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NBA Daily: Fixing The Sacramento Kings

In Basketball Insiders’ latest installment of “Fixing”, Matt John takes a look at the now-promising Kings’ next steps.

Matt John

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In this latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, we’re going to take a look at the one team that arguably has the least fixing to do: The Sacramento Kings.

Just saying that feels so unordinary knowing the Kings’ reputation. In a season that had no shortage of surprises, the Kings’ sudden uprise ranks among the most stunning plotlines. Usually, teams who just barely miss out on the playoffs feel ashamed and wonder what went wrong. Such was not the case with Sacramento.

They may not have been able to end their 13-year playoff drought, but for the first time since 2000, the Kings appear to have a promising future ahead of them.

What Is Working

That’s just it. Something’s working for the Kings. In fact, a lot is working for the Kings. Before this season, the only thing that has worked out for Sacramento since their last playoff appearance was the elite play of DeMarcus Cousins. Even then, it wasn’t like Cousins was getting them anywhere. Now, the tables have turned.

Pretty much everything is working in Sacramento. It’s just not working enough now to its best results, but the best should be yet to come. That is thanks to the play of what has now become one of the league’s most talented youth movements.

De’Aaron Fox made a strong case for the Most Improved Player Award. Improvement was to be expected out the sophomore, but Fox went above and beyond what was expected of him. Fox came into the NBA known for his speed and for his playmaking. What he was not known for was his shooting.

The Kings played at the fifth-highest pace this season, and Fox increased his assist average per-36 from 5.7 to 8.3. That couldn’t have been too shocking who already knew about his game. However, Fox increasing his effective field goal percentage from 44.1 percent to almost 50 percent thanks to his improved three-point shooting, which topped at 37 percent. If that proves to not be a fluke, then De’Aaron Fox’s ceiling just got a lot higher, which is bad news for the NBA.

Buddy Hield wasn’t too far behind him. Hield is starting to show why the Kings were head over heels when the team acquired him two years ago. With an increased role in the offense, Hield’s numbers skyrocketed, putting up 20.7 points on 46/43/89 splits. At 26 years old, odds are Buddy probably won’t improve from there. It doesn’t matter because he’s emerged as one of the league’s clearer sharpshooters.

The real key to the Kings’ future is Marvin Bagley III. Post All-Star break, Bagley showed he could be among the more talented young bigs in the league. He put up 18.5 points on 49/39/70 splits. In fact, an unfortunate late-season knee injury may have hurt his chances at better numbers. Not to mention, the Kings’ playoff hopes.

The Kings may regret passing on Luka Doncic, but Bagley may not be too far behind him.

Harry Giles has shown that he has talent. That talent has shown up albeit only in spurts. The Kings are taking the right approach of being cautious with him until they know he’s 100 percent ready to play starter minutes. Giles was once upon time the number one recruit in the country. He hasn’t taken over the league just yet, but he’s showing signs that it may not be out of the question.

There are of course others who have played and should play a meaningful for the Kings. Bogdan Bogdanovic did a fantastic job sliding into the sixth man role. Harrison Barnes started slow, but he figured it out and should get better when he hopefully returns next season. Nemanja Bjelica did fine in his role as a stretch big. With Bagley and Giles on the rise, he should thrive in his role as the third big.

The Kings now have a team on their hands. Now that they do, they must do everything in their power to keep it

What Needs To Change

Honestly, not much. Boy, isn’t that great to hear for Sacramento?

Sacramento has its backcourt of the future in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. It has its frontcourt of the future in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. He was frustrating at times, but Harrison Barnes is an above-average starting small forward who should get better with more reps on the team. All the Kings really have to do is wait to see just how good this group can be in a full season together until they decide what the long-term solutions are.

Besides, Sacramento seems to have already made its statement on what needed to change. After three seasons, the Kings fired head coach Dave Joerger.

