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NBA Daily: Biggest Winners On Draft Night

With another year in the books, Ben Nadeau looks at the 2019 NBA Draft’s biggest winners — go get that money, Cam!

Ben Nadeau

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As usual, chaos reigned supreme during Thursday’s NBA Draft, an annual tradition like no other. Spearheaded by pre-draft trades involving Anthony Davis, Mike Conley Jr. and a number of smaller-sided deals, a rambunctious amount of league-wide movement went down in Brooklyn this week. After the all-but-announced business involving Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett had been decided, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Pheonix Suns helped to push the draft into an early frenzy — so, from there on out, matters only continued to rise. The New Orleans Pelicans used their freshly-replenished haul of draft picks to add even more depth to a young, athletic roster, while multiple surprises kept much of first 30 choices shrouded in mystery.

But when the dust settled at the Barclays Center, a few teams had notably come out on top. Whether by sticking to their front office guns or just simply reading the room, there can be no doubt that these franchises bettered themselves for both the present and the oncoming future.

New Orleans Pelicans

Now That’s What I Call Rebuilding A Franchise, Vol. 19! David Griffin, the recently-hired Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Pelicans, has absolutely smashed his opening months in charge. Anthony Davis’ trade deadline value had been torpedoed by that infamous public trade request — and doubled-down upon in June by Rich Paul’s insistence that his client would end up in Los Angeles — but that didn’t stop Griffin from squeezing every possible ounce of profit from the desperate Lakers. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were quality centerpieces, but Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will factor in for years to come too. Naturally, that list doesn’t even include the trove of future draft picks that they received too

Billy King, unofficially, you are off the hook.

If that weren’t enough, Griffin also ditched the final year of Solomon Hill’s contract, a move that’ll put the Pelicans in prime position to chase a key free agent. For a franchise that looked stuck between a rock and hard place four months ago, it’s far more likely that New Orleans reaches the playoffs instead of the lottery next season. In short, even if the Pelicans weren’t your secret second favorite team, they probably are now.

Cleveland Cavaliers

There were no insane deals for Cleveland this year, nor did they have to worry about placating a nearly decided-upon LeBron James either. Now firmly entrenched in year two of their unanticipated rebuild, a palpable shape is starting to take form for the Cavaliers. Sure, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton play the same position — but that’s something for John Beilein, Cleveland’s shiny, new hire at head coach — to figure out. Joined by the excellent 1-2 scoring punch of Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. to finish out the night, the Cavaliers snagged plenty of ceilingless shooting potential. Although they’re likely to see at least one more lottery appearance, there’s plenty to be excited about in the Midwest — with or without a deep postseason run ahead of them.

Brooklyn Nets

Since Sean Marks was hired as the Nets’ general manager, he’s drafted exceptionally well — particularly for a franchise that didn’t hold their own first round pick for half a decade. Caris LeVert (No. 20), Jarrett Allen (No. 22) and Rodions Kurucs (No. 40) all seem like tent-pole contributors for Brooklyn — so the Nets, who once had two first-rounders in 2019, believe it or not, traded both of them away. With the Kyrie Irving gaining serious steam lately, Marks and the front office needed to keep the roster lean for a second max free agent — unfortunately, that came at the expense of those pesky guaranteed first-round deals. Brooklyn didn’t come away empty-handed, however, as the green room-invited Nic Claxton and late-round draftee Jaylen Hands are intriguing in their own ways — but their biggest prize remains that flexibility.

If the league has learned anything over the last four years, it should be that the Nets don’t willingly toss aside draft picks, especially with their sturdy track record. Whether or not Brooklyn lands some combination of Kevin Durant or Irving in July remains to be seen — but this marked a warning shot to the other 29 franchises: The Nets are back.

Atlanta Hawks

While the Luka Dončić-Trae Young debate is set to rage on until the end of time, it’s safe to say that the Hawks have crucially navigated their rebuild nonetheless. Flipping Nos. 8 and 17 — the former coming via the Allen Crabbe deal — with New Orleans to move up for De’Andre Hunter was shrewd business, but using the No. 10 overall selection, the extra asset from the aforementioned Mavericks trade, to collect Cam Reddish might be the cherry on top. Very suddenly, the Hawks have collected an entirely new starting five in just under three years. Additionally armed with Kevin Heurter, John Collins and Young — three of the league’s brightest breakout stars in 2018-19 — that core, somehow, got even better.

At No. 4, Hunter is a versatile, two-way standout that’ll protect Young on defense and shoulder some offensive millage for Heurter as well. In an alternative collegiate dimension, Reddish could’ve been a bonafide star — instead, he falls perfectly into the lap of Atlanta. Any franchise thinking about hitting the reset button should carefully study the Hawks — it’s early, but the signs are extremely positive.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are included on this list of winners precisely for Not Messing That Up™ — at long last, RJ Barrett is the new king of New York. Throughout the springtime, Barrett was merely considered a consolation prize compared to the real-deal main courses in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — same, consequently, for whichever team ended up at No. 3 overall. Even if that many-times-rebuffed draft narrative comes true, Barrett was still the easy call for the Knicks to make. As if a sight for sore eyes, New York-area fans actually celebrated their latest first-round selection — a facet that hasn’t happened frequently as of late. But for everybody else, it was just refreshing not to see the always-struggling franchise not outthink itself for once.

The former Blue Devil averaged 22.6 points and 7.6 rebounds on 52.9 percent from the field and, in all likelihood, this will be his team from day one.  Now paired with Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr., the newly-drafted Barrett and the Knicks may finally be on the path to something bigger and brighter.

Cameron Johnson

One of the most-puzzling moves of the night came at the expense of the Phoenix Suns, a team so badly in need of above-average defense that they moved down from No. 6 to No. 11 in exchange for Dario Saric. To slightly compound matters, the Suns then grabbed Cameron Johnson, an excellent shooter that was projected as a mid-to-late pick in the first round. Pundits have since crushed the choice — Jarrett Culver, a solid two-way player, slid to their original selection — but the Suns clearly saw something they loved in Johnson.

All that aside, the former Tar Heel just got much, much richer on behalf of the Suns.

If Johnson had fallen a little closer to his mocked-out range — let’s say to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 24 overall, just as an example — his initial salary would’ve been a paltry downgrade. Of course, salary cap numbers differ year-to-year but the Trail Blazers’ Anfernee Simons went No. 24 in 2018 and was paid about $1.8 million during his rookie season. Simons will earn $2.1 million in 2019-20, plus $2.2 and $3.9 million over the following two years should Portland continue to pick up his team options ahead of restricted free agency.

So, across his first four NBA seasons, Simons will earn roughly $10.2 million — whereas Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, last year’s No. 11 overall pick, will take home close to $17 million on the same type of structured deal. For a 23-year-old like Johnson that was supposed to land closer to the second round than the lottery a week ago, that’s a significant financial windfall. Even if he doesn’t end up proving all his doubters wrong, he will, at the very least, be paid far more handsomely for his efforts.

From franchises that are looking to stockpile talented youngsters to those readying themselves for the hectic free agency period, most did fairly well during the 2019 NBA Draft. But in this world, there are always winners and losers — and, in this iteration, Cameron Johnson may be the biggest victor of them all.

So congratulations to Johnson on the major pay raise and best wishes to the rest of this promising class as well — October can’t come soon enough.

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

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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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