the things that he can do. That’s what makes him such a special player in this league: His all-around game makes him a rare breed.

Of course, it helps that the league’s evolution in the past several years suits Horford’s game. More and more emphasis is being put on bigs who can play on both sides of the floor, defend multiple positions and shoot threes. He did not come into the league with a reliable three-ball, but always had a reliable jump shot from 15-20 feet.

His all-around game fuels his best attribute to the game of basketball. That is, he simply makes your team better. Look no further than the team’s net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) with him on the floor. Last season, the Celtics were overall a plus-9.3 with Horford, which was highest on the team. He proved himself to be even more valuable when the playoffs rolled around, as he posted a plus-16.8, which, again, was the highest on the team.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Horford’s playoff performance was his defense. There’s a fair argument that every opponent the Celtics faced in the playoffs had the best player (or two) in the series. A big part of why the Celtics were able to stop them was because of Horford’s ability to defend their best players. Not many guys in this league can stay in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Horford may not have been a “stopper,” but he made them work harder for their points.

Even if he doesn’t have high-scoring performances or intimidate as one of the league’s top rim protectors, Horford plays a huge part in his team’s success. What he does can’t just be easily replaced. When Hayward and Irving went down, Tatum, Brown, Rozier, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris all picked up the slack as much as they could. If Horford goes down this season, the Celtics don’t have the personnel to fill the void that he would leave.

That’s not a shot at Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis. Baynes paired well with Horford as one of the league’s best defensive frontcourts after Hayward went down. Theis gradually improved to be a reliable backup before tearing his meniscus. Both of them play well in the roles that are expected of them, but – unlike the guard and wing depth that the Celtics have – those two are strictly role players with limited ceilings. They don’t have Horford’s IQ. They don’t have Horford’s footwork. They don’t have Horford’s three-point prowess (though both have shown that they’re not necessarily inept in that area). They are good at what they do, but can’t be asked to do much more.

The point of all this is that if there’s one player whose potential injury could undo everything that the Celtics hope to accomplish this season, it’s Horford. His abilities make him the jack-of-all-trades as a “tweener” power forward/center of whom the Celtics have no one to replace with.

When the Celtics agreed to give Horford a max contract back in 2016, they didn’t sign him hoping he’d give them 20/10 every night and dominate on both ends of the floor. They signed him hoping to be the perfect big for Brad Stevens’ system.

To do just that, you don’t have to be Kevin Garnett. You just have to be Al Horford.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Milwaukee Bucks

Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series moves along as Jordan Hicks discusses the offseason of the team that rosters the current NBA MVP.

Jordan Hicks

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One does not simply spell the name Giannis Antetokounmpo without at least looking it up first. Sure, you could get lucky the first time, but you’re lying to yourself if you think you won’t at least head over to Google to double-check.

Admittedly, a big thanks on our end will be sent towards our friends at Google for helping with the meat of the article. Obviously, Giannis hoisting the MVP award long after the dust of the 2018-19 season settled makes him the de-facto centerpiece when discussing his team and their offseason.

Yes, a case could be made for James Harden or Nikola Jokic for this past season’s MVP. But Antetokounmpo proved in a big way exactly why he deserved to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

If it wasn’t for Kawhi Leonard, this article could potentially have a very different tone. For all intents and purposes, the Milwaukee Bucks were the team with all the momentum heading into the postseason. They were the one seed out East. They had (at the time) the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award. They deployed a system that could have potentially given Golden State fits. If Milwaukee could have bested Toronto, who is to say they couldn’t have beaten Golden State, injuries or not?

But this is the NBA. In a best-of-seven series, the best team usually wins. In this case, Milwaukee lost to Toronto, and the Bucks’ front office knew that they weren’t a championship-level team, yet.

Overview

The Bucks clearly didn’t end the 2018-19 season the way they’d hoped. Ultimately, their goal was to make it to the NBA Finals. They came just short after losing in six games to the Raptors. They went up two games to start the series but then Kawhi entered Terminator-mode and put the series to rest, helping the Raptors rattle off four straight – and quite surprising – wins.

This isn’t because people fully expected Milwaukee to win the series. Toronto obviously had a solid roster. But like previously mentioned, the Bucks were No. 1 in the East, they had the best defensive rating and fourth-best offensive rating, and were a full two points ahead of second-place for best net rating. They led the league in points per game, led the league in rebounds per game, were second in blocks per game and second in three-pointers made.

The Bucks were a good team in 2017-18. They were a great team last season. It’s quite easy to figure out just why they made that jump. Their success can be chalked up primarily to two specific things: the hiring of head coach Mike Budenholzer and internal player development (namely Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon).