Joerger’s firing doesn’t come entirely as a shock. It had been rumored for months on end that tension had erupted between him and management. Though many had hoped this was just smoke, the Kings’ apparently had had enough of Joerger and kicked him to the curb.

Whatever reasons the Kings had to fire him is their business. That doesn’t stop it from being a badly-timed move. The team’s performance this season demonstrated that Joerger’s strategy was getting one of the NBA’s laughingstocks the best results it had seen in over a decade. Getting rid of the maestro in the midst of the team climbing towards success just doesn’t seem wise.

It also seems reminiscent of the time the team fired Mike Malone in 2014. Malone can sincerely boast that he was the lone coach of many that actually got through to DeMarcus Cousins that season. The team played well early on before Cousins went down, then management fired Malone because of differences. Just a couple years later, Malone is now one of the prime candidates to win Coach of the Year.

After what he’s done this season, it may not be long before Joerger does the same.

Maybe there was more to this than just differences between coaching and the front office. As impressive as the Kings were, they lost so many games in heartbreaking fashion. Those heartbreaking losses really added up as the season progressed. The Kings were nine games out the Western Conference when the season ended, but they were in thick of things for the majority of the season.

Maybe the team would have had a different fate had they been able to close out some of their closer games. Joerger’s firing may have come as a result of management being disappointed in his failure to guide the team in crunchtime.

That is the one blemish on what was a more than admirable coaching job by Dave Joerger. By firing him, the Kings are signaling that they believe that this group is capable of making the playoffs that just need the right man to come up with the right plays in a tight game.

For their sake, let’s hope their right.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Let’s get to the most pressing question first for Sacramento: What do they do with Willie Cauley-Stein?

Much has been made about Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles that Cauley-Stein has become somewhat of an afterthought despite that he was the starting center through the duration of the season. It’s hard to see WCS coming back to the Kings unless he comes back on a discount. He hasn’t shown much improvement since his rookie season and he played less minutes on average than he did the previous season.

Both Bagley’s production and Giles’ promise make Cauley-Stein expendable in Sacramento. His minutes per game average slowly decreasing month by month showed that there was a blooming trust in the former two and as well as the opposite in Cauley-Stein. Because of that, it’ll be hard to see how he comes back.

As for the rest of the impending free agents from the Kings’ side, it really varies. Odds are, Harrison Barnes will probably opt into his contract because it’s difficult envisioning anyone paying him what Sacramento is paying him – $25 million. Even if he opts out, it’s hard to see the Kings letting him walk.

Alec Burks was somehow almost completely nonexistent when the Kings acquired him mid-season, so his return appears unlikely. Kosta Koufos saw his role decrease substantially so it hard seeing the Kings bringing him back unless there’s some sort of special rapport there. Yogi Ferrell and Frank Mason will both be on non-guaranteed contracts. Odds are, the Kings will keep at most one of them. Neither are awful. They’re just not good enough to both be on the roster.

Outside of Cauley-Stein and maybe Barnes, the Kings don’t have much to worry about as far as retaining players go. As far as adding players, well, the Kings don’t have any dire needs outside of solidifying the rotation. Their success this season just might make them look as appealing as they’ve been since the early 2000’s.

As for potential targets, the recently departed Iman Shumpert will probably be available this summer. He embraced being a King before being traded to the Rockets. There could be some hurt feelings there, but Shumpert would have familiarity with the team.

Now that the Kings are on the rise, more familiarity would be pretty nice to have.

Focus Area: Draft

So much went right for the Kings this season that it’s sad to say that the one bad apple in the bunch is losing their first-round pick this season thanks to their trade with Philadelphia nearly four years ago.

While it definitely sucks to lose a lottery pick, Sacramento should see the glass half-full by taking pride in the fact that unlike Brooklyn or New York in past years, it didn’t wind up giving up a top-10 lottery pick to their trade partner. Since many speculated that their talent level was low enough to potentially fork over the first overall pick in the draft, they can take solace in the fact that giving up the last pick in the lottery when pretty much no one expected them to is just more evidence of how they wildly exceeded expectations.

