If you’ve been keeping up with us for the past week or so, Basketball Insiders is ranking every position possible in the NBA. Last week, we took a look at players who were the best from their respective positions. This week, we’re taking a look at the other personnel’s effect on how the season turns out.
Today, we’re looking at the executives. The people that run the operation. The people who put the product out there. The people whose job NBA Twitter loves to pose as more than anything.
The guidelines for what makes a good executive depends on what the team’s goals actually are. If the team’s goals are geared towards winning a championship now, the executive is tasked with finding the right players and coaches to form a championship team. If the team’s goals are to winning a championship several years down the line, the executive is tasked with drafting and developing the right players. In some rare cases, the executive gets to do both.
It’s true that the executives are the ones responsible for the task of bringing in players in hopes of winning a championship. There does come a point where a question arises: If players are more involved in bringing other players in than the executive is, how much credit does the executive really deserve for the success that comes afterward?
Take Rob Pelinka, for example. LeBron James pretty much just fell right into his lap, and by extension, so did Anthony Davis. They wanted to play together. If they had wanted to do the same for New York, would we have really credited the Knicks’ management after years of incompetence? Nobody here is trying to say Pelinka is a bad executive; we have to keep it honest and say that he isn’t really responsible for the Lakers’ success as much as “GM LeBron” is.
For that reason, we have to hold Pat Riley, Sean Marks and Lawrence Frank to the same standard, no matter how good of a job they’ve done with their teams in previous years.
Does Riley deserve the credit for the HEAT’s success when it was Dwyane Wade who pushed Jimmy Butler to sign with them? Does Marks deserve props for Kyrie Irving wanting to play for his hometown team and having his best friend come to join him? Frank deserves some leeway because he established a winning culture in LA after Lob City collapsed, but the reason why the Clippers are competing at the top is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wanted to play together for the city they grew up in.
If you want to give those guys more credit, all the power to you. Everyone has different criteria when it comes to rankings. The following executives named below formed the excellent teams they have now because of their savvy as executives and didn’t benefit from superstars wanting to join forces. At least, not entirely.
1. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors
Hardly any reigning champion has ever lost its best player after winning the title. The ones that have usually did because said best player opted for retirement — Michael Jordan and Bill Russell come to mind. Such was not the case when Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for Los Angeles. Because of that, there’s no apt comparison to what the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors have done. If having to regroup after your best player — who’s still in his prime — leaves following a championship season becomes a thing, Toronto is setting the standard of how to do it right.
And they did this by…staying exactly the way they are — for the most part, at least. Besides bringing in a sneaky good infusion of youth — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis — the core, minus Leonard, has remained intact. Pascal Siakam’s taken yet another step into stardom, though he has simmered down a bit. Kyle Lowry’s back to his old ways. Fred VanVleet’s playing like he wants that Brinks truck. We could keep going on about the individuals who have contributed to Toronto’s unprecedented Cinderella run.
Nick Nurse’s genius schemes have helped Toronto stay on the course, but it was Ujiri who brought in all of the correct personnel for Nurse to put it all together, as well as Nurse himself. His moves since 2013 have all amounted to a team aiming to go as far as they did last year when no one thought that was possible back in October. That makes him an expert in team-building.
Maybe there’s a little recency bias considering the Raptors are the defending champions, but for two straight years, they have not only persevered when fate dealt them a cruel hand, but have seemingly come out on top. For that, Ujiri deserves the title as the best general manager in the league.
2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder
He’s had his major hiccups in the past, but Sam Presti has proven time and time again that he is a brilliant executive. When he’s backed into a corner, he somehow manages to get himself out of it. He also somehow makes himself look smarter when he comes out on the other side. This time, Presti has made himself look about as brilliant as he’s ever been.
He already did everything that a smart executive would do in his position this past summer. He blew up the squad and squeezed every asset he could out of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. He has his point guard of the future. He has plenty of draft assets at his disposal to cement a new era. The only catch was eating Chris Paul’s contract. Who knew that wouldn’t be much of a catch?
Even through all of that, he managed to assemble possibly the most entertaining Thunder team since the Kevin Durant days. With the core they’ve formed behind Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they’re basically the team that no one in the West wants to face in the playoffs. Not many teams get to have their cake eat it. The Thunder did because of Presti.
Look, the writing’s on the wall in OKC. We all know that this team will eventually be broken apart. That’s good for them. Even with the motherload of draft assets by his side, Presti is in prime position to get more. He’s got sign-and-trade scenarios with Gallinari coming up. He may enter the same situation with Adams. Schroder has some trade value, and, after the season Paul’s had, is it too crazy to say the veteran’s contract could be tradeable this summer?
