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NBA Daily: Randle, Pelicans Eyeing A Breakthrough

Spencer Davies sits down with Julius Randle to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans’ defense, who’s been vocal in the locker room and his individual success this season.

Spencer Davies

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Fighting in the trenches of a Western Conference swarming with playoff-caliber teams, the New Orleans Pelicans recognize what they need to refine if they’re going to earn a spot in the postseason come mid-April.

Averaging 116.7 points per game, it’s not the scoring. Pulling down over 47 boards in each contest, it sure  isn’t rebounding. And, tied for the fourth-highest effective field goal percentage (55.3 percent) in the NBA, it definitely isn’t the shooting.

It really comes down to one facet—the Pelicans do not defend well.

On the season, New Orleans is a bottom five team in defensive efficiency, allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions. Due to the quick pace at which Alvin Gentry likes to play, their opponents are basically matching their own field goal attempt totals and shooting 46.5 percent from the field.

There are a couple of glaring areas that stand out when it comes to these defensive woes.

First and foremost, the Pelicans must secure the perimeter. The right corner has given them fits, as their opposition has knocked down a league-high 43.9 percent from that mark on the floor. The left side hasn’t been quite as alarming, but if you combine both, New Orleans is allowing 7.4 corner triple attempts per game at a 41.4 percent success rate.

Limiting easy opportunities has been a thorn in the side as well. The Pelicans are giving up 50 points per game in the paint while yielding an average of 31 attempts in the restricted area. With Anthony Davis protecting the interior and Jrue Holiday matched up on opponents’ best scorers, there should be no reason as to why those numbers are as striking as they are.

And the “cherry” on top of all of it? A blistering 121.9 opponent points per game average on 51.3 percent from the field on the second night of back-to-backs.

On the other side of the spectrum, it’s not like New Orleans isn’t trying. Ranking eighth in total contested shots and third in defensive loose balls recovered, the hustle is there. They just need to ramp up the activity and aggressiveness.

That started Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena. Albeit against a downtrodden Cavalier squad on a lengthy skid, the Pelicans broke their own six-game road losing streak loudly with a 35-point onslaught. Up by nine at halftime, they used a 15-0 run out of the gate to crush Cleveland’s throat en route to a lopsided third quarter.

Gentry and the rest of the locker room understood they could take advantage knowing the Cavaliers were on a back-to-back, however, they also found out what playing consistent, aggressive defense can do for them if they can bring it consistently.

“We defended,” Davis said after the win. “I think it was probably our best game in my eyes defensively that we’ve had. We talked a lot. We were helping each other so when we talk and fly around on the defensive end, we are able to win games like this.

“This can’t just be a win and a one-time thing because it’s Cleveland, we got to do this next game and the game after that in order to get to where we want to be.”

Gentry echoes the same sentiments, as does Julius Randle, who spoke to Basketball Insiders beforehand about what it’ll take for the Pelicans to get back on track.

“I think we’re addressing issues that need to be addressed, mainly on the defensive end,” Randle told Basketball Insiders. “We’re just trying to find a breakthrough where we can put some wins together. I feel like we’ve been pushing and pushing, and it’s gonna come.

“We haven’t really been able to put a string of wins together. Been unlucky with injuries and all that type of stuff, but we gotta find a way to put some wins together. We know we can score the ball. We’re gonna do it through the defensive end. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

To do that, Randle says getting everybody involved will be the first step to accomplish the goal.

“A lot of times we rely too much on AD and Jrue – first team all defenders,” Randle told Basketball Insiders. “We gotta continue just to help each other on the floor, help the helper and just communicate and keep flying around, playing for each other.”

Whether it’s been players or coaches, this is a topic that’s been discussed at length inside the New Orleans locker room. Randle is vocal about it. You can say the same for Gentry, Davis and Holiday. Veteran guard Tim Frazier has given his two cents on the matter before as well.