Sacramento will not be completely devoid of draft picks. This season, the Kings will have the 40th, 46th and 60th selections in the 2019 draft. With their squad the way it is, there is no glaring need for them at the present time. At least not until we see the full extent of what Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles are capable of.

If the Kings are able to add a positive contributor to their rotation via the 2019 draft, then all the power to them. It’s not a particularly exciting time for the Kings draft-wise, but for the first time in what seems like an eternity, there’s not nearly as much pressure for Vlade Divac and company to find a franchise-changing player.

Fun times are ahead for the capital of California. The youth movement is paying off. There appears to be a sense of team unity. There are no bloated contracts dragging the team down. It appears that the storm has passed over.

That is as long as they don’t screw this up, or in other words, pull a Sacramento Kings.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Simple Problems With Difficult Solutions

Matt John takes a look at three teams that need to address weaknesses in their rosters and the challenges each team faces in doing so.

Matt John

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Remember when Carmelo Anthony was out of the NBA? That seems so long ago now even though his stint in Portland started less than a month ago.

Let’s go back to that time. In ‘Melo’s almost one-year exodus from the NBA, fans, media, and even players alike were begging for his return. To be fair, this was based more on his reputation as one of the best scorers of his time rather than his recent play with his previous two teams.

Looking back, it was a little odd that for almost an entire year, absolutely no one wanted to roll the dice on Carmelo. Not even on a non-guaranteed contract. But, what was even odder was that although he had plenty of advocates on his side, said advocates couldn’t collectively decide which team really needed him.

At this stage in his career, it was a little tricky to figure out what role he could play because it wasn’t clear how much he had left in the tank or how he’d adapt to his decline after his underwhelming performances with both Oklahoma City and Houston. There was a lot of demand for Carmelo to come back to the NBA. Where he should make his comeback was the question.

Of course, now, we’ve seen that Carmelo can still bring it – so far – if given the right opportunity. The simple problem, in this case, was that Carmelo needed another chance in the NBA. The difficult solution was that, at the time, there was no clear-cut team that would have been perfect for him to go.

That brings us to this season. We are approaching the 1/4th mark in the NBA regular season and now we’re starting to see the true colors of some of these teams. The following teams have simple problems that need to be fixed. At the same time, how they’re going to solve them will be tough to figure out.

San Antonio Spurs

With every minute that passes, the playoff odds are looking less and less in the Spurs’ favor. When was the last time anyone said that about San Antonio? 1996? The naysayers have been dreaming of this day for longer than Vince Carter’s entire career, but this might just be the moment they’ve been waiting for – the end of an era.

San Antonio is currently 8-14, they have a point differential of minus-4.0, and worst of all, they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the NBA. Maybe it would be different if Davis Bertans or Marcus Morris were around, but that doesn’t change that it’s only going to get harder from here.

Twenty-two games into the season and it’s clear the Spurs’ established stars – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – do not mesh well with one other, sporting a net rating of minus-7.2 together. Any three-man lineup with DeRozan/Aldridge plus one of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White has a frighteningly negative net rating – all are minus-7.3 or lower.

It gets worse. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have very negative net ratings – Spurs are minus-10.5 with Aldridge on the court, minus-13.3 with DeRozan. All three of Murray, White, and Forbes have negative net ratings as well, but why it looks worse for the former All-Stars is because those two are supposed to be the main ingredients of a projected playoff team and they’re most certainly not that right now.

Trading them would be the advisable next step but to who is the million-dollar question. Both of them are really good players. They’re just not great players. They’re both lethal scorers. Both of them can put up 20-30 points on any given night. The real issue is that even if they put up their usual numbers, that doesn’t always equate to a win. If you don’t believe that, look at the Spurs’ record again.