Other small factors definitely played their part, as well. Everyone expected Brook Lopez to be a solid center. Absolutely no one expected him to shoot 36.5 percent from three on over six attempts per night. And we aren’t just talking run-of-the-mill attempts. Lopez was firing from deep, stepping back, defenders in his face. It was quite a spectacle.

Overall, Milwaukee had a really awesome season, but their regular-season success did not directly translate to postseason success. The best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season does not mean the best team in the Eastern Conference after the playoffs.

Offseason

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, there was a heap of tough decisions that needed to be made. Quite a few of their starters and main rotations guys became free agents.

They essentially let Nikola Mirotic walk, as he went on to join a team in Europe. In order to pay other players on their roster, they had to let Malcolm Brogdon accept an offer from the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade. They could have matched as he was a restricted free agent, but if they wanted to pay other players it just wasn’t possible.

Their big offseason signings were all re-ups; the likes of Khris Middleton (five years, 178-million), Brook Lopez (four years, 52-million), and George Hill (three years, 29-million).

Losing Brogdon was a big blow to their roster. He played an incredibly vital role in the main rotation and was likely their best three-and-D player. They were able to nab Wesley Matthews who at one point might have been an upgrade over Brogdon but has since fallen victim to father time. However, he is still a great pickup and will certainly play an important role on both ends of the court.

They also picked up Kyle Korver who was traded to and then subsequently released from the Memphis Grizzlies. He, too, will be a big boost for an offense that lost two high-level three-point shooters (Brogdon and Mirotic). He is definitely a few steps slower than where he used to be in terms of defense, but he still fits seamlessly into just about any system. He is still elite at coming off screens and knocking down threes, and will absolutely help the roster stretch the defense when he’s on the court.

Korver paired with Giannis has the potential to be huge as the Greek Freak will certainly take advantage of a more spread out defense.

Other signings that could potentially turn out to be big are that of Frank Mason, Dragan Bender and Robin Lopez. The first two are still young and have room to improve. Dragan has been stuck on a less-than-ideal roster and Mason hasn’t really had a good opportunity to showcase his skills. The latter, twin brother of Brook Lopez, will be a solid backup center. He’s a great defender, plays with a crazy-high motor, and seems to boost the morale of any locker room he’s in.

If there wasn’t any indication before that Milwaukee is already preparing for the free agency of Giannis in 2021, the signing of his brother Thanasis definitely points to some solid preparation. Let’s be real, you can’t leave your brother in free agency. Or maybe you can. Either way, they don’t need to deal with that for two more years.

PLAYERS IN: Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez, Frank Mason, Dragan Bender, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Adams, Cameron Reynolds (two-way), Luke Maye, Rayjon Tucker

PLAYERS OUT: Malcolm Brogdon, Tim Frazier, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Tony Snell, Bonzie Colson Jr. (two-way)

What’s Next

Milwaukee’s offseason wasn’t ideal, but there wasn’t really much they could do. Because of the salary cap, there were certain decisions that had to be made. Losing Brogdon can very likely turn out to be a huge blow. If people didn’t realize just how important he was to the team’s success, it should stick out in a big way – at least at the beginning of the season.

There’s no doubt that Giannis still has room to grow. Middleton, too. But Brogdon had such a strong presence on both ends of the floor, that at times he was relied upon perhaps too much. They made the right move in paying Middleton, he’s clearly the better player, but Middleton making that much more money won’t make him that much better, obviously. So alas, the salary cap wins again and forced the Bucks to dump a key cog of their roster.

They would be smart to rely on Korver as little as possible throughout the season so he can be much better rested for the playoffs. We saw this with the Utah Jazz this last season. Utah acquired Korver via trade in November 2018 and was used almost exhaustingly at times. This really stuck out as Korver played virtually no role for Utah in the postseason.

It’s hard to give the Bucks a fair grade because their major roster changes were more-or-less out of their control. They did a pretty fine job with the cards they were dealt and ended up signing a handful of players that have the potential of really helping out. Plus, Giannis is coming off his best season yet with zero sign of slowing down.

It’s difficult to say that the Bucks got better, but it’s also not fair to say they got worse. Either way, we will just have to see how it plays out. A lot of teams in the East got better, so we will certainly see how much that gap between them and other teams closed.

At least Kawhi left Toronto. That will absolutely be one less worry for Milwaukee during the playoffs.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C+

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High-Performance Mindfulness: The Missing Link To DeMarcus Cousins’ Recovery

Jake Rauchbach discusses DeMarcus Cousins and one of the under-explored, but more critical aspects of the injury recovery process.