“I think it’s been explained and everybody knows we can talk to each other,” Randle told Basketball Insiders. “So I don’t think it’s a message. It’s a lot of different guys. It just depends. We’re all a great group of guys. We’re not afraid to talk to each other, so we just gotta do that on the court as well.”

You’ll find no shortage of effort coming from Randle. In his first season with the Pelicans, the 24-year-old big man has put up some crazy stat lines, leading to career-high averages in points (20), rebounds (9.3) and three-point percentage (32.9).

Randle says he owes Davis some credit for drawing attention to open things up and make it “easy” for him. He gave props to Holiday, too, whose aggressive driving ability and playmaking results in good looks for him and his teammates.

But the real person that deserves the praise is Randle.

In May of last year, there were a handful of pros in attendance taking in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago to watch the next generation make their first impressions on the Association ahead of the Draft.

While those guys were spectating and other players might’ve been on a vacation elsewhere, Randle was tirelessly grinding away in the Roosevelt University gym with Texas A&M alum Tyler Davis and Dr1ven Training’s Tyler Relph…at 8 a.m. on a Friday in the offseason.

If that doesn’t tell you what this game means to him, it can be summed up like this—Randle doesn’t take any days off.

Now, in a fresh environment where he can prove himself on a nightly basis, Randle’s dedication is showing.

“Years and years of work and opportunity meeting each other at the same time,” Randle told Basketball Insiders of his success.

“For me, that’s all it’s about. I’ve been putting in the work for a long time and I’m in a great place, great situation where I have the opportunity to do things.”

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For The Lakers?

With Anthony Davis onboard to make them a contender, the Lakers must decide how they will spend their money this summer, write Matt John.

Matt John

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The NBA season ended literally just days ago, and we already may have seen the most significant move made this offseason.

The Los Angeles Lakers went all-in when they traded 95 percent of the farm on Friday for Anthony Davis, pairing him up with LeBron to make up one of the most fearsome duos in the league.

There’s a lot of risk going into this. LeBron will be 35 in December, and Davis doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success to his name. Many think the Lakers may have overshot their hand when they made this deal. They traded almost all the young talent they had – plus, three picks and two pick swaps is a king’s ransom for a guy on an expiring contract.

Let’s not mince words. LA definitely paid more than they could afford in the long run with this trade, but Anthony Davis is the type of guy you overshoot your hand for. When you have one of the league’s top players in the game, and you have the chance to add another one, you pay the piper.

Now all that remains is what to do with the rest of the roster. All props need to go to Rob Pelinka for creating a title window for the Lakers when the clock was ticking, but let’s not overlook that the roster he constructed last summer turned out to be a complete disaster. It was an intriguing idea to put a bunch of playmakers around LeBron, but the lack of spacing manifested a clogged toilet offense.

Even after adding Anthony Davis and his $25+ million contract, the Lakers will still have plenty of cap room at their arsenal this summer. If getting the Lakers their 17th title is truly his concern, he needs to build the best roster he can around LeBron and AD. In order to do that, the Lakers have two options to go to

Get The Third Star

Now it’s clear as day that this is what the Lakers are hoping for. Shortly after the Davis trade was announced, Marc Stein reported that the team will make Kemba Walker its primary target in free agency.

Having a third star has been LeBron’s MO for every destination he’s gone to since “The Decision.” First, it was Chris Bosh in Miami, and then it was Kevin Love in Cleveland. Neither matched the production that they had with their previous teams before they joined LeBron, but they did give the team an undeniable edge that helped them win a championship.

Getting that third banana takes the pressure off of James and Davis to produce on a nightly basis, and it can help stagger minutes for James who, all things considered, isn’t getting any younger.

Now, Davis can handle a fair amount of the load as James continues to age, but a third star would only make his life easier. As we all know, Davis wasn’t exactly happy that he had to carry much of the scoring burden in the Big Easy, so having someone else pick up the slack would not make it feel like a repeat of what happened with the Pelicans.

