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NBA Daily: Elite Scorers Redefining What’s Possible

Norms are hard to challenge everywhere. That’s especially true in the NBA. Drew Maresca examines the new normal for NBA scoring leaders, which includes playing at a faster pace and leveraging deeper three-pointers.

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The NBA has had a number of different eras throughout its existence. The modern era of basketball began sometime between 1998 and 2003. Since the modern era and even before, it’s been extremely rare that two or more players average 29 points per game or more in the same season.

It’s actually only happened four times in the past 17 seasons: In 2005-06, Kobe Bryant (35.4), Allen Iverson (33.0) LeBron James (31.4) and Gilbert Arenas (29.3) all accomplished it; it happened again in 2009-10, when Kevin Durant (30.1) and James (29.7) did so; another time in 2015-16, when Stephen Curry (30.1) and James Harden (29.0) both did so; and once again in 2016-17 with Westbrook (31.6) and Harden (29.1).

The last time that four or more players averaged at least 29.0 points per game was that ’05-06 campaign, and the time before that was all the way back in 1987-88.

And yet here we are, more than halfway through the 2019-20 season with five players currently averaging at least 29.0 points per game. FIVE!

Presently, Harden (34.9), Bradley Beal (30.4), Trae Young (29.6), Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.6) and Damian Lillard (29.4) are all averaging more than 29.0 points per game.

And while drawing a line in the sand at that number might feel arbitrary, it’s a very real barrier that there few have broken through. And remember, there have been five seasons since 2003-04 that the NBA scoring champion averaged less than 29.0 points per game.

Before we get too far, it’s worth pointing out that this list could be even longer. Three of the very best scorers on the planet aren’t on the list for a variety of reasons: Curry, Westbrook and Durant.

Westbrook is still getting acclimated to playing alongside Harden in Houston, but he’s averaged more than 32 points per game since 2020; and if he averages 32.25 points per game over the final 20 games, he’ll finish the year at exactly 29.0. Meanwhile, Durant will miss the entire 2019-20 season and Curry has been sidelined for the majority of it.  So while this season has forced many to rethink what’s possible, it could have been even crazier.

But it’s not as if the NBA just recently received an influx of scorers. Sure, there are some newcomers on the list, but it’s not as if the top scorers in 2019-20 are hands down better scorers than we’ve seen before. So what’s driving the uptick? This writer posits a theory that points to two stylistic changes: More shot attempts and a willingness to shoot the ball from beyond the three-point line.

First, a bit about the players’ willingness to take deeper shots. The deep three burst onto the mainstage fairly recently. Curry made sure we were all aware of it in Feb. 2016, when he sealed a game against the Durant and Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder. That wasn’t the first time a player launched a long three-pointer, but it might have been the first time it was done and everyone watching assumed it had at least as good of a chance of going in. But one player isn’t the rule, he’s the exception.

However, since that night, we’ve seen Damian Lillard casually take and make 30-footers in the 2019 playoffs with perfect form. Trae Young has launched more than his share in his short time in the league, too. And then there’s LeBron James, who has made at least two 30-plus footers in only the last week – both of which were taken as if to say, “anything you can do, I can do better.”

Since 2003-04, two main things have changed: Star players are now also three-point shooters — and they’ve annexed lots of additional space from which they shoot — but coaching plays an equally important role in players taking longer three-pointers, as well. Modern coaches have relinquished some control for the greater good. Can you imagine Phil Jackson or Jerry Sloan allowing their players to remain in the game after shooting a 30-footer with 17 seconds left in the shot clock? Unlikely would be a generous way to put it. But modern coaches understand that it’s in their best interest to let their players play with freedom and pace.

The other integral aspect that has enabled more players to score at a flabbergasting pace is….pace. In basketball terms, pace is defined as the number of possessions per 48 minutes a team has. It’s a fairly straight forward concept. And ever since coach Mike D’Antoni showed off his “seven seconds or less” offense, teams have done their best to replicate it — despite the fact that it was publicly disparaged and disregarded as a fad.

A quick examination of the average pace across the league reveals that it has quickened pretty dramatically over the last few decades. The average pace in 2019-20 is 100.2. Last season, that number was 100.0. The year prior, 97.3. and it continues on that exact upward trajectory back to 2003-04, when the average pace was only 90.1. Pace affects the scoring average of elite players very directly because with a faster pace comes more possessions, which translates into additional touches for a team’s go-to scorer.

Basketball Insiders caught up with the New York Knicks’ defensive anchor, Mitchell Robinson, to discuss spoke the increase in elite scorers around the league.

“Yeah, I think it’s more just more field goal attempts,” Robinson said. “If I’m in the paint, not too many guys come down there. Some guys don’t care and come anyway. But most take outside shots instead of coming in. Leads to more points, long rebounds, more possessions.”

But field goal attempts are only part of the equation. Players have to convert field goal attempts, and NBA defenses continue to learn new schemes to keep players from touching the ball.

And yet, elite players are scoring more than ever before. Spoiler alert: It’s because they’re that good.

“Players are just getting sharper and working harder on their craft,” continued Robinson. “LeBron (James) been shooting those half-court shots in pre-games for a while (whereas other greats might not have). So if he takes that in-game, it’s gonna be like a warm-up.”

The uptick in elite scorers’ averages can be mostly attributed to an increased pace, as well as a more open game thanks to players shooting from a longer range. These innovations have made the game more aesthetically pleasing, but they’ve also enabled players to be more effective than ever before.

We are currently experiencing an offensive renaissance. The last few years showed us the speed at which basketball can be played, and this season shows that elite players must be picked up the second they cross half-court. When thinking back to the 1990s, five or more players averaging 29.0 points per game or more might’ve seemed impossible.

It’s exciting to consider what unattainable and unwritten rules will be challenged next.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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