Year 2 in the NBA can be just as much of a challenge as a rookie season.
On one hand, your expectations rise — individually and team-wise. On the other, 29 teams key-in on tendencies through film study.
They’ll make adjustments to ensure you don’t get to your usual spots, forcing you to find a way to counteract. They’ll sniff out what makes you tick on the defensive end and gameplan ways to make you uncomfortable. And if you’re a shooter, they’ll contest and close-out harder than you’ve ever experienced.
In-house, things change. The roster is never exactly the same. Sometimes, there’s a lot of turnover in that department. Heck, you might have a new role and new coaching staff to learn from — and in some cases, your front office could be undergoing a shift.
Such factors can send a confident young player into the doldrums of a sophomore slump, a phenomenon that isn’t picky about choosing who, and when, to strike.
Entering the season, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton was a prime candidate to fall into this trap. With John Beilein making the jump from college to pro as his new head coach, No. 5 overall pick Darius Garland entering the mix as the team’s proverbial shiny new toy and All-Star big man Kevin Love fully healthy after an injury-plagued year, there were plenty of reasons to think that Sexton may go through some regression.
Following a blazing start from deep and continuing the momentum he established as a rookie, Sexton looked as if he began to hit a wall. In the second half of November and all of December, he went absolutely ice cold. And as a player that thrives as a natural scorer in attack mode, he reverted back to his negative tendencies — driving into trees with nowhere to go, turning the ball over due to poor decision-making and playing one vs. all-type basketball.
Sexton’s momentum picked up again, however, when Beilein staggered him and his starting backcourt partner’s minutes. Garland and the then-healthy Kevin Porter Jr. developed a chemistry on the floor that allowed for consistent ball movement to find the next guy. In an effort to experiment with different rotations, Sexton saw time with a mixture of lineups where he was a facilitator, yet he shared that role with Jordan Clarkson, a microwave-scoring sixth man with a similar style of play.
On Dec. 23, the Cavaliers parted ways with Clarkson via a trade with the Utah Jazz in exchange for little-used former 2014 fifth overall pick Dante Exum. The goal of this deal was not only to bring in a reclamation project in Exum, but to open up minutes for the squad’s younger, inexperienced players — Porter, Garland and Sexton — in key moments. And since this all went down, Sexton has been on the come up, slowly but surely.
Over the course of the year, Sexton’s had a floater down pat to finish over the top of defending bigs. He’s had to have that tool in his arsenal, too, because the NBA’s best shot-blockers have been feasting on his drives inside. Fear The Sword’s Justin Rowan astutely points out the number of shots the 21-year-old has had swatted away vs. the number of assists he’s given out (quite a disturbing ratio), which beckons the argument of him being a bad passer while simultaneously making bad decisions to challenge guys with almost a foot more of height.
These are valid concerns and will continue to be as long as it doesn’t change. Forcing the issue with your head down in a lose-lose situation can’t work in this league. At the same time, we also have to remember he’s still an inexperienced player navigating his way through his second season. Plus, from the point Clarkson was moved, Sexton’s scoring average is an encouraging 22.3 points per game on 46.1 percent from the field and 41.9 beyond the arc.
“Just reading and reacting. Especially like, we go over a lot of pick-and-roll stuff in practice, so I’m starting to just understand where I get my shots and stuff,” Sexton said Wednesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
Due to the success of that aforementioned floater, teams are prepared to pack the paint when they see Sexton going inside with a head of steam. Beilein’s noticed most of his players’ difficulty in seeing who’s out on the perimeter while maintaining eyes on the rim.
Though he’s still had bad moments in numerous situations to try and finish over multiple defenders, Sexton has seemed to discover a solution.
“When it’s like that, I’ve just got to make sure I keep spraying out and keep trying to get assists for my teammates. And making the right play, don’t try to force anything,” Sexton said. “If I don’t have it, then make the right play and hopefully my teammates knock it down.
“It’s tough,” Sexton admitted. “Just because at the last second, they might slide over and then I may have to pump a little bit and then pass it. But it’s tough. I’ve just got to make the right play. If I feel like I have the floater, just float it and don’t even think about it.”
It’s even tougher with Cleveland’s current roster, which isn’t exactly built for catch-shooting and hesitates to take them. There are only a handful of perimeter shooters — Love, Garland, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr. — that the team can depend on. This goes without mentioning a sub-30 percent conversion rate that his teammates have when they attempt a triple off of one of Sexton’s passes. Maybe they aren’t put in the best spots or aren’t spacing the floor well-enough to help his case. Regardless, those shots have to fall.
As Garland’s confidence as a floor general has increased, so has his usage, leading Beilein to play Sexton off the ball, a role that the coaching staff believes suits his game despite necessary adjustments to get him to that point. We saw a different version of Sexton last week on the road — and even early on Monday in a 106-86 clunker against the New York Knicks.