Luckily for the Lakers, this summer has one of the best free agent classes of all time. Kevin Durant, who’s still getting the max with or without a healthy Achilles, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Walker. Adding one of those names would solidify the Lakers’ odds as the title favorite (if they aren’t already).

The only problem with getting this third star on presumably a maximum contract is that, with all that money invested in James, Davis and Player X, there is little money to spend elsewhere. The only other contracts that can be handed out are the Mid-Level Exception and veteran minimum contracts. This summer, a lot of teams are going to have cap space, and not everyone is going to have that happy ending this offseason.

Because of that, expect lesser players to get paid far more than what they are worth. That’s going to make it difficult for the Lakers to get valued rotation players on veteran’s minimum level contracts.

That’s why it could be better for LA to consider the other option.

Get Reliable Role Players

The Lakers have two of the league’s best players. As long as they stay on the court, LA should be one of the best teams in the league. With the Warriors appearing to disband this summer, the NBA will have some parity for the first time since 2016. Now that the next title may be up for grabs, LeBron and Davis could be enough star power alone to power the Lakers to a title.

Emphasis on star power. Of course, they can’t win a title without any productive players in their rotation. They could get them, but that would probably mean they wouldn’t be able to add a third banana. Then again, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

If we learned anything from the Warriors from the last few weeks, it’s that a lack of depth can really kill you in the Finals. One of the reasons why Toronto won so handily – besides the unfortunate injuries – was because of its full-balanced attack against Golden State. The Warriors may have had the edge in star power, but Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of versatility as a team.

You need those types of players to win the championship. No one knows that better than LeBron. Things didn’t start out great in Miami, but after the team added the likes of Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, the HEAT got that extra push to win a championship.

Ditto for Cleveland. The Cavaliers didn’t have the greatest start when he came back. Then they added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye- and that made a huge difference.

Something that we all know by now is that LeBron thrives when he has players who can shoot. The Lakers could bring back some of their designated “shooters” from last season, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, but there are better options this summer

Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison to name a few are all guys who can shoot the rock that on paper would be an excellent fit next to LeBron. At the very least, they would help LeBron play the type of basketball that he loves to play in.

The problem is, those guys can’t be asked to do more than what their specialty is. If and when LeBron and Davis are having an off-night, you can’t rely on a sharpshooter to carry the team when it’s down.

There’s always the possibility that the Lakers, even if they don’t sign a star player, believe they have their third banana in Kyle Kuzma. That’s a lot of pressure for a third-year player, but Kuzma has been exceeding expectations since he came into the league. Maybe he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.

There is no wrong answer for the Lakers here. It’s exciting enough that with Davis on board, they now have options this summer. They no longer have to bank on the cavalry coming in the near future because the cavalry has arrived. They’re not a finished product, but they finally have a product on their hands.

All that said, which door do you think the Lakers should choose?

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NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?

Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.

Shane Rhodes

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Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.

Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.

Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.

And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.

While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.

And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.

With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.

In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.

Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.

Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.

Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.

So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?

It would be difficult, to say the least.

To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.

Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.

There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.

Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.

However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.

And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?

It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?

It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.

Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.

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NBA Daily: That’s Not How We Wanted It

The NBA Finals were fun to watch, but with the massive injuries and a missed opportunity on a star-studded matchup, Matt John explains why this series could have been so much more.

Matt John

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You may not want to read this if you’re not a fan of a buzzkill.

Wasn’t that last sequence before the NBA Finals ended enough of one already?

Anyway, before we get to the nitty-gritty, we need to give credit where credit is due. The Toronto Raptors deserved their title as the 2018-2019 NBA champions.

They paid their dues. They had their obstacles to go through. They even faced the real possibility of having to blow everything up one year ago at this time. And now here they are, the reigning champions of the basketball world. Even if Kawhi Leonard winds up leaving this summer, Toronto’s championship season proved that they did everything right and got what they wanted from him.