To put the cherry on top, this is the perfect time to rebuild. Pretty much everyone in the West is going to vie for the playoffs next year. When there’s no competition at the bottom, that’s the perfect time to tank. OKC missed its opportunity for a championship during the Durant-Westbrook era, but Presti has put them in prime position to create a potentially more fruitful one for years to come.
3. Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks
When you know that you have a young super-duper-star on your team, it is absolutely imperative that you build around him the right way. If you don’t, you can wind up in a situation as disastrous as the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. Since Milwaukee drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo and deemed him their new superstar, they’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, with the man who made all the difference being Jon Horst.
Before Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you don’t build around a young superstar
After Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you precisely build around a young superstar
Horst may not have been responsible for drafting Giannis, but he is responsible for putting the right team around the Greek Freak to excel. He got the right coach. He brought in the right personnel. He shipped the wrong personnel out of town. He took the necessary risks to make Milwaukee better. He’s made his mistakes — waiving Christian Wood to make room for Pau Gasol — but the Bucks were a nuclear weapon ready to explode. Horst was the one who lit the fuse.
Since then, the Bucks have topped the league in net rating for the last two seasons and have possessed the league’s best record. Even if they’re technically league-average from three — 35.6 percent, good for 16th in the league — their reliance on the perimeter has unlocked Giannis’ game. They couldn’t have done that without both head coach Mike Budenholzer and the spacing they added because of Horst’s efforts.
There’s a difference between having the potential to be something special and being something special. The Milwaukee Bucks were the former term for five years and have been the latter term for the last two. Had it not been for Toronto acquiring Kawhi Leonard, they might be the reigning champions right now. If the season resumes, there may not be a “might be” between Milwaukee and reigning champions when it’s all said and done.
4. Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks may not be contenders yet, but man, over the last two years, they’ve hit two straight-up bullseyes, and it’s already paying off more than anyone could have imagined. They got the Slovenian Boy Wonder and they have his Latvian partner-in-crime — for who knows how long, too? They may be deprived of assets, but those assets were well-spent.
And what did it cost to get them to what should be a glorious future? Cam Reddish’s draft rights, a few first-rounders that are sure to be late picks and eating what’s left of Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts. Lee’s contract will be up in a matter of months, and Hardaway’s bloated deal comes to an end. That’s pretty much a slap on the wrist considering Dallas hasn’t asked really anything from Lee — because they’ve never had to — and Hardaway has been reasonably productive in the role they’ve given him.
What most mystifying of all is that this wasn’t Dallas’ forte. They slyly built up an incredibly strong foundation of youth spearheaded by two of the league’s most exciting young stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Did anybody think Donnie Nelson had this in him two years ago? That’s not to say the Mavericks have been run incompetently under his time. It’s just the way that they’ve masterfully built their next era of basketball so shortly after Dirk Nowitzki’s prime didn’t seem in-character to them and, quite frankly, it’s unbelievable.
There are obviously more gaps to fill. Even while being one of the league’s historic offenses presently, the Mavericks have some guys to add on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no rush. Right now, they have the privilege of enjoying the ride. Because, for the first time in forever, time is on their side.
5. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
Just for the record, this list is not based on reputation. If it was, Ainge would be higher due to how many franchises he’s ruined to help the Celtics over the past decade-and-a-half. Moreover, if this list came out last year, he wouldn’t be mentioned because he did a horrible job running the team. This year, he got his spot back because his efforts as the executive are paying off big time again.
The assets he acquired from Brooklyn from back in 2013 are blossoming into the players he had in mind when he drafted them in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker has pretty much lived up to expectations as “Diet Kyrie.” Gordon Hayward looks a lot more like himself than last year, even if he’s not playing at the same level he did in Utah. Even Daniel Theis has evolved into one of the league’s better bargain contracts.
What’s most impressive is that in the wake of losing their best player, Kyrie Irving, and their most indispensable player, Al Horford, the Celtics managed to get better on both sides of the ball. They did more with less. Brad Stevens’ coaching has a lot to do with that, but Ainge was the one who brought these guys in so that they could compensate for their losses.
In essence, this has been a redemption year for Ainge following Boston’s season from hell last season. Ainge’s reputation for being one of the best executives in the league has stemmed from his cut-throat mindset. This time, he gets the nod because he executed the “less is more” approach to perfection.
6. Tim Connelly, Denver Nuggets
Why is Denver always off of everyone’s radar? This is the second consecutive season in which they have finished with a top-three record in the conference that has been deemed the tougher one to compete. It makes sense to talk more about the Los Angeles teams because, until proven otherwise, they are a level above everyone else. After that, people want to talk about Houston’s funky experiment, Utah’s struggles, Dallas’ surge, and Oklahoma City’s resilience among others….but the Nuggets have been better than all of them.
