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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Pacific Division

Surprises can be disappointing, but can disappointments be surprising? Basketball Insiders looks at three unexpectedly slow starts within the Pacific Division.

Ben Nadeau

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When Basketball Insiders’ writers were tasked with discerning the most unexpected surprises of the early season aughts, the Pacific Division couldn’t hold its own metaphorical tongue. As a result, most of the chosen entries acted instead like a stern parent trying to ground a rule-foregoing child — well, we’re not upset, we’re just surprisingly disappointed, you know?

Two weeks later, it’s no longer a shock as to why the Golden State Warriors remain poor — injuries, shooting their championship banners into space, etc. — or how the Sacramento Kings haven’t made new in-roads toward reclaiming their spot as popular water cooler fodder — but it also makes this piece, an article about disappointments, a bit trickier to navigate.

Still, there are silver linings around every corner and these frustrations may not be so forever — it’s not even time to cut the Thanksgiving turkey, after all. With a little readjustment, health and new contributions, these players and teams can stop disappointing their imaginary parents and get back on the path toward NBA bliss.

The Rejuvenation of Marquese Chriss Was A Grift

During the preseason, Marquese Chriss — noted dunker-at-times — jumped and scored a couple of easy buckets against the Los Angeles Lakers, enough, presumably, for the internet to announce his rearrival. Quick to point fingers, the Phoenix Suns took heat for an inability to train up the athletic prospect, while the Golden State Warriors were praised for finding another diamond in the rough. Hell, even Draymond Green got in on the action.

“He’s been in some pretty tough situations,” Green told Wes Goldberg of The Mercury News. “No one ever blames the situation, though. It’s always the kid. No one ever blames these s—ty franchises. They always want to blame the kid. It’s not always the kid’s fault.

“. . . So I’m happy he’s got another opportunity to show what he can really do. Because he’s a prime example.”

And yet, through 12 games, Chriss has done next-to-nothing. Even with the glut of injuries the Warriors have seen already — particularly so to Kevon Looney and Green — the youngster has failed to leave his mark. With 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, on a team that’s 2-10, and over just 15 minutes per contest — no such resurrection has been found. Of course, that doesn’t mean Green was wrong about those ready to write off talented athletes at a moment’s notice. It does, however, suggest that Chriss is nowhere near an ascendancy.

Build A Bridge, Get Over It

Last summer, the Phoenix Suns made Mikal Bridges the No. 10 overall pick in hopes of adding a defensive punch that made him a staple at Villanova. Instead, now in the midst of an unexpectedly stellar team start, it’s Bridges’ offense that has held him back. The 23-year-old played all 82 games for the Suns in 2018-19, tallying averages of 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists over 29.5 minutes per contest. This time around, however, Bridges has seen his minutes drop by one-third and he remains the franchise’s biggest question mark moving forward.

In short, Bridges has little-to-no range and, frankly, it’s getting worse. As a rookie, just over half (55.6 percent) of Bridges’ shots were three-pointers — a distance that he converted on at a 33.5 percent clip. Through the first 10 games of 2019-20, the former Wildcat has struggled from deep and sits at 20 percent on just 1.5 attempts per game. From 0-to-3 feet, Bridges has seen his shot tendencies jump from 27.7 to 45.2 percent between seasons. Moreover, he’s yet to make a single shot between 10 feet and the three-point line.

With the Suns’ defensive rating currently in the middle of the pack, they’ve been less inclined to play Bridges. Given Ricky Rubio’s deficiencies as a reliable three-point shooter, forcing Bridges into the lineup gets even harder. Utilizing one offensive weapon without a deep threat is a choice (particularly so when it’s of Rubio’s playmaking variety), but two at once becomes an ignored handicap.

Furthermore, Phoenix has officially become a modern, deep-shooting outfit and only seven other franchises have converted on more three-pointers so far this season. So, if you can’t shoot three-pointers, the Suns may have significantly less room than usual — sorry, Mikal!

Krusing for Kuzma

When the Los Angeles Lakers made their long-awaited splash for Anthony Davis, they only had one major goal in mind: Holding onto Kyle Kuzma.

Kuzma, 24, was untouchable throughout negotiations, and the Lakers often touted him as a potential third star alongside LeBron James and a would-be Davis. Troubled by a preseason ankle ailment, it’s been slow-goings for Kuzma upon his return to the hardwood. Through seven games, the forward has averaged just 13.7 points and 4.1 rebounds on 28 percent from three-point range. Stunningly, Kuzma has notched 0.3 assists to 1.5 turnovers per game too, further spotlighting the difficulty of finding his place as a demoted third option.

Naturally, the third-year up-and-comer will need some time to readjust — both from the injury and his new teammates — but how much?

Luckily, thanks in part to strong contributions from Dwight Howard, Danny Green and others, the Lakers haven’t needed Kuzma to find his footing right away. At 9-2, Los Angeles has exceeded all expectations thus far — but one beast still looms: minutes. Before Wednesday’s game, James and Davis ranked as No. 9 and No. 10 in the league with 35.3 minutes each per game. Given Davis’ extensive injury history and the miles on James’ body that type of allocation is not sustainable — especially not if the Lakers want to come out of the battle-tested Western Conference in May. If Los Angeles wants to rest its two superstars without the frequent worry of falling behind or surrendering leads, that onus falls almost exclusively on a Kuzma-centered glow-up.

The Lakers are championship contenders already, but they won’t reach their highest gear until Kuzma does — so fingers crossed.

Kuzma, Bridges and Chriss all entered the season with heightened expectations — both on a large and small scale — as they appeared key to future successes. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all. If it’s any consolation, their respective franchises haven’t been floundering without them — or at all — so there’s plenty of breathing room between now and April. Once held as a division with an overabundance of talent is suddenly down to just three viable postseason teams.

