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NBA Daily: Jrue Holiday Ready To Lead Pelicans

With Anthony Davis in Los Angeles, Jrue Holiday will now act as the leader of this exciting Pelicans team — thankfully, his fiery competitiveness and consistent professionalism make him the perfect man for the job

Quinn Davis

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On Jan. 28th of this year, Anthony Davis informed the New Orleans Pelicans that he wanted to be traded. At the time of the demand, the team was sitting at 22-28, the third-worst record in the conference, five and a half games out of a playoff spot.

The very next day, Jrue Holiday spoke about league-altering trade request in an interview with NOLA.com. He maintained professionalism and emphasized his focus on the season at hand, but did add a headline-grabbing remark by saying “he was like 90 percent of the reason I stayed” — a reference to the five-year deal that he signed in 2017.

While he wouldn’t admit it publicly, you couldn’t fault Holiday for feeling a tinge of discomposure. The 10-year veteran knew that trading away a generational talent like Davis would change the team’s outlook from win-now to rebuilding. Predictably, trade rumors swirled for Holiday in light of the Davis news as teams in need of a point guard were highly interested in the former All-Star.

Neither Holiday nor Davis was traded at the deadline and, three months later, the Pelicans saw their luck turn when they won the draft lottery from the seventh position, the prize being a potential superstar in Zion Williamson.  

About a month after the lottery, newly-hired general manager David Griffin secured a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, receiving a haul of players and draft picks in return. Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram were sent to New Orleans, along with three first-round picks which included the No. 4 overall selection in 2019. Griffin flipped that pick to Atlanta for Nos. 8, 17, and 35 in June’s draft, plus and a heavily-protected first-rounder in 2020.  

When the dust settled, the Pelicans came away with Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Williamson in the first round, now arguably boasting the most exciting, spry rosters in the league. Holiday was given a new reason to stay: To lead this young, talented group both on and off the court.

Griffin was asked about the topic in an interview with SiriusXM radio and he didn’t mince words.  “And now Jrue knows it’s his job, and he’s ready to do that,” he said referencing the role of the leader being passed to Holiday from Davis. Holiday responded to Griffin’s comments in an interview with Scott Kushner of NOLA.com, saying “It’s awesome. It definitely feels good but it’s also motivation to prove people right and prove Griff right.”  

Holiday has done and said the right things since being thrust into the leadership role. He has even embraced the recruiting aspect of the job, helping the team add fellow veterans like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors in free agency.

Of course, the attention will soon turn to what Holiday accomplishes on the court. A stout defender, head coach Alvin Gentry is surely hoping that the intelligence and tenacity the guard possesses will rub off on the younger players. Specifically, however, new addition Lonzo Ball, who has shown flashes of being a strong perimeter defender in his first two seasons.  

New Orleans had a defensive rating that was six points better with Jrue Holiday on the court compared to when he was off the court, per cleaningtheglass.com. He will take on the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player on most nights, even when giving up a height advantage to most forwards. His most notable defensive achievement came in the 2018 playoffs when he pestered Damian Lillard for four straight games resulting in a sweep for the Pelicans.

Watch Holiday here as he defends Lillard perfectly in back-to-back possessions from the 2018 playoffs.

In the first possession, he thwarts a pick and roll by getting over the screen and into position, then finishes the play by knocking the ball out of Lillard’s hands for the steal. During the ensuing transition opportunity, Holiday moves his feet beautifully to force Lillard into a tough fadeaway.

Notice also the defense Mirotic plays against the pick and roll: He jumps out hard and hedges on Lillard while Holiday gets over the screen. Then, as Holiday recovers back to Lillard, Mirotic retreats to guard the roll man before a pass can be made. If the Pelicans elect to deploy this strategy next season they have a perfect prototype in Williamson, whose size and agility fits well with this brand of manic pick and roll defense.  

Holiday will be tasked with mentoring the precocious power forward on the nuances of this defensive strategy. If Williamson picks it up quickly, the two could be a destructive duo on the defensive end. Elite NBA guards like Lillard, who used that 2018 series as motivation, are becoming adept at splitting defenders when they hedge, as Mirotic does in that clip. Williamson and Holiday will need to have their timing perfectly in sync or risk a defensive breakdown.

The reward of this strategy is a high rate of forced turnovers, which will be valuable for this a Pelicans team that’ll relish transition opportunities.  Perfecting the hedge and recover will take practice and patience, likely with bumps along the way. The LeBron James-era Miami HEAT come to mind as a team that weaponized this strategy and they were led by three Hall of Famers and a roster of veterans.  

Patience will not only be required on the defensive side as the offense will look to integrate the multitude of new faces in one offseason. But the team will look to Holiday on this end too, where he will be calling the shots as the team’s go-to option.   

Holiday usually acts as the pick and roll ball handler while on the court, developing a craftiness with both his dribbling and his finishing that allows him to wiggle his way around defenders for floaters, layups and short jumpers.  

Brandon Ingram could benefit from some sessions with Jrue Holiday. Ingram, entering his fourth NBA season, showed some promise running the offense in Los Angeles, but his shot selection left some to be desired. For the youngster, 45 percent of his shot attempts came in the mid-range, which was 94th percentile of the league for his position, per cleaningtheglass.com. Ingram routinely stopped his dribble short to take the first available jumper, like in this clip below.

Ingram will learn to manipulate defenses as he gains more experience and playing alongside a veteran like Holiday could accelerate that growth.

While he will be the No. 1 option, Holiday will also need to pick his spots to take a backseat this season. The addition of Redick will ease some of the spacing concerns, but the team will still likely test the viability of a Ball-Holiday backcourt pairing. In this lineup, Ball will likely operate as the true point guard, with Holiday slotting to the off-ball position. Holiday has only shot 34 percent from three-point range over the last two seasons, but his 35 percent mark on catch-and-shoot attempts from last season could use an uptick to give Ball and Williamson more space to operate.

Holiday is still unlikely to be left wide open, so his expert cutting could be unleashed when Williamson is asked to create in the mid-post. Via the talented backcourt passing, along with the leaping ability of the Duke product, could lead to some incredible highlights in transition as well.

There will be growing pains as the roster meshes and, notably, inexperienced teams tend to have issues finishing close games down the stretch.  Frustrations may arise and tempers may flare, but that is the burden of leading a new, green team. Holiday will need to be there to right the ship and turn mental mistakes into teaching moments. 

Fortunately for his team, Holiday is a consummate teammate and fiery competitor. As of now, he’s more than up to the task at hand and the Pelicans will begin the journey with this new roster with a worthy captain at the helm.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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