They still have one of the best all-around centers in the game. They’re a well-coached squad with guys who know their roles. Best of all, they somehow still have more potential to fulfill. This year, they found yet another reason to be excited about their future. They went with a low-risk, high-reward project in Michael Porter Jr, and let him redshirt his rookie season. Now, with Porter Jr. healthy and playing ball again, it looks like Denver may have yet another superstar waiting in the wings. If he avoids the injury bug, Denver’s ceiling gets taken up to yet another level.
It hasn’t all been perfect. Jamal Murray still hasn’t become the consistent electric scorer that he shows himself to be from time to time. Paul Millsap’s not getting any younger and…what happened to Gary Harris? Have we ever seen a young player’s production drop as badly as Harris’ when the guy’s only in his mid-20s? That’s what makes Denver even more impressive. In spite of some of their guys not being as productive as they like, they’ve managed to outplay everyone in the conference that doesn’t reside in LA.
It’s time the Nuggets got their due. They wouldn’t get one if it weren’t for Connelly’s excellent work running the operation. He would be even higher if he had just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights, but Nuggets fans have already heard enough about that, haven’t they?
7. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
Daryl Morey has a reputation for making brilliant trades either because he hoarded the appropriate assets in order to make them, thought outside the box or thought he’d fit in with Houston’s gameplan like a glove — or all three. That brings us to Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook didn’t seem like the type of player that Morey would covet. He’s not a three-point shooter. He prefers having the ball in his hands. He’s not the most efficient scorer. An incredible future Hall-of-Fame talent, indeed — just not the sort of player that Morey would want on his team. We all know the situation both he and Rockets were facing with the fall out between James Harden and Chris Paul. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
So why is Morey on this list? Because, like all good executives do, he retooled the team into the perfect one for Westbrook and Harden. Instead of forcing Westbrook into Houston’s system the whole season, he changed up the system to make life easier for Westbrook to play to the best of his abilities. Going with all wings and no bigs is definitely not a foolproof plan. It is, warts and all, the only way he can properly justify trading Paul — who’s a shoo-in for an All-NBA team this year — for Westbrook, who wasn’t really fitting in with the team.
That’s what the best executives do. They make the accommodations so that the pieces fit even if it’s not a picture-perfect situation. Morey’s lower on this list than he usually would because there’s a very solid chance that this may not work, but he’s still here because he knew it’s what he had to do.
8. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers
It’s virtually impossible to not include a man who everyone regarded as incompetent almost three years ago only to be laughing in all of their faces since then on a list like this. Pritchard has been running a victory lap around everyone since he traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. This season, he had even more reason to.
Oladipo took the reins by becoming a star his first year in Indy, and now Sabonis has followed in his footsteps two years later. Even though the former’s status as a star is going to be in question until he proves he’s still got it, Indiana has still managed to be one of the tougher teams in the Eastern Conference. Pritchard deserves credit for helping them stay afloat after their best player has been through hell and back.
Sabonis’ evolution into one of the league’s best offensive bigs in the league has helped a fair amount, yes. Bringing in Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell to stabilize things has also helped. All of those players were brought in because of Pritchard; they were arguably upgrades over who they had before.
The Pacers have a good thing going on for them. If things continue to progress for them as well as they already have, things could turn out better than they were with Paul George. There is an elephant room that Pritchard will have to confront sooner or later — trading Myles Turner when it’s clear that Sabonis is their big man of the future — but knowing how he’s done since 2017, there should be plenty of confidence that he’ll make the right move.
This list was based off how the executives performed this past season. Had Zion Williamson not gotten hurt, David Griffin probably would have made this list. If New Orleans has a healthier season, and their young guys continue to grow, there’d be little reason not to include Griffin at a time like this. The same goes for Zach Kleiman and company, who have done a masterful job with Memphis this season.
If this had been based on moves made before the season, it’s very likely that Dennis Lindsey and Elton Brand would have been on here. Since the moves they’ve made haven’t worked out nearly as well as they had hoped, they can’t be included.
Lastly, these days, it’s tough to rank executives because management around the NBA period has gotten smarter for the most part. We have teams that still have poor ownership, but executives have mostly gotten smarter. Even recently, the Chicago Bulls, who have been largely criticized for the moves they’ve made (and not made), hired a smart front office guy — Arturas Karnisovas– to clean up their mess.
Maybe the New York Knicks will do the same. At least, that’s what their fans have wanted since the start of the 21st century.
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.