Aldridge would be easier to trade on paper because his contract is more favorable since it’s guaranteed for next season, but potentially trading for DeRozan is a little more delicate of a situation. DeMar has a player option after this season, which can be a catch-22 for players like him. If he plays well, he’ll opt out of the contract and go for his next payday. If he doesn’t, he’ll opt-in and drag the cap down another season.

That makes it harder for teams to invest assets for a guy like him. He would usually be worth more if his contract was longer, but the risk of him leaving after less than one season is too big to give up something good for him. There are teams that could definitely use the offensive boost that DeMar provides, but they may not have the matching contracts nor be willing to offer the young value that the Spurs would want in a deal.

Some retooling definitely looks in order for San Antonio, but this situation is a lot more complicated than it was last year.

Boston Celtics

At 15-5, the Celtics are both exceeding expectations and are fun to watch. In other words, they look like a Brad Stevens team again.

Boston’s offense has looked much-improved thanks to both better production from Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum as well as letting their most egregious ball stoppers walk. By having less pure scorers on the team, there are a lot more touches to go around, which has made the offense look more fluid than it did last year.

What’s more surprising than their more team-oriented offense is their stingy defense. The Celtics have the sixth-best defensive rating, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, despite losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

Marcus Smart’s ability to cover just about anyone on the basketball court provides so much cushion for them on the defensive end. Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum have all been stingy switchable wings that make life harder for opponents. Even guys like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have proven to be passable options as undersized centers.

Even their pure bigs haven’t been that bad. Daniel Theis has been excellent as the team’s most reliable rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 52 percent at the rim, and Enes Kanter has the third-best net rating among rotation players, as Boston is plus-5.6 with him on the floor.

Despite that, no matter how good this Celtics crew may look, the knock on them will be the same until they change it: They need an upgrade in the frontcourt.

Theis has been about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for from him, but as of now he can only reasonably be counted on for 20-25 minutes at most. The Celtics have done a great job covering Kanter’s holes, but is that going to hold up in the postseason? Robert Williams III has made substantial progress, but the young mistakes he makes demonstrate that he’s still a year or two away.

Boston has been better than what many thought they would be, but they’d rest easy knowing they had another dependable option in their frontcourt.

Where do they get one though? They don’t have any expendable contracts to give up in a deal. They’ve made it clear that neither Hayward nor Smart are going anywhere, and for good reason. The only other big contract they have on the books is Kemba Walker, and they’re definitely not trading him.

Since Theis and Kanter get paid $5 million each, it’s hard to combine them for an upgrade because the hypothetical upgrade they would need would cost more than that. Since those two are Boston’s most proven bigs, it’d be hard to see them getting rid of both. Their only option might be the buyout market in February, which is a risky game to play.

As good as Boston has been, they haven’t squelched the fears surrounding their frontcourt issues. It only makes you wonder what this team would look like if they still had Al Horford.

Memphis Grizzlies

They may not be a good team right now, and probably won’t be a good team for a couple of years, but how can you not like this young Memphis Grizzlies team?

They’ve hit two consecutive bulls-eyes with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. They’ve got some good complementary veterans in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder as well as good complementary young guys like Brandon Clarke and Dillion Brooks.

It might be weird to say this, but even though they are one of the worst teams in the league, they’re ahead of schedule. The pieces are in place. They are forming a good culture. They probably will get another high lottery pick depending on what record they finish with. It’s a far cry from the Grit-n-Grind era, but the promise the young Grizzlies possess is undeniable.

There’s only one elephant in the room – Andre Iguodala. He’s been an issue that they’ve been avoiding ever since they acquired a first-round pick by adding his “services.” The word “issue” should be taken with a huge grain of salt because it’s not really causing any disruption. Iguodala wants to play for a winner, and Memphis wants to get something good for him.

It makes all the sense in the world. Neither side owes the other anything. Iguodala shouldn’t be spending what’s left of his career on a team that just pressed the reset button. Memphis shouldn’t let a guy with his skillset go if he can be had for something. Even at almost 36, Iggy is still a valuable player.

