As LeBron James clings onto his playoff life with the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers and Kyrie Irving attempts to maintain the slumping Boston Celtics’ positioning in the standings, the third member of the former Cleveland Cavaliers big three is relishing the chance to play the game he loves.
“I feel like a big part of my life and my identity is taken away when the game is taken away from me,” Kevin Love said after a win over the Memphis Grizzlies in late February. “So I feel really good and really fortunate just to be out there.”
Having been sidelined from mid-October to the beginning of February, Kevin Love played in just his 11th game of the season this past Sunday night. The All-Star big man put up a 16-point, 14-rebound double-double, his fourth in five contests.
Since Feb. 11, Love is averaging 20.3 points and 11 rebounds on 46.5 percent from deep on over seven attempts per game. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage rate is 26.8 percent and the Cavaliers on/off differential with him playing is plus-14.2 per 100 possessions.
“He’s a walking double-double,” Larry Nance Jr. said of Love after beating the New York Knicks. “That’s something he’s been his whole career and that’s certainly not gonna change now. He’s just such a weapon for us.”
Cleveland head coach Larry Drew noticed a difference in the team’s flow and rhythm the moment that Love hit the floor in Washington a month ago. Not surprisingly, his effect has only gotten more significant.
In the seven games the Cavaliers have played with Love, their record is 5-2. Overall, they have won five of the last eight and are .500 in their last 14 games. All of this coincides with the minute the 30-year-old came back to practice and started logging minutes on the floor with his teammates.
“He’s our go-to guy,” Drew told Basketball Insiders at Friday’s practice. “And anytime you have a go-to guy, you’re gonna play through him. And we haven’t had that luxury all season long where he’s been out.
“Now that he’s with us, we can play through him – whether we play through him on the post or whether we play through him on the perimeter – we have a guy that we can play through.”
Those on the outside are seeing Love’s production with the eye-popping statistics as he continues to get back to his usual workload, but his mere presence has improved the on-court product and accelerated the growth of team chemistry almost immediately.
“I mean, he’s an All-Star,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “That’s a major impact on a team. And it’s not just his points or his rebounds. It’s just the level of respect the opposing team has to have for him when he’s on the court. So yeah, this is what we knew he was gonna do.
“That’s why, coming into this year, we were very optimistic about what we can be and who we can become. And now when he’s back, you see us optimistic again. There are only, what, 24 All-Stars in the NBA and that’s one of ’em. It’s great to have him back.”
While Love usually doesn’t take too much credit for his performances, he does understand the difference he makes for others. Specifically, he believes that second-year wing Cedi Osman and rookie point guard Collin Sexton—and Ante Zizic in certain cases—have benefited the most.
“Just by spacing the floor because the other team has to react to that being able to play inside-out, being able to pass the ball,” Love said. “I think all of us have been jelling in practice, and the more time we’re out there together, the better we’re gonna get.”
Lineup data backs this claim.
Out of Cleveland’s six four-man combinations that have played together for at least 65 minutes since the comeback, the top lineup in offensive (118), defensive (102.5) and net rating (plus-15.5) across the board are those three previously mentioned players and Love.
Regarding the six three-man lineups used with a minimum of 100 minutes, the top trio in offensive (120.9) and net rating (plus-12.5) is Love, Osman and Sexton. And as for the young core guys specifically, it’s only fitting that Sexton and Osman, each paired with Love, have the top two offensive and net ratings among duos on the team based on the same scale.
Let’s put this in perspective in the easiest way possible—Sexton and Osman have played a team-high 1,292 minutes together this season, by far the leading two-man lineup Cleveland has sent out there. Their net rating (minus-16.1), though, is dead last in the league. Enough said, right?
If those figures are still a little too confusing to sort through, allow the aforementioned players themselves to tell you about Love’s influence.
“I’m feeling really comfortable right now,” Osman said. “I’m always looking for Kevin, especially in that post whenever he wants the ball I’ll pass it to him because we know that he’s gonna either make a basket or he’s gonna make you a good pass.”
“It’s good because you have to play him honest,” Sexton said after Cleveland’s most recent victory. “He’s a great shooter. He posts up. He draws so much attention and it makes it easier for everybody else. And then when it’s like that, we’re a pretty hard team to beat.”
