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NBA Daily: Ranking The Small Forwards

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series by taking a look at the top small forwards in the game.

Spencer Davies

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Well, folks, it’s April and sports remain at a standstill, meaning that the NBA is still waiting to figure out when it will be feasible to either resume play or move ahead with the offseason. So while that’s happening and players are participating in video game tournaments or spreading the word of social distancing, we at Basketball Insiders have decided to spark a positional ranking series, sure enough, to garner some healthy discussion about the elite of the elite in the Association.

Ben Nadeau kicked us off on Tuesday by not only breaking down statistical areas but also facial hair and fun facts about the top shooting guards. Drew Maresca continued with a system based on individual numbers and impact on the team via net ratings when discussing the best power forwards. My strategy will be kind of a smorgasbord of sorts, counting what I’ve personally seen in my coverage of the league — no points system, really.

My draw was small forwards, a position that’s kind of been altered due to the rise of the point forward and playmaking twos. There’s an overlap of all kinds when you look at how teams construct rotations. It all depends on what the head coach’s beliefs are and where the respective players are put in lineups. You can look at size or you can look at abilities, depending on your view of the situation. Point being, the definition of small forward has been pretty subjective as of late.

For example, I would’ve listed Paul George as a three, however, Ben decided to throw him in on his list because he’s technically the starting shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Jayson Tatum is one who is clearly on the come-up as one of the top forwards in the league, yet Drew put him — as well as the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — as a four because that’s how the Boston Celtics choose to use him in certain combinations.

Injuries can also play a major factor, so we’re not going to leave those players out because they didn’t make an impact on this current season. We know what their capabilities are and that can’t go unnoticed despite the “what have you don’t for me lately” crowd.

So enough babbling on my part, let’s get to it, shall we?

8) DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

To be as consistent of an offensive threat that DeMar DeRozan has been for the past decade is *not* easy. The way he plays the game is a throwback, somebody that backs you down on the block and turns around with a fadeaway. He’s looking to draw fouls on his way to the tin. He loves a good 15-footer on the baseline, at the nail or at the corners on the key. The Spurs haven’t put together winning basketball this year, unfortunately, but pointing the finger solely at DeRozan would be foolish — especially with his annual statistics backing up his impact.

7) Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine is “the guy” in the Windy City. He’s the most consistent player that the Chicago Bulls have and is a scoring machine. All of a sudden, he’s launching eight threes per game and cashing in on 38 percent of those tries. For a guy who came into the league with crazy athleticism, LaVine’s known for much more than that these days. And while he may not fit the mold of a three, he certainly could start at that position for a number of teams.

6) Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

A first-time All-Star this year, Brandon Ingram is turning heads going into free agency — although in all likelihood, he’ll be staying with the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s continued the upward trajectory that he really started to find toward the end of last season with the Lakers, which was abruptly ended due to a blood clot in his arm.

Ingram’s willingness to be the aggressor has been the primary reason for this ascension. He’s been putting on a clinic in a career season as a three-point shooter (38.7 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), while taking responsibility as the first option in Alvin Gentry’s offense, with Zion Williamson being groomed to share those touches. That’s quite a duo moving forward if you ask me.

5) Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton’s evolution into an All-Star player has been a joy to watch because it’s been a steady rise. He hasn’t stopped growing. When you’re touted as a 3-and-D guy, it kind of puts you in a box, especially in the sense of contract talk. However, he didn’t allow that to happen and has exploded out of that box with authority, earning a well-deserved payday prior to this season.

Under Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, Middleton has been able to expand his game while employing what brought him to the dance at the same time. He’s lethal from both the perimeter and inside it as a jump shooter (51.8 percent from 10-to-16 feet, 53.8 percent from 16 feet to the arc), is reliable as a secondary playmaker and displays tenacity as an individual defender.

It’s not as if Middleton came out of nowhere. He’s not some overnight sensation or a one-hit wonder. He just kept grinding and working on his game, and the results have come from it. That, in and of itself, should be why he deserves respect from everybody.

4) Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT

Jimmy Butler’s desire to win is what makes him so special. He’s a refuse-to-lose type of player and will stop at nothing to ensure victory for his team. With him as the *technical* No. 1 option, the Miami HEAT have benefited. He’s gotten everybody around him involved while simultaneously knowing when he needs to score. If you need evidence, see Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, who have become household names just like that.

Aside from his outside shooting taking a hit this year, Butler’s efficiency has improved tremendously — he’s averaging the fewest amount of shot attempts he’s had since 2013-14. His straight-to-the-point demeanor on the hardwood has elevated his game since he entered the league, and it’s been well received in South Beach as opposed to the way things went for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The man they call Jimmy Buckets craves the pressure and the big shot. He salivates at the opportunity to get a key stop in crunch time. He loves to be a mentor to his guys. That’s what makes Butler so fun to watch, for me — his attitude.

3) Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

The basketball world needs Kevin Durant back. Forget the outside noise and just go back to watch him make magic happen on the floor — there may not be a smoother player in the NBA. We’re all anxiously waiting to see what the new-look Brooklyn Nets look like with him and Kyrie Irving paired together.

Durant’s game is an unorthodox meeting of in-your-face and finesse. He finds crevices and navigates his way to the paint with his slick handles. As soon as he sees defenders take one step back, BOOM, he’ll pull up from wherever he is at that moment. When he’s guarding you, it’s like a real-life Doc-Ock is swarming because his ridiculous length feels as if he has more than two arms. Most dangerous of all? His clutch gene. I’ve seen it live at the NBA Finals, where he put the Cavaliers away with two daggers from basically the same exact spot in nearly identical scenarios in back-to-back years.

Talk about the skills for a “small forward” who is, in essence, a seven-footer and you’ve discovered a man who has broken basketball — in a good way. And while he’ll already go down as one of the best to ever play the game, something tells me KD is going to come back with a vengeance next season. Scary thought.

2) Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

Ah yes, the Fun Guy. There aren’t not many like Kawhi left in sports. He comes into work, clocks in and clocks out. No focus on “flash” and little emotion on the court. There’s a very old-school feel to his tendencies: hard-nosed, physical, deliberate. He thrives in the mid-range and can attack you in a straight line drive to get to the bucket. His other nickname is the Klaw because of his massive hands, the same hands that deflect, steal and block opponents who try to sneak by him.

When he was traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Kawhi got back to work and ultimately helped lead the franchise to its first NBA title. It’s easy to forget exactly how good somebody is when they’re out of the picture with an injury as he was at the end of his time with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s back home in Los Angeles now along with Paul George, where the stars truly reside nowadays on both sides at Staples Center.

As far as what he’s done this season, Kawhi is one of three players in the Association with usage above 32 percent, so he’s *heavily* depended on to guide the Clippers in the right direction. Judging by the team’s 44-20 record, his improved vision and consistent scoring output, so far, so good.

1) LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Surprise, surprise…not. It seems pretty pointless to discuss the piles upon piles of awards and accolades LeBron has earned over his historic 17-year career. Everybody knows about them, and even the most casual and laid-back fans of sports understand the magnitude he has on the world as a whole. When it comes to the hardcore NBA enthusiasts, it’s essentially split down the middle between whether or not he’s the greatest to ever play the game in comparison to Michael Jordan.

Unlike many of my colleagues, comparisons don’t suit my style. I appreciate greatness and can’t stand pitting the likes of two iconic superstars against one another. It’s simply unfathomable for somebody to believe LeBron isn’t great at this game, as it is for MJ. I know it’s fun to envision and debate, but let’s get away from that, please. It’s been around for way too long and just getting old at this point, if you ask me (or maybe I’ve become the old man yelling at a cloud).

Anyways, the fusion of magnetism, power, unselfishness, athleticism and headiness — and the sustainability of those qualities — makes up for a Megatron-like presence (MegaBron? No offense, Calvin Johnson) on the floor that can rarely be stopped. There are so many intricacies within LeBron’s game that it’s hard to know where to start regarding a full-on breakdown of what he brings to the table. His mind is almost robotic in the way he can pinpoint plays in a game at exact moments and run through them verbatim. You’ll realize that when you speak to his teammates, past or present, in any scenario.

While covering the Cleveland Cavaliers in their last two Eastern Conference championship seasons before his decision to head west in the summer of 2018, LeBron specifically mentioned watching film of Kyle Korver and where the veteran sharpshooter liked to catch the ball, with seams or without. To be able to process that in the moment during actual games and deliver that preference spot-on is nothing short of amazing — and he did it. LeBron’s continued to make the game easier on his teammates with the ball in his hands, too. He has always successfully found ways to adapt. Watch the playoffs from that year and you’ll get a stern reminder of his capabilities (or just, you know, pay attention to the age-defying season he’s having with the Lakers).

At 35 years old, LeBron is playing at an MVP level, as healthy and engaged as he’s ever been. He’s always said Father Time is undefeated, but that man has yet to put The King away.

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers; Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns

That was fun, wasn’t it? As I wrote this piece, it turned into something completely different than I had initially thought. That’s the beauty of what we do right now. We can be creative in different ways and take an unconventional approach to these.

Again, small forwards weren’t an easy draw, but the eight players listed here more than deserve their due at being the best to do it at their position.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more of our positional ranking series!

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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