“What we’ve been telling Collin is, he creates so much attention and can score the ball at such a high clip that so much is going to be there for him,” Love said of Sexton at Thursday’s morning shootaround. “He’s so fast, he can get into the paint so well and he puts such pressure on the defense — just looking at where he can make reads, that’s a combination of film, a combination of a willingness to find guys and just picking it apart and seeing it.
“He’s done a lot better job. (There were) a couple of quarters, a few halves where he was able to really see what he was capable of and setting up his teammates and then the game just opened up for him, and I think that’s going to continue to happen for him…He’s only going to get better.”
Perhaps his role should be brought up as well. Sexton isn’t a traditional point guard, as detractors would like to use against him when bringing up assist numbers. Rather, he’s a score-first combo player that Beilein wants to see continue hunting for buckets. That should not excuse hurtful mistakes during the course of games, though, and both the player and the coach know it.
“Just try not to force it. If it’s not there, don’t even pass it,” Sexton said. “If it’s like in-between, don’t even try to force it or anything like that. So we’ve just got to make the right passes when it comes to that. (Stop) trying to make the hero pass, maybe like a no-look or a little pocket pass when you don’t got to force it, you’ve just got to make the right play.”
In three of the last five games, Sexton’s dished out at least four assists. Sure, it’s a meager number to some, but it’s still progression — especially for somebody who’s spending time getting to his spots without the ball in his hands. When he’s brought it up the floor to start games, there’s been a concerted effort to find Love and others on the perimeter. The sooner Sexton realizes the ball will come back to him after initiating an action of some sort, the better off he and the Cavaliers will be.
“I think he’s seeing it,” Beilein said of Sexton’s vision. “I think we all will go back to our instincts, especially in tough times and he’s getting better at understanding that, because we want him to keep trying to score, now. He’s got really good 2-point numbers in some situations. It’s that fine line for him to discern, ‘Is this the best shot, is this the best play?’ And he’s very receptive of learning that.”
There seems to be a common misconception that Sexton doesn’t want to pass the ball. Should we really buy that? Or should it be taken in consideration that:
Cleveland is telling him to be the hunter? That he legitimately doesn’t see his teammates with defenses hounding him in the moment? That he doesn’t want to push his own possible limitations? That there’s not too much strength behind those passes in the first place?
These sound like excuses, yes, but if you counted how many times Sexton’s said “caught in-between” this year, you might be able to see it from that perspective. When you overdrive into traffic, you usually get into trouble. There have been quite a few instances where he, and Garland, have put themselves into a winless predicament. That shouldn’t be seen as somebody who will never get it. It should be seen as one-half of a combined 40-year-old backcourt with less than two seasons of experience trying to figure things out.
“It’s the NBA. You have to adjust,” Sexton said. “That’s how it is. You have to make sure you do that on the fly. And when it’s like that, you’ve got to really lock-in and really focus on different players and making sure you’re reading them.”
As Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor asked a local frustrated fan, “Why do we take near-20-point scorers who just turned 21 for granted and say, ‘Well those guys are a dime a dozen?’”
(If you’d like a personal opinion on that, refer to this Tweet.)
It’d be foolish to say that these same miscues won’t repeat themselves. It’s bound to happen with the high usage he has on this team. He has to be better, and he has to be smarter. However, if the progression comes in those areas little by little, then Sexton’s development will still be right on track regarding this embryonic point of his career.
You can demand that he uses his quick burst of speed and knack for getting into the paint to get others involved, but you can’t act as if points don’t matter — even if it’s not by the most efficient means of scoring. Some guys aren’t aggressive without being told to be. He is not one of those players because failure isn’t a fear of his.
His work ethic is matched by few. His desire to be great is palpable. His attitude is exceptional.
Sexton broke out with loads of confidence in the second half of his rookie campaign.
If history repeats itself, Cleveland will have to acknowledge Young Bull’s sophomore surge.
NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble
The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.
We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.
While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.
Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.
Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.
That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.
After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.
Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.
|Offensive Rating||106.4 – No. 23||106.8 – No. 21|
|Defensive Rating||111.7 – No. 23||113.5 – No. 27|
Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.
Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.
|Offensive Rating||111.9 – No. 15||115.1 – No. 4|
|Defensive Rating||109.3 – No. 11||110.3 – No. 13|
Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.
In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.
If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.
If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division
David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.
We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.
It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.
The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.
The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.
The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.
The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.
Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.
The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.
They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.
But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.
Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.
In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.
There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?
Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division
With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.
Well, that was fast.
With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.
The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.
In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.
Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.
The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.
After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.
If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.
The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.
He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.
Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.
The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.
The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.
The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.
If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.
Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).
Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.
The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.
At least the playoffs should be exciting.
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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division
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