With the majority of Sexton’s first year spent without a veteran—aside from the games Tristan Thompson has played in—Love believes the rookie’s development was somewhat halted.
Going back to his beginnings with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love cited that he missed having Al Jefferson out on the floor to show him the ways after the big center had torn his ACL in the same respect Sexton missed him.
“Anytime you have a veteran presence around guys that have gone through it – both losing and winning in that respect – you can learn a lot from them,” Love said. “I think him not having us out there is definitely effective in a lot of ways.
“I think that our veteran leadership and always just having somebody in your ear is a good way to help, especially when you have your ups and downs of a rookie season.”
Don’t shortchange Love’s impact to only the inexperienced talents, either. Guys who have been there have felt it, too.
Nance notes that he’s used to getting tags on screen-and-rolls, but the lane has now opened up for him because of how much defenses respect Love.
“His gravity is ridiculous. He just pulls everybody towards him on the defensive end,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “You can see Cedi hitting wide open shots, Collin getting open shots, Collin being able to attack close-outs, both of them. When a guy like that is on the court, it’s a major advantage.”
Jordan Clarkson says teams can’t drop or show on screens because Love will head over to the perimeter to either shoot, swing or put it on the floor. And if he gets switched on at the block, it’s usually a huge mismatch in strength that leads to a score “90 percent of the time.”
“He makes the game so much easier – a lot of shots, a lot of free moving,” Clarkson said. “The ball is popping. He knows how to play. If you pass it to him on the wing, he’s giving it right back to you right into a screen, just slip in, doing what he does.”
A teammate of Love’s on the 2016 NBA Championship version of the Cavaliers, Matthew Dellavedova has observed a change in the matured power forward’s leadership.
“He’s a lot more vocal, I’ll tell you that,” Dellavedova said at Tuesday’s practice. “He’s definitely grown a lot there and he’s doing a good job of talking to the younger guys.
“I think everyone inside the locker room and inside the organization obviously knows his value and what he brings to the team. If outside people [don’t], they should see it. They should have already seen it.”
Dellavedova is not wrong.
Going back to that same date of Feb. 11, Cleveland is second in win differential and 10th in offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions. Per Cleaning The Glass, they are playing like a 40-win team.
It’s only a less-than-one-month sample size, yes, but body language tells the story of how far this Cavaliers team has come. Remember, this roster was once a mix of disgruntled veterans and inexperienced youth that didn’t seem to mesh the way the organization would’ve hoped. When Love went down, that tension only got worse.
Credit general manager Koby Altman for not only trading last year’s leftovers with undesirable contracts, but also going into asset accumulation mode and setting this franchise up for financial flexibility and success moving forward. The locker room has absolutely been better off since those moves. Nevertheless, the on-court product had been bit of a wildcard.
However, now that Love’s back and playing with the core he was supposed to, both aspects of Cleveland’s situation have turned into a breath of fresh air. The front office is looking at true progress from the team’s most vital pieces, and that was what they had been desiring all along.
And unless there is some kind of crazy shakeup due to a winning streak (or losing streak), they’re essentially guaranteed a top-four position in the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery. Remember, the odds have been altered to prevent tanking, too.
But the Cavaliers are dead set on finishing the season out on a high note. Nance has made it clear that he wants to be a top-eight ball club in the second half of the season. Sexton is motivated by missing out on the Rising Stars game. Osman would like to build on the strides he’s made as well.
For Love, it’s all been enjoyable. The vibe around Cleveland is as good as it’s been all season, and everybody’s plan is to let the good times roll.
“It’s funny to say…like it seems a little bit elementary, but we’re having fun.” Love said after a 107-93 bounceback against the Magic. “It’s always fun to win. But we’re sharing the ball, we’re moving the ball, we’re playing for each other and I think we’re making steps and strides in the right direction.
“I think that relieves any tension from losing and just not accepting the losses. So I think we’ve definitely learned a lot, but just learning how to win and what it takes is key, especially with this young group.”
NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Southeast Division
Like all divisions, teams of the Southeast Division have their specific preferences pertaining to players they’d like to move from their rosters. Drew Maresca identifies six players he feels teams might move before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
With the trade deadline only a few weeks away, teams are zeroing in on potential deals. Some teams hope to improve for a playoff push, while others are looking to capitalize on the urgency of contenders. Whichever side of that equation your favorite team finds itself on, they are surely weighing all of their options.
Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series has already examined the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Now, we turn our attention to the Southeast Division, where we identify six players who should be moved before the Feb. 6 deadline. To be considered a trade target, a player must either add value to a contender, represent a salary dump or have been featured in rumors, now or in the past. Rumors and/or speculation factored into our trade targets, but we identified players who we feel should be moved regardless if they’ve been named in rumors or not.
The Southeast Division has its share of mediocrity. In fact, the Miami HEAT are the division’s only winning team as of Thursday. But don’t be fooled — all five Southeast teams are likely to be relatively active come the trade deadline. While the HEAT may be the division’s lone buyers, the other four have players they’d like to move for salary purposes and/or prefer to swap for assets. And many of those players can still play a real role elsewhere. So let’s jump in with the most interesting of the bunch:
Aaron Gordon – $19,863,636
This one won’t sit too well with Orlando Magic fans, but it’s practical. The Magic have a relatively young team. And they have too many big men for all to get a good amount of playing time.
Big man or not, Gordon is among the Magic’s best trade piece – he’s only 24 years old and has probably yet to reach his prime. Further, he’s on a relatively affordable deal through 2022 and can profoundly impact the game on both ends of the floor.
This isn’t the first time Gordon finds himself in trade rumors, but it might be the year they come to fruition. Gordon is in his sixth season with the team. While he’s actually regressed this season in terms of points per game (13.5 points per game), he’s still a dynamic offensive weapon and one of the team’s best defenders. His trade value won’t get too much higher; but losing Gordon doesn’t hurt as much this season considering the arrival of Jonathan Isaac as a defensive stopper — and the fact that the team signed Nikola Vucevic to a 4-year/$100 million deal last Summer.
And it’s not as if the Magic don’t have other areas to address. They still lack an elite point guard and need help offensively – they’re 25th in offensive rating and 24th in assists. They should check in with any teams looking to offload high-end guards. While Markelle Fultz has shown flashes this season and Evan Fournier has played at an All-Star level, they don’t have a difference-maker in the backcourt. Swapping Gordon for a floor general or elite scoring guard might be their best bet at securing one.
Justise Winslow – $13,000,000
The Miami HEAT need help. Provided, they’re playing better than anyone thought they would in the 2019-20 season. But they need more to do more and become real contenders this year.
I know what you’re thinking – Justise Winslow has been hurt for much of this season. And when healthy, he’s an above-average defender, playmaker and shooter. And that’s right. But the HEAT need help, and they need it now.
The HEAT badly want to add star power, and they need to improve defensively to compete with the best in the East in a seven-game series. Winslow cannot be shipped out for a one-year rental. He’s far too talented for that, but the alternative is even less likely. The HEAT will not part with Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn or Jimmy Butler. Duncan Robinson, who is also unlikely to be dealt, wouldn’t return nearly as much, anyway. And what’s more, the HEAT are limited in their ability to add talent; their 2021 and 2023 first-round picks are owed thank to past trades. So if the HEAT are serious about upgrading their roster soon, Winslow is the obvious sacrificial lamb.
Besides, the team is 21-8 without Winslow and 7-4 with him. So while he’s clearly productive, he’s also expendable.
But the HEAT can’t move too quickly. Winslow is only 23 years old, adds borderline elite two-way backcourt skills and is signed for a relative bargain through 2022 (3 years/$39 million).
While the HEAT would obviously benefit from a healthy Winslow, they may prefer to swap him for a player who’s more likely to contribute this season, as well as in the future. And if Miami really believes it can win this season, trading Winslow likely returns a major asset without shipping out players who have developed chemistry with one another and who have been contributors for the current iteration of the team.
Davis Bertans – $7,000,000
Let’s be clear – the Wizards have not made Davis Bertans available. But they should listen to offers for anyone on their roster not named Bradley Beal – and they should be open to moving him, too, for the right – albeit ridiculously high – price.
Bertans is in the middle of a breakout season, which includes scoring 15.3 points per game on 43.4% three-point shooting (after scoring 8 points per game in 2018-19), and we know that shooters become increasingly popular around the trade deadline. Bertans is even more attractive considering he is in the final year of his $14 million deal – so he’s affordable and carries no long-term salary implications.