Besides the fact that no one is going to offer a first-round pick for a role player in his mid-30’s on an expiring deal, the biggest issue for the Grizzlies is that hardly any team vying for his services has an expendable matching contract to trade for Andre and his $17+ million contract.

Most teams who have expendable deals in the NBA are ones that don’t have any use for Andre because they’re not going anywhere. Atlanta, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit are all teams that have guys on overpaid deals that are worth giving up, but the likelihood that they go for a guy like him with the place they are at now isn’t likely.

Teams like the Clippers, Blazers or HEAT could certainly put themselves in the bidding, but that would require sacrificing guys who are thriving in their rotation, like Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, or Kent Bazemore.

The one option that makes sense is Dallas. They have a player currently out of their rotation that is being paid enough to be used to get Andre – Courtney Lee. They definitely need some help along the wing, and Iguodala would bring championship experience to a team that has exceeded all reasonable expectations.

What Dallas might do is try to see if they can get a better overall player since the team has both Lee’s and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts that can be used to acquire a star. They don’t have a lot of assets, but that may be worth looking into first before looking at Iguodala.

Releasing Iguodala would be Memphis’ last resort, which they don’t want to do, but finding an acceptable trade partner is going to be difficult especially if they want to get something back for him. The longer they wait, the lesser the value.

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Summer League Standouts Faring Well

Jordan Hicks takes a look back at some of the most notable All-Summer League Team players and discusses the contributions they’ve made up to this point in the NBA season.

Jordan Hicks

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The NBA season is in full swing and players are seeing their impact being felt throughout the league. Veterans continue to lead their respective franchises, and role players continue doing what they can to push the scales in their team’s favor.

While the more tenured professionals capture the bulk of the headlines, the first and second-year players often go unnoticed. There’s the occasional breakout star here and there, but for the most part, the young guys do what they can to find time on the court and help their club in any meaningful way.

Every summer, the NBA hosts the now-famous tournament in Nevada, the Las Vegas Summer League, where the stage is open for up-and-coming players to make their first mark in the NBA. Year after year, some newcomers supply the NBA loyalists with enough highlights to keep them happy until mid-October.

At the close of the tournament, a handful of players will make the All-Summer League Team – similar to an All-NBA Team for the regular season. Let’s take a look at how a handful of the All-Summer League Team members have fared this season and what their potential outlook looks like moving forward.

Brandon Clarke — First Team

The former college All-American out of Gonzaga University had quite the impact in his Summer League debut. Not only did he earn first-team All-Summer League honors, but he also took home the Summer League MVP and Tournament MVP, too. He was a statistical monster and a clear reason why the Memphis Grizzlies took home the coveted — to some at least — Summer League Championship trophy.

Clarke currently finds himself in a sixth man-style role. He’s sixth in the team in minutes per game and is doing plenty in that span. He’s averaging 11.8 points on 63 percent from the field and a more impressive 45.5 percent from three. He’s also bringing in 5.9 boards and just under a block [er game. His effective field goal percentage of 66.4 percent is currently good for fifth-best in the entire NBA.

In per 36 minutes, that would be 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on average. He’s not getting starter minutes just yet, but it’s more than safe to say that the Memphis Grizzlies are receiving incredible value out of their 21st overall pick.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker — First Team

Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Alexander-Walker contributed in a big way during the Summer League in Las Vegas. His athleticism is clearly a strong suit but his tenacity on the court is what helps him get minutes.

He’s playing a tad over 14 minutes per game for the New Orleans Pelicans thus far, netting 6.5 points and 2.1 assists on average. New Orleans’ roster is flooded with talented guards, so it’s no surprise Alexander-Walker isn’t getting more minutes, but he seems to be doing an admirable job with the minutes Alvin Gentry gives him.