Jake Rauchbach

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Last week, DeMarcus Cousins sustained another career-threatening injury, tearing his ACL during a pickup game in Las Vegas.

Cousins, who battled back from a ruptured Achilles this past season, is now in jeopardy of missing a big chunk of the upcoming season for his third time in as many years.

He is expected to miss major time for a third straight season due to a lower leg injury. Before tearing his left Achilles on Jan. 26 2018, Cousins’ durability was never really in question. Before the initial injury, the big-man missed over 20 games just once in a season.

Virtually every year, we see stories similar to Cousins. A player who, at one time in his career had little to no history of injury, gradually becomes engulfed in a seemingly chronic and potentially career-ending pattern for injury – Derrick Rose being a prime example of this.

Common thought for chronic injury issues points back to the physical or structural aspect. Some of the most common theories as to why players experience these setbacks are generally due to pre-disposition, overcompensation and an over-ambitious goal for recovery.

With any injury type, there are obvious physical factors at play. However, a vital and under-explored aspect of the recovery process could be blocking these players’ recovery process.

The Mind-Body Factor

The mind and body are inextricably linked. A person cannot entertain a thought or emotion and, without effect, a chain-reaction in the body occurring. The same can be said for athletes that re-experience past traumatic injury by way of memory.

As humans, we tend to push overwhelming memories, such as traumatic injury, to the far reaches of our subconscious mind. This can be a problem, as these unresolved thoughts, emotions, feelings and psycho-somatic pain can get lodged within a player’s muscle memory.

When this happens, severe compensation, fear of injury and guarding patterns can arise in the body, which can have the effect of weakening the point of injury. This consequently causes structural weakness in other parts of the body. Rose and Cousins could be prime examples of this.

Subconscious mental and emotional blocks such as these, if left unaddressed, can create a nasty psycho-somatic injury loop, consequentially making players susceptible to further injury. Leaving imbalances unresolved at the unconscious level can jeopardize the physical health and well-being of an athlete. Finding a way to break this loop is paramount.

Mental And Emotional Blocks

The psycho-somatic memory of rupturing an Achilles or tearing an ACL can easily stay locked up within the deep mind or muscle memory of a player for years until fully processed.

In Rose’s case, his first major injury and psycho-somatic impediment may have occurred when he tore his ACL during the 2012-2013 season. Dr. Michael Casale, speaking about Rose, said:

“His injury must have caused so much mental trauma. The neuroscience part of me comes out and starts to think about, as far as the brain rewiring, it must be so unbelievably impactful to have that one moment change the way you think about yourself and your environment.”

Considering his past injury history – and the fact that some like Dr. Casale within the medical community believe that Rose’s injury may have caused psychological damage – it is not a stretch to think there has been a very real psycho-somatic element at play.

In Cousins’ case, he has sustained two major leg injuries in a relatively short period. It is generally challenging for big men with severe lower leg injuries to return to the court better than when they left it. Cousins could have his work cut out for him.

If Cousins or Rose are still carrying the deep mental and emotional discord from their past injuries, the chronic injury patterns that they have already experienced could likely persist.

Directly addressing unresolved psycho-somatic barriers with leading-edge High-Performance Mindfulness systems could help players like Rose and Cousins break the habitual injury loop that they have experienced.

The Missing Link – Streamlining The Injury Recovery Process

So what might be the next correct step in streamlining recovery?

High-Performance Mindfulness – Energy Psychology Programs that zero in on removing the mental and emotional baggage from past injuries, exactly what Cousins and Rose could require.

High-Performance Mindfulness can now identify which unconscious mental blocks are holding a player back wherein the subconscious mind-body they are being held. Through a systematic approach for removing and neutralize these impediments, players have been shown to physically improve once the emotional discord of the past experiences has been neutralized.

Frequently, the option of last resort, techniques such as these often have the effect of improving range of motion, eliminating fears of re-injury and eliminating those nasty guarding patterns.

Moreover, employing tools that interface directly with the subconscious mind have been shown to restore confidence, trust and rhythm for a player in regards to his or her own body.

For players like Cousins and Rose, there may be nothing more vital at this stage in their careers.

Getting to the root of these chronic injury patterns may be the key for Cousins, Rose and players like them challenged with similar injury patterns for unlocking, healing and preventing future injury.

Addressing the deeply held negatively charged thoughts, images, emotions and somatic feelings could be the way for doing so – and could be a game-changer for players coming back from injury.