Despite recently returning from an injury, Bertans has played well enough to attract serious interest. According to Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington, as many as five teams are interested in Bertans: the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
And while the Wizards have appeared against the idea of moving Bertans, they should start entertaining it. Sure, he’s in only his fourth season in the league, but he’s already 27 years old and eligible for a new contract this offseason. Meanwhile, the Wizards have a long way to go before they should consider dedicating serious cap room to veteran role players with whom they won’t seriously compete.
The Wizards should gauge the market for Bertans and pull the trigger on a deal that adds young, unproven talent and/or unprotected first-round picks. What ultimately happens pertaining to Bertans is anyone’s guess; but if the Wizards can add a younger, unestablished player with a higher upside, they have to do it.
Marvin Williams – $15,006,250
The Hornets need to establish an on-court identity. They added Terry Rozier this past offseason and boast young, high-upside players in Miles Bridges, rookie PJ Washington and breakout star Devonte’ Graham. But everyone else should be available for the right price.
The first Hornet who should be traded from Charlotte is Marvin Williams, a true three-and-D guy who is shooting a near career-best 52.6% on two-pointers and 37.7% from three-point range. Williams is someone who plugs into just about all contending rosters. And since his contract expires following this season, there would are no long-term salary implications.
The Hornets might be deceived into thinking they can make a run at the playoffs, but they shouldn’t be. They are currently in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and trail the Nets – current owners of the eighth seed – by five whole games. And while the Nets have their share of issues to solve, they just recently returned Caris LeVert and Kyrie Irving from injuries and should play better from here on out.
And even if the Hornets could sneak into the playoffs, what good would a quick exit do for a team that has only a select few building blocks on its roster? The Hornets should be proactively engaging other teams to determine what Williams could return. But a deal seems even more likely if the Hornets drop farther out of the eighth seed before Feb. 6.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – $13,000,000
Speaking of the Hornets, they should look to move out from under the contracts of more than just Marvin Williams.
Until last season, head coach James Borrego’s first in charge of the Hornets, Kidd-Gilchrist was a key player in the Hornets rotation. He was a 25 minute per game guy through his first six seasons with the Hornets. Last season, he dipped to a career-low 18.4 minutes per game. This season has seen another substantial step back to 13.3.
Clearly, Borrego prefers playing younger players in hopes of organic growth. That means that representatives for guys like Kidd-Gilchrist must begin looking elsewhere to secure their players’ playing time and opportunities.
Kidd-Gilchrist is still an above-average defender. Rookie Cody Martin stole away some of his minutes as a defensive stopper, but his utility on the defensive end should result in spot minutes off the bench for a contender looking to throw bodies at guys like James Harden, Jimmy Butler, etc. And while he’s never been an effective shooter, Kidd-Gilchrist posted a career-high 34% on three-pointers last season.
A change of scenery is probably Kidd-Gilchrist’s best bet. And with unrestricted free agency ahead in 2020, Kidd-Gilchrist should hope to land on a team that allows him to demonstrate his ability to defend and, to a degree, shoot while not overburdening him offensively.
Chandler Parsons – $25,102,512
The Atlanta Hawks have five or so players around whom they hope to build their team in the coming years. They are all 22 years old or younger. Veterans are not on that list. And with Allen Crabbe being moved on Thursday for Jeff Teague, there’s one fewer vet who entered the season on the Hawks roster still around.
And that brings us to Chandler Parsons – someone who this writer hopes to see get an opportunity elsewhere. Despite it seeming as though he’s been around for decades, Parsons is only 31 years old. After fighting his way back from a number of knee injuries, he’s now healthy and able to contribute. Only no one outside of Atlanta seems to notice.
With the Hawks playing their younger players – and rightfully so – Parsons clearly lacks a role with the team. He’s appeared in only five games in 2019-20 so far despite being healthy for the majority of it, and he hasn’t logged 17 or more minutes in any game thus far.
But that does not mean he can’t contribute– especially to a team looking to add scoring punch off of the bench. According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon of ESPN, Parsons impressed the Grizzlies coaching staff and team in five-on-five scrimmages last season, and he told Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype: “Obviously, I want to play. I want to help. I’m healthy and I’m in a contract year, so I want to show the team that I’m healthy and I can play and I can definitely help this team win.”