In a loss to Miami a few weeks back, Alexander-Walker went 6-of-9 from three and finished with 27 points. He followed that performance with 19 points and 4 assists in a win against the Golden State Warriors. His minutes have been sporadic so far, but he’s contributed when given a chance. As the season goes on, look for Alexander-Walker to find more time in Gentry’s lineups.

Kendrick Nunn — First Team

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all the young players this season, Nunn has proven to be quite a threat on the offensive side of the court. He’s averaging 15.3 points per game, good for third on the talented Miami HEAT roster. He led the team with 22.4 points per game in October and was averaging 16.9 points through the first 10 games, but he’s cooled a bit.

For a team that was already planning on starting the season strong, the fact Nunn has managed to carve out 29.4 minutes per night is a testament to his nightly contributions. He has taken the confidence he earned from his Summer League accolades and is supplying the HEAT with stellar play on a nightly basis. There’s a chance his scoring will continue to die down a bit, but he’s already proven worthy of his roster spot in such a short amount of time.

Rui Hachimura — Second Team

The Washington Wizards are currently playing the fastest pace in the NBA and oddly enough have the fourth-best offense to date, too. Hachimura is a key reason for this.

He’s averaging 13.4 points on an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 percent. He’s also pulling down 5.6 boards and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His season-high is 30 points on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s scored in double-figures on 12 out of 19 games this season.

Hachimura’s long frame, coupled with his elite athleticism, allows him to get to the rim and create opportunities for himself as well as for his teammates. He’s still figuring the game out — his flaws on defense are easy to spot — but he has the ability to develop into a great basketball player.

Other recipients of Summer League honors include second-year players Mitchell Robinson, Lonnie Walker IV, Anfernee Simons and third-year player Jarrett Allen. Each of these guys has been producing for their respective teams in big ways.

The Las Vegas Summer League can sometimes be an interesting topic. Each year, second-year guys may or may not return to their Summer League squads and new faces abound. But if there’s anything that recent history has shown us, it’s that cream will always rise to the top. The guys that notch the All-Summer League honors will usually contribute to their teams almost immediately.

Each of these guys mentioned — and even the ones not discussed — will continue to cement their presence in the NBA and may very well become the regular season All-Stars of the future. It’s hard to decipher a player’s value based solely on box score statistics, but when one first enters the league, it’s never a bad thing to see the box score go up. For the young guys, it’s all about finding comfort and learning in which ways they can contribute best. Some may end up being the scorer, while others will develop into a defensive savant or playmaking maestro.

Whatever the future holds, remember the names above. They all have a solid chance of being the face of a franchise someday.

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NBA Daily: Three Veterans Reviving Their Careers

As the league continues to evolve, three players have revived their careers by changing the way they play. Chad Smith examines the mental aspect of these changes and how they are helping their new teams.

Chad Smith

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Life is all about second chances and what you do with them. Basketball isn’t much different in that regard, as most players and coaches will tell you much of their success is about opportunity. Sometimes a fresh start in a new environment is all you need, as three players, in particular, have proved so far this season.

Health is always a big part of these things, but there is so much more that goes into it. Basketball players are creatures of habit, and old habits can be very difficult to break. Changing your perspective on the type of player you are and changing your style of play simply cannot be done overnight. It takes a strong culture, the right people around you and acceptance to make it all work.

With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, there have been plenty of surprises and disappointments. When looking at the former, three guys stand out that many people thought were finished as NBA players, but are now reviving their careers after taking on a new role.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

The Carmelo experiment in Portland has gone very well for both sides. Two weeks in, the 10-time All-Star has relished his new role as another offensive weapon behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The league announced on Monday that the 35-year-old had been named as the Western Conference Player of the Week — averaging 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game — as Portland posted a perfect 3-0 record.