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Could Team USA’s Success Create More Future NBA Partnerships?

Past U.S. National Teams have foreshadowed future player movement. What possibilities could come from the 2019 FIBA World Cup roster? Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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Since 2008’s “Redeem Team,” two themes have applied to every iteration of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team.

They are stocked with the current cream of the crop, and they lay a groundwork for future partnerships or rumored partnerships.

Injuries, workload management and personal decisions have invalidated the first of those themes as the U.S. prepares for the FIBA World Cup in two weeks, but the bonds made in China could still influence the NBA in years to come, just as such friendships led to the 2010-14 Miami Heat, the 2016-19 Kevin Durant-included Golden State Warriors and the brand new Brooklyn Nets.

LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were all a part of that 2008 Gold Medal team. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson first got to know Durant up close and personal while winning gold in Brazil. Kyrie Irving and Durant played together then as well, and that goes without mentioning DeAndre Jordan. Let’s not forget that Irving also played with Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis in 2016, two others he has been linked with the last few seasons.

So what partnerships could come from the current team? Three possibilities stick out.

The 2022 Restricted Free Agents

Four members of Gregg Popovich’s U.S. roster will reach restricted free agency after the 2022 season. For Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White, they may have the option to survey their options and force their current organizations’ respective hands, but Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell will almost assuredly sign five-year deals where they are now.

That will set up Tatum and Mitchell – and perhaps Kuzma and/or White – to reach unrestricted free agency simultaneously in 2027. Is it absurd to look eight years ahead? Perhaps, but in the current climate of player empowerment, those timelines can become truncated in unexpected ways. For now, using the 2027 offseason simply creates a predictable point of reference.

Tatum will be entering his age-29 season and Mitchell his age-31 season. If either or both has not yet won a title — by 2027 or, as alluded to, when forcing a franchise’s decisions even earlier — the competitive clock will be ticking at a rapid pace.

To put it bluntly, the Tatum-Mitchell duo could fit very well. For that matter, there is no genuine overlap even when considering Kuzma and White.

Though his 2018-19 was a slight step backward in many respects, Tatum remains a solid shooter and one that should only improve. Perhaps he is not quite the 43.4 percent three-point shooter that he was as a rookie, but he is also better than last season’s 37.3 percent. As his body continues to mature, his rebounding rate should continue to rise, already up to 6.0 from 5.0 in just two years.

Mitchell, meanwhile, improved his shooting from deep to 36.2 percent from 34 percent in his first two seasons and raised his assist-to-turnover rate to 1.48 from 1.35. On the surface, those may seem like incremental betterings, but considering Mitchell’s usage rate also jumped to 31.7 from 29.2, their impacts were crucial pieces of Utah finishing fifth in the West.

A pick-and-roll between the two of them would put any defense in a compromising position. Either could drive to the rim, either could crash for a lob, either could pop out for a three. Neither lags off the dribble or in a catch-and-shoot situation. And each comports himself well defensively, a trait that will presumably only strengthen with age.

Tatum and Mitchell would make for a solid combination, a rapport to be looked for when the U.S. faces the Czech Republic on Sept. 1.

Of course, if either appears to be fitting with Kuzma or White better than expected, one or the other could eventually lean on his current franchise to tender a better offer than the Lakers or Spurs are likely to match.

2020 Role Players on the Market

On this U.S. roster, only Nuggets forward Mason Plumlee and Nets guard Joe Harris will be free agents next summer. Neither will command massive contracts, though both would be leaving teams with distinct championship aspirations if they shopped around. There are, however, two contingents of players headed to China with equal title hopes who could begin sales pitches.

Tatum is just one of four Celtics on the roster, making them the loudest group. They could see Plumlee and recognize size not much abundant on their team in Boston. With Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Tatum, they have reasonable shooting, but finding a way to bang with the lengthy 76ers will undoubtedly be on Celtics president Danny Ainge’s to-do list.

Bucks guard Khris Middleton and big man Brook Lopez are the only other pair of NBA teammates representing the U.S., and in Harris they should see the ideal sharpshooter to stash around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That version of player recruitment may not have the same headline value as the Gold Medal-winning efforts of the last decade, but that is appropriate for a roster devoid of MVP candidates. It could be the key to a title all the same.

Be it Harris to the Bucks, Plumlee to the Celtics or a Tatum-Mitchell partnership years from becoming a reality, such team-building could shape a postseason just as James-Wade-Bosh and Durant to the Warriors did, all spurred by time on a national team roster.

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