And what’s more, Parsons’ contract is an expiring one. So teams looking to add scoring, without affecting their future salary cap, should consider Parsons. Once upon a time, Parsons was a borderline All-Star who topped out at 16.6 points per game back in 2013-14. No one is under the impression that he’ll contribute anything near 16.6 points, but he’s an established scorer who’s been resting for much of the past few seasons. He’s a career 37.3% three-point shooter, and he adds good length as a true 6-foot-9 forward. Hopefully Parsons gets another chance to prove his worth.
With less than a month to go until the trade deadline, teams are almost certainly circling in on deals. And with so few trades being made so far this season, observers are waiting patiently for the first shoe to drop. But trade deadline deals hit us like a snow squall — quickly and with little warning. So everyone should hunker down and get ready for the mid-season main event.
NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Southwest Division
The Southwest Division offers many intriguing options heading toward the annual trade deadline, Ben Nadeau writes, but how the chips fall is still anybody’s best guess.
The NBA landscape is oddly unfamiliar at this point in the season.
The Milwaukee Bucks are ruthlessly destroying everything in sight, the Golden State Warriors are headed toward a top-five draft pick in June and the New York Knicks are struggling to keep their heads afloat after a mid-season coaching change. OK, fine, that last one might ground us in reality, honestly — but things are looking up, at long last!
And yet, that one constant looms large: Feb. 6 and the annual trade deadline. Buyers, sellers — or wherever your favorite franchise might be — now is the time to push all-in, press the eject button or purchase a super-rare opal from a sketchy diamond salesman that may or may not give a player improved basketballing prowesses.
But if such an uncut gem is unavailable to front offices across the league, then they could do worse than to move for these Southwest Division-based players ahead of next month’s all-important deadline.
The Soft Resetters
Courtney Lee — $12,759,670
Solomon Hill — $12,758,781
E’Twaun Moore — $8,664,928
Marco Belinelli — $5,846,154
All four veterans total nearly 40 combined NBA seasons, offering experience, shot-making abilities and locker room leadership. Further, to some, they could represent cap relief. If a team is a deadline seller — the aforementioned Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers or Detroit Pistons, for example — then these contract-ready players could help them tread water, shed longer deals or gain draft pick collateral. So for the Marcus Morris, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond-type contributors on the market, they won’t come without some deal-matching gymnastics — that’s where players like Lee, Hill and Moore can come in handy, too.
Hell, it’s also why the Houston Rockets got in trouble earlier this year for giving Nene a two-year deal worth $20 million in bonuses, thus making the long-time man the ideal trade fodder. Instead, the NBA voided the deal, ruling that any trade with the Brazilian would only be worth $2.6 in outgoing salary. The Rockets, in salary cap hell, would’ve loved to use Nene in a mid-season deal — perhaps for a name further down on this list, Andre Iguodala — but their creative deal-making was ultimately stymied.
Elsewhere, Moore, 30, has started 29 games for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20 — at a steady 10.2 points per contest, nonetheless — but with Zion Williamson set to return next week and a full youth movement underway, he’s expendable. Better, he’s affordable for those looking for a perimeter punch (39.1 percent from three-point range) or a more cap space in the summertime.
Lee, on the other hand, has struggled to find time in a backcourt led by Luke Doncic. With he has a massively-expiring deal and a fantastic reputation behind-the-scenes, it’s not hard to imagine Lee moving elsewhere in the next 20 days as the Mavericks try to bolster their postseason chances.
Belinelli, 33, has been less effective in his older age, but boasts 65 career postseason games and a low-risk contract. Should the San Antonio Spurs pull the plug — head coach Gregg Popovich likely feels strongly otherwise — then Belinelli and others could be intriguing trade targets.
As for Hill, who has labored to stay healthy in recent seasons, he has another bloated expiring deal — although he’ll likely be most valuable to Memphis as freed up cap space come June.
The Calculated Risks
Andre Iguodala — $17,185,185
Jae Crowder — $7,815,533
The time has finally come: Free Andre Iguodala, you cowards!
Since the former NBA Finals MVP was dealt to the Grizzlies last summer, he’s been stuck in the mud. In an old fashioned standoff, Iguodala hasn’t appeared yet for the rebuilding franchise, while Memphis hasn’t budged from their first-round-pick-or-no-deal mindset from the offseason. Will they budge? Which teams will blink first?
