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NBA Daily: Alec Burks’ Return a Perfectly Timed Boost for the Knicks

Drew Maresca discusses how Alec Burks’ return could turbocharge the New York Knicks for the final stretch of the regular season.

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The New York Knicks are currently on their longest winning streak since 2014. Along the way, they’ve defeated several teams with whom they’re competing for a playoff spot – and unbelievably, home-court advantage in the first round – including the Atlanta Hawks and the Charlotte Hornets.

While the Knicks still have the sixth-hardest remaining schedule, they also own the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference – and they’ve been far more successful than anyone expected. And Alec Burks has a lot to do with that.

Burks is a relatively big and versatile guard. At 6-foot-6, Burks can guard at least three positions on the floor. He’s a good on-ball defender who gives good effort. Burks isn’t an ideal system defender, but no one signs Burks for his defense.

Offensively, Burks is a difference-maker. He’s had a number of clutch performances with the Knicks this season, as well as in previous seasons with the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers. He’s also performed well for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.

Burks is regarded as a journeyman, but don’t mistake the fact that he’s played for multiple teams to mean that he isn’t a major contributor.

Burks is a right-handed player, but he scores it from both sides of the court. He is comfortable in the midrange, gets to and finishes at the hoop and shoots it efficiently from deep. He can also initiate the offense and play off the ball in a catch-and-shoot capacity. Ultimately, he’s versatile and he can power an offense for a time – a helpful attribute to a team in need of additional offensive firepower.

Burks joined the Knicks, presumably taking Wayne Ellington’s role. Through 44 games in 2020-21, he is averaging 12.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 25.8 minutes per game through 44 games. But that only tells part of the story.

Burks has scored 20 or more points 10 times this season. He’s shooting 40.8% on three-point attempts and 86.5% from the free-throw line. And remember, there was a 10-game stretch when Derrick Rose was out with COVID-19, during which time Burks played an even bigger role than normal, helping to keep the Knicks afloat. In those 10 games, Burks played 28.2 minutes per game, up from 25 minutes in all other games this season — the Knicks still went 5-5.

Burks signed a team-friendly, one year/$6 million deal last Fall. He might have earned himself an even bigger contract with his play this season. But his next contract will probably be influenced by his ability to return to form this season.

But next season is still a ways off, with Burks’ immediate future unclear. He missed his fourth straight game on Wednesday night due to health and safety protocols and, while COVID-19 is mostly a short-term inconvenience for NBA players, there isn’t much of a long-term left to consider this season; the regular season concludes in less than a month.

The Knicks organization has not commented on how Burks is doing or when he’s expected back. If he’s lucky, he’s experienced light to no symptoms, meaning there’s a chance that he hits the ground running upon his return. Alternatively, a more severe case and lingering effects are bad news for Burks and the Knicks.

The Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum contracted COVID-19 and is still dealing with long-term symptoms. Tatum was averaging 26.9 points per game on 47.4%/43.8%/88.9% shooting before his infection. After a 10-day absence, Tatum is averaging 25.2 points per game on 44.8%/36.7%/87.6% — not too severe a drop off, but enough to impact results.

And that’s only averages. Players can push through discomfort and put up numbers that resemble those of a healthy version of themself, but the cumulative effects of playing after COVID-19 can lead to additional complications. Tatum has been vocal about his lingering symptoms and he recently spoke out about his need for an inhaler before games – a first for him in his athletic career.

Yes, it can be relatively simple for teams to maneuver around such a situation in the regular season. But in the playoffs, one loss is significantly more meaningful, while resting a player for part of or for an entire game is restrictive to the team’s ability to manage their shorter rotations. Further, the play-in tournament leaves absolutely no room to do so – and the Knicks (and Celtics) could easily find themselves in play-in games – in which case, New York will hope to get Burks back to 100 percent sooner than later.

Context is everything and not knowing the specifics around Burks’ situation makes it impossible to gauge expectations. But while New York has surged in his absence, winning eight-in-a-row, make no mistake about it, the Knicks need Burks – and they need him healthy.

The Knicks are just 23-21 with Burks in the lineup – and 10-6 without him. For those unwilling to break out a calculator, the team has a better winning percentage without Burks.

But the Knicks are also 5-3 when Burks plays 30 or more minutes. And while that’s a relatively small sample size, it equals the same winning percentage as that’s been achieved without him.

But despite the unclear results, you should know that Burks is a necessity. Don’t believe me? It can be summarized in three key statistics: the Knicks commit fewer turnovers (12.9 turnovers vs. 14.5 per 100 possessions), score more points (113.1 points vs. 110.5 per 100 possessions) and allow fewer points (107 points vs. 110.8 per 100 possessions) when Burks is on the floor.

The Knicks have maximized their talent, winning more than anyone expected. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if they overachieved again, without Burks, down the stretch of the season.

But they would obviously prefer for him to return to the rotation – and do so as a fully healthy and operational version of himself. If he can and if the Knicks can maintain their strong play, New York could be even more dangerous than we think they are come the postseason.

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NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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

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

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

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

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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