It’s also nice to see a new team don the name as champions. We don’t get to see newcomers win the title all too often, so seeing the Raptors get their first ever title as a franchise is pretty heartwarming in and of itself.

And yet, as inspiring as Toronto’s journey has been, we’re going to look back at this series and wonder what could have been.

The public wanted to see this match up. We wanted to see Kawhi vs. Kevin Durant. We wanted to see if Golden State could finally be dethroned once and for all. We wanted to see if the Warriors could complete the three-peat. We wanted to see if Toronto really pushed itself to the best of its abilities.

We got some of those things, but not in the way that we would have liked.

This starts with the Warriors’ defeat. The general public outside of the Bay Area was pulling for Toronto to overtake Golden State in the Finals. Technically, the haters all got what they wanted. It’s just that this wasn’t how they wanted the Warriors to fall.

Ever since Durant announced that he was headed to Golden State, the Warriors have been the most recent team – and possibly the most powerful one – that NBA crowds collectively loved to root against. Seeing such a powerhouse lose was always the dream for fans over the last three years. But in this scenario, what they wanted to see was Golden State lose at full strength. Not progressively limp as their season slowly disintegrated.

But that’s what we had to watch. KD missed all but a quarter and a half of the series. That was a bummer. Then Klay Thompson tore his ACL right in the middle of what NBA Twitter deemed as “Game 6 Klay,” so we never got a real chance to see if the Warriors actually had a shot at pushing the series to a Game 7.

It only got worse from there. They not only missed Durant for almost the entire series, but now the former two-time Finals MVP is slated to miss the entire 2019-2020 season and may never be the same player again with a ruptured Achilles. There is a fair amount of blame to go around for KD’s tragic injury, with some of it being squarely on our shoulders.

There was so much pressure on him to get back after the Raptors went up 3-1 that his commitment was in question. Even if Durant ignored all that and chose to play by his own accord, we can clearly tell now that he wasn’t ready to return. Not many have been cheering for KD to win since he’s been a Warrior, but nobody wanted to see the man suffer a career-altering injury.

To add to that, Durant’s injury made the series a wrap, but Thompson’s injury only serves as overkill. To make it worse, those injuries overshadowed that DeMarcus Cousins – who actually gave Golden State some good minutes – was clearly not back to normal.

What made this such a missed opportunity is that this may be the last time we see this Golden State team together. Love them or hate them, we may never see a juggernaut like the Warriors quite this strong again for quite some time.

It remains in question if some of these guys are going to be back next season with Durant and Thompson’s free agency coming up. Now that those two, who are among the best available players this summer, are going to miss most of, if not, the entirety of next season, that screws things up.

That doesn’t mean it was all bad. There were some truly memorable moments and plot lines on display during these Finals. With everything that the Warriors had to endure, they suddenly became the underdog in this series. When was the last time we could say that about Golden State? 2013? Plus, even when the odds were stacked against them, the Warriors still gave the Raptors everything they could handle.

It didn’t have to do with just the Warriors either. Remember when Durant called Kawhi a “system player” back in 2014? While he probably changed his mind about that years ago, we finally were proven that Kawhi is far from a system player. In fact, Kawhi may just very well be the system.

By winning his second championship with a different franchise, Kawhi joins a rare group of players who won titles with two different teams, including LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman and Ray Allen.

Finally, in retrospect, it seriously is so mind-blowing that the Warriors were able to make five consecutive runs to the Finals. It’s hard to believe, but the only team to do that was the Boston Celtics in the 1960’s. We’ve seen teams make multiple runs to the Finals, but not five times in a row. While LeBron made eight consecutive Finals, he did with that with two different teams.

Many wanted Golden State’s era of dominance to end. Just not like this. Even though we would have preferred it go differently, we should all be happy that there’s a new champion now even if circumstances made it easier for it to win.

In the end, it’s not hard to say that it’s just as satisfying to see the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors as it is bittersweet.

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