The Los Angeles Lakers, always in need of more playoff-poised athletes to put next to LeBron James, might be willing. Houston, still in luxury cap hell, probably can’t finagle adding $17 million in cap space without obliterating its already-teetering-off-the-edge-of-the-abyss built roster.
Last time Iguodala was featured for the Warriors, the 35-year-old averaged just 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds, but his defensive abilities and postseason record speaks for itself. The expectation is that Iguodala will be moved — but to whom and for how much? Well, that’s the six-month-old question on everybody’s mind, even today.
Iguodala, of note, will be an unrestricted free agent come June.
Crowder, 29, is on his fifth team since 2012 but, by and large, he’s impressed at every stop thus far. In 2019-20, the veteran standout has started all 38 games for Memphis, tallying 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest on a paltry (and expiring) $7.8 million dollar deal. Should the Grizzlies clear the deck, Iguodala included, Crowder has 50 games of postseason experience and won’t come with an outrageous price tag — both in regards to outgoing cost or future commitments.
The Leap Of Faiths
DeMar DeRozan — $27,739,975
Jrue Holiday — $26,131,111
This would be the all-in push. The all-or-nothing swing. The so-called leap of faith. Two stars in two different places in their careers — both equally excellent trade candidates for different reasons.
DeRozan, 30, is still chugging along as the leader of San Antonio, and he’ll likely finish with an average over 20 points per game for the seventh consecutive season. Healthy as they come, the high-flyer has played in 72-plus games during every campaign since 2014-15 — and he still knows how to enact a healthy dose of revenge, too. DeRozan won’t be a cheap option for many franchises, but might he be the final missing piece somewhere?
Such a move, naturally, would have to come with Popovich’s blessing and acceptance that the Spurs aren’t postseason-bound for the first time since 1997. At 17-22, San Antonio currently ranks 9th in a stingy Western Conference with five teams within three games of them as of Jan. 16. Betting against Popovich is a sin, but those odds, for the first time in a long time, aren’t looking fantastic for the perennial stalwarts.
Should the Spurs look to jumpstart a mini-rebuild — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson in tow — then there will certainly be suitors for DeRozan.
As for Holiday, he’s the division’s big-ticket item — if he’s still available, of course. Last the world had heard, the Pelicans had retreated from the offseason position of an unmovable Holiday, the new leader and cornerstone post-Anthony Davis. And yet, the Pelicans are one of those teams within breathing distance of the Spurs and a postseason trip for their budding core, so moving Holiday may not behoove them anymore.
Given Williamson’s assumed presence in the season’s second half, Brandon Ingram’s rise to stardom and Lonzo Ball’s newfound settledness, Holiday might be best served to stay put. Still, David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is no stranger to the wheelin’ and dealin’ nature of February, and everybody has a price.
Holiday — 19.6 points, 6.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game, plus a back-to-back member on an All-Defensive Team — would elevate any roster in the league. If the 10-year veteran is, in fact, on the table, Griffin has likely been fielding offers for quite some time already. Should Williamson’s introduction to the rotation go seamlessly and the Pelicans firmly cement themselves as postseason contenders, however, then Holiday will be the perfect player to get them there.
With less than a month to go before the NBA’s trade deadline, the proceedings will only get wilder from here. While the entirety of the Southwest Division is still involved in a hectic playoff chase, far too much could change over the remaining weeks. Who will push all-in? Who will pull back? Are the Spurs going to concede their historic streak of postseason appearances? And how will the Pelicans look with Williamson in the fold?
These are questions without answers at this point.
In another month, we’ll have seen the future and then some — but which way it falls now is still anybody’s best guess.
NBA Daily: RJ Barrett Calming Down, Playing With Poise
Jordan Hicks recently caught up with RJ Barrett near the end of a grueling road trip for the New York Knicks, discussing poise, confidence and dealing with injury.
The New York Knicks have struggled out of the gate, again. In fact, they haven’t had a season in the last five-plus years that you’d consider commendable. If there was even more salt to rub in the wound, the Knicks haven’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since the 1999-00 season.
It’s safe to say there have been much, much better days in Madison Square Garden — but fortunately for Knicks fans, they finally have something to look forward to.
RJ Barrett – a product of Duke University – was selected with the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. After averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in college, Barrett would have been the hottest commodity had he not played side-by-side with Zion Williamson, one of the most captivating prospects in the last 20 years.
