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NBA Daily: The 2018-19 Trendsetting Turnarounds

Each year, a few franchises turn red-flagged weaknesses into strengths. These are the four biggest examples so far this season.

Ben Nadeau

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The NBA has always been a playground for budding trendsetters — or, in other words, whichever teams can adapt best from year-to-year, embracing their strengths and addressing their weaknesses emerge on the other side even better. While the powerhouse franchises like the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets haven’t seen too much variation in recent campaigns — particularly so when comparing some base-level statistics between 2017-19 — there are plenty of other up-and-coming squads that have come out firing so far this season.

A little over halfway through the season, the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings –along with a few honorable mentions — have easily been the league’s grandest surprises, both statistically and within the win column. Whether under the rim or behind the arc, there are fascinating narratives that now definitely extend past small sample size territory. With this in mind, here are the 2018-19 trendsetter award winners just ahead of the All-Star break.

Milwaukee Bucks

Points Per Game
2017-18: 15th, 106.5
2018-19: 2nd, 117.0

Rebounds Per Game
2017-18: 30th, 39.8
2018-19: 1st, 48.8

Defensive Rating
2017-18: 18th, 109.1
2018-19: 1st, 103.6

Well, yeah.

Milwaukee, seemingly overnight, transformed into a league-wide darling this season, even though their roster looks pretty similar at the top to last year’s iteration. It decidedly helps to have an MVP candidate anchoring your side — Giannis Antetokounmpo is actually averaging 0.4 points less in 2018-19 thus far — but health has been key too. Malcolm Brogdon, the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year, is injury-free, putting up 2.7 more points per game and shooting excellently from three-point range (41.8 percent) again.

It’s been exactly a year to the day since Brogdon’s partially torn quadricep sidelined him for two entire months, so the Bucks will be excited to have the blossoming guard for a full 82 game-clip. Additionally, both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have upped their per game scoring tallies significantly — but it’s the Bucks’ single offseason splash that’s been the biggest difference-maker so far: Brook Lopez.

Lopez, a reborn seven-foot behemoth who fires away from downtown with reckless abandon, has been an absolute revelation for the Bucks. As Milwaukee cycled through largely uninspiring options at center last season — John Henson, Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller — Lopez was busy playing a career-low in minutes out in Los Angeles. Together, they formed a match made in basketball heaven. Lopez plied his trade as a potential three-point threat during his final season with the Brooklyn Nets in 2016-17 but he’s been given the greenest of green lights in Milwaukee, hitting on 2.6 three-pointers per game at a 38.4 percent rate.

On the rebounding front — from worst to first this time — there’s another striking improvement for the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks. Antetokounmpo, a player that will run out of printable adjectives by season’s end, has boosted his per game number from eight rebounds to a remarkable 12.6. The select few currently ahead of Antetokounmpo: Rudy Gobert (12.8), Joel Embiid (13.4), Anthony Davis (13.3), DeAndre Jordan (13.7) and Andre Drummond (14.9) — so pretty stellar company, all things considered. Last season, Antetokounmpo pulled down 24 games of 12 or more rebounds but he’s already beaten that mark in 2018-19 (26) with 32 contests to go.

The aforementioned Henson is still around to grab his niche-role boards, but the brightest newcomer to the conversation is D.J. Wilson. The 6-foot-10 forward notched just 3.2 minutes per game during his rookie season, but now risen to a healthy 17.7 average, Wilson has contributed 4.6 rebounds to the league-pacing treasure trove.

And yet, the accolades don’t stop there — those pesky Bucks! Not only is Milwaukee scoring at a more unstoppable pace, but they’re now also the best defensive team in the entire league as well. Turns out, rocking Antetokounmpo — OK, fine, every single moment — is like using a cheat code and the rest of the stretchy team follows suit. Undoubtedly, the Bucks have soared under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The former 2014-15 Coach of the Year winner has transformed a once-lackluster unit into a nightmare-inducing mismatch. The Bucks typically have a couple defensive standouts strewn about the floor at any given moment — the usual suspects, of course: Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Bledsoe, Middleton — and their ball-hawking tendencies are only matched by their length.

Milwaukee has separately tallied six or more blocks and steals in 26 of their 50 contests — topping out with single-game bests of 11 and 13, respectively. The Warriors, Celtics and Spurs will churn out yearly defensive stonewalls — but the Bucks’ newfound liftoff is just another reason why they’ve been so impossibly difficult to handle under Budenholzer. Once you tack on Lopez’s unreal three-point shooting and the boost in rebounding numbers, it’s easy to see why the Bucks are Eastern Conference royalty at long last.

Sacramento Kings

Three-Pointers Per Game
2017-18: 26th, 9.0
2018-19: 12th, 11.5

Pace
2017-18: 30