The last time Carmelo won the weekly award was March 10, 2014. Now seven games into his 2019-20 season, he is averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and over 2 assists per game. His shooting percentages are above average, and he is being utilized much better than he was in Houston or Oklahoma City. He is not trying to carry the offense, but he is more than just a spot-up shooter.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has done a remarkable job of injecting Carmelo into the offense, and not altering it completely. By using his strengths on that end of the floor, it actually alleviates some pressure for Lillard and McCollum, while at the same time freeing up space inside for Hassan Whiteside to get better position. Everyone on the roster seems to be benefiting from Melo’s presence, and the team has reaped the rewards.

No one had doubts that Carmelo still had plenty of game left in the tank. The concerns were believed to be the inability to find a situation that was conducive to his mentality. Carmelo had been fighting the notion that he is not the same quality of player that he was in his prime, being above taking on a reserve role with a team. Now that he has bought in, everything has changed.

The 16-year veteran could be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Trail Blazers. After a number of injuries and a slow start for McCollum had them searching for answers, Portland had the longest winning streak of any team in the Western Conference entering Tuesday night’s tilt with the LA Clippers. When Carmelo is willing to make the extra pass and doesn’t hesitate after getting the ball, Portland has found success.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

When Howard decided to return to the Lakers for a second stint this past summer, there were plenty of people skeptical of the move. The top overall pick of the 2004 draft has answered his critics in a resounding way. After several unsuccessful stops in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, he has finally been able to get his back healthy and return to the floor.

After a dominating start to his career in Orlando, where he was the face of the organization for eight seasons, Howard went to team up with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. The two did not see eye-to-eye, and he made his way to Houston the following year. The injuries began to pile up and his production suffered. Never known as a serious guy that had a laser focus on getting better, Howard made himself a target as the losses piled up — and his frustrations were made public.

Now in his 15th season, Howard has finally bought into the system. His role with this Lakers team is clearly defined, and he has accepted it. He has embraced it. He has played to his strengths, which is exactly what the Lakers need from him. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Five times he has finished with the most rebounds in the league. He has had the most blocks in two seasons and has been named to an All-Defensive team five times during his career. As he nears his 34th birthday, he has been fantastic on and off the court.

While averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game may not sound incredible, keep in mind that Howard is only playing around 20 minutes per game. The loaded frontcourt with Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma has played a significant role in that.

Just by watching Howard play, it is easy to see how much quicker and freely he is able to move on the floor. No longer plagued by back issues, he has been sprinting back on defense, running in transition, and finishing above the rim. The Lakers thought they would have the services of DeMarcus Cousins before the season began, but this may actually work out better for them in the long run.

Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards

The journey for Thomas has been much different. After struggling to find minutes, then thriving as the face of the Boston Celtics franchise for three years, IT found himself looking for a home after the hip injury that ended his tenure in Beantown after a deep playoff run.

The first stop came in Cleveland, where he was part of the trade package for Kyrie Irving. He was then sent to the LA Lakers where the fit simply didn’t work. He played just 32 total games during the 2017-2018 season and appeared in only 12 games for the Denver Nuggets after signing a free-agent deal. With his career hanging in the balance entering his age 30 season, Thomas found a new home in Washington.

Much like the two names mentioned above, Thomas has done exactly what the team has needed them to do. The Wizards knew they would be without their star point guard John Wall for the entire season. While they understood the backup role that Ish Smith would play, they needed another playmaker to draw the attention away from Bradley Beal. Fortunately for everyone involved, IT has been able to deliver so far this year.

The assist numbers for IT this year are on par with his average during his three seasons in Boston, which is a career high. The scoring obviously isn’t similar, but that is not what the Wizards need from him. Washington’s offense is a well-oiled machine that is humming along quite nicely. They have multiple guys that can score, and they do it from all areas of the court. The second-ranked scoring offense in the NBA is a clear indication that this team is more than just Beal.

Thomas may not be the same All-Star player that fueled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, but he has been playing his best basketball since that run.

Not bad for an undersized guy taken with the very last pick in the 2011 draft.

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