Highly-touted coming out of college, Barrett was ranked as one of the top options from all major publications. And those rankings weren’t simply a guaranteed-star-is-born type deal – but the key intangibles have always been there. The New York-savior has a solid frame, smooth shooting stroke and the ability to get to the basket. He’s lengthy at 6-foot-7 and, combined with his agile demeanor, it allows him to comfortably create his own shot on offense.
Barrett hasn’t consistently shown Rookie of the Year-worthy flashes this season, but much of that can’t be placed solely on his shoulders.
So far, he’s tallied a respectable 14.1 points per game but doing so on an effective field goal percentage of just 43.5 percent. Those shooting percentages were a tad higher in college, however, it’s a facet of his game that he’ll strive to improve upon so that he can live up to the expectations of the Knicks’ franchise.
As he continues to develop his game and become more comfortable with the pace of the NBA, there’s little doubt his shooting will improve. At 31 minutes per game, Barrett is proving durable and capable, he just needs to see the ball go in the bucket more often and build up confidence.
Recently, New York was wrapping up a brutal road trip in which they finished against the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, then a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz. Still, despite the trials and tribulations, Barrett is taking things as they come.
“[I learned] just how to play hard no matter what,” Barrett told Basketball Insiders. “We are in the mountains, can’t breathe, still gotta play hard. It doesn’t matter.”
And that effort definitely showed.
Against Utah, the Knicks were without Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, their top-two scorers. Rather than simply fold, Barrett toughed out 10 points and two rebounds, despite feeling tired from the previous night’s game.
With the way the Jazz have been playing, facing the struggling Knicks on a back-to-back was almost a guaranteed win, but Barrett still learned a lot from his opponent.
“Experience is really an advantage, a team that has been together for that long you can tell,” Barrett said. “They know where each other [is], they’re knocking down shots, cheering for each other.
“A team like that, you hope one day we could get something like that too.”
The Knicks’ latest retool is still in its infancy stages, but with a few more draft picks and signings — added to a suddenly-budding core of contributors and expectations will rise quickly. But, until then, Barrett can only take his lumps, push to grow and adapt to the much more challenging NBA landscape, both on the court and on the road.
“I be chilling, to be honest, I’ve kind of learned that, you know, the game is just going to be the way it is and you can’t force it or you can’t get too down, can’t get too high,” Barrett told Basketball Insiders.
“Stay even-keeled every game. I’ve been more poised, more calm — it’s been working out a little better for me.”
From there, the conversation turned toward his former college teammate and close friend, Zion Williamson. When asked about how he feels about Williamson’s injury situation, he offered some sterling advice.
“I hate seeing him hurt. I hate not seeing him be able to play the game he loves, but at the same time, I think, we are 19, so he has a long career ahead of him,” Barrett said. “At this point I really just want him to continue to get better and get healthy and not try and rush back but, just come back when he’s ready.”
Wise words from someone who is only, as he said, 19 years of age. Together, although now apart, both have so much room to grow professionally. Even better, the former allies have used each other as a springboard half a coastline away.
“We keep in touch from time to time, picking each other‘s brains a little bit,” Barrett continued. “The one thing I like is that he’s happy, he doesn’t get too down on himself, he knows he has a long career ahead of himself, just gotta get healthy.”
Barrett mentioned the season is almost halfway over and, luckily for the Knicks, he’s been playing with more and more confidence. Preparation is key in the NBA, obviously, and the sooner players like Barrett can evolve, both mentally and physically, the better off his career will be.
“Just being more poised,” Barrett reiterated to Basketball Insiders about his new-found confidence. “[Knowing] how the defenses are going to play me so I’m just trying to figure out how to play within that.”
Needless to say, the Knicks have a slog ahead of them before they can rejoin the playoff conversation. Still, Barrett, prospect and skill-set wise, is about as good of a start as they come. Of course, he’s young and extremely raw in some categories — but he certainly doesn’t lack confidence and he has plenty of attributes necessary to be a star in the league.
When asked what needs to be done for the Knicks to get back on the right track, Barrett quickly responded, “Go home, feel good again, regroup, get back to it.”
With Barrett continuing to improve by the day, New York, finally, might have found the leading hands they so desperately need.