While Chriss may be stuck in no man’s land out in Golden State, Kuzma and Bridges have the talent to turn things around — their teams will certainly depend on it.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Pacers Preparing For The Future

Without their star player leading the charge, the Indiana Pacers have quietly been laying the groundwork for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Chad Smith details how Indiana’s strong start will pay dividends in the second half of the season.

Chad Smith

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Head coach Nate McMillan entered this season fully aware that he would be without his superstar guard for several months. He was cognizant of the roster turnover and understood that the team chemistry was going to take some time. He also knew that the Indiana Pacers had a soft schedule to start the year and that they had a golden opportunity to position themselves well upon Victor Oladipo’s eventual return.

Things got off to a rocky start, as they dropped their first three games, which came against the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the Detroit Pistons sans Blake Griffin. Since then though, Indiana has been on a tear by posting a 14-5 record since the night before Halloween. Over that time span, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have won more games.

Even the losses have been close, tightly contested games too. They lost an overtime thriller in Charlotte, suffered a nine-point loss in Houston, fell to the Bucks and had a three-point loss in Philadelphia. Given their situation with all of the injuries and new personnel, it has been a remarkable first quarter of the season.

While the schedule has been extremely light and the easiest in the league there have been quality wins as well. They have beaten Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Memphis, plus Orlando two times each. They also have a victory over Utah, but the Jazz haven’t quite been the elite team that many pegged them out to be before the start of the season.

Sure, it sounds cliché but you can’t worry about how the schedule looks, you have to win the games in front of you. Every team will have some easy stretches on their schedule, but those are the games that must be won. For Indiana, this is especially true as they fight without their All-Star guard. Once healthy, this should be a formidable group in the Eastern Conference.

Jeremy Lamb has already missed nine games, while Myles Turner lost eight with concussion-like symptoms. Then there’s Malcolm Brogdon out for three and Domantas Sabonis was for an additional two games. Edmond Sumner has missed the most time as he has played just three games due to a broken hand.

Brogdon was the big addition this off-season, and he has been sensational. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the head man. The dynamic guard led the league in free throw percentage a year ago and is on pace for a repeat performance again this season.

Indiana’s biggest concern heading into this season was if the duo of Turner and Sabonis would work. So far, so good. Sabonis is having a career year averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds while also dishing out 4 assists per game. The former Gonzaga product is a big reason why the Pacers have had success in the paint.

Turner led the league in blocks last season, but somehow didn’t even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. That has motivated him to be more aggressive and more diligent in his defensive positioning. His rebounding has improved, and he continues to be an elite stopper at the rim averaging 2.3 blocks per game.

After his first five seasons in the league were clouded by defunct teams in Phoenix, TJ Warren has proven that he is a capable scorer at this level. After shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point range last season, he is just a tick below that (41 percent) so far this year. He is shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 19 points per game. When the Pacers need a bucket, they have been consistently going in his direction with the ball.

This squad is the very definition of the word team and is proving it on a nightly basis. Each night, a different guy is stepping up, whether it is on offense or defense. Indiana ranks fourth in defense, tenth in offense and they have the fifth-best net rating entering today’s game in New York. The Knicks, who just fired head coach David Fizdale yesterday, will get Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back.

The schedule will ramp up for the Pacers after this weekend. They will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, then play in Boston 48 hours later. A showdown with LeBron James and the Lakers awaits the following week, followed by a brutal back-to-back set with Milwaukee and Toronto just before Christmas.

An early tip time awaits on New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia, which is then followed by a matchup with Denver. In this nearly three-week span, the Pacers will face Philly, Minnesota, Denver and Miami two times each. This will be a difficult test, but one that they need.

We are only a week into the month of December but, oddly enough, Indiana has already finished up their four-game series with Detroit. The Central division foes will only meet again if they find each other in the postseason. That is the destination for the Pacers, who will likely get their franchise player back before the All-Star break.

The Pacers still have not yet announced a timeline for Oladipo’s return, but indications are that he will be coming back within the next two months. After such a devastating injury, you can expect the organization to proceed with extreme caution once he returns to the floor.

Oladipo himself has admitted that he has been itching to make his return and that he wants to go full throttle once he is given the green light. Indiana will, of course, limit his minutes early on and there is no chance he will play any back-to-back games. This slow but necessary transition will be another speed bump on the road to the postseason for the Pacers.

The players have had 22 games to get a feel for one another. When you consider how much time each of them has missed, it is actually much fewer than that. They are still trying to build chemistry and camaraderie among themselves. As they inch closer to that point, a new wrinkle will be thrown in when the time comes to work their star back into the lineup.

But, ultimately, it is a good problem to have for Indiana. Adding a top 25 player to your team is obviously a major positive, but it won’t come without any setbacks. The team will once again have to gel and understand how to play with one another — most notably the newest additions to the team, which include their other star guard, Brogdon.

Fortunately for Indiana, the season is a long one, and they should have ample time to get Oladipo back fully integrated into the system. It will be a mega boost for the team and could be a major thorn in the side for the rest of the teams in the East.

A defensive unit with Oladipo, Brogdon and Turner fueled with the offensive firepower of guys like Sabonis, Warren and Lamb could prove to be elite. Should they find themselves healthy, they will be factors in the playoffs yet again. Of course, to get there, they have to keep winning the easy games on the schedule.

So far, so good.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram

By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.

Jake Rauchbach

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For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.

Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.

For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.

However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.

Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.

Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.

Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.

“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.

As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.

Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics

As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.

According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.

Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.

A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?

A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.

Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.

Energy Psychology – Player Development

As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.

Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.

Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.

Younger Players & The G-League

Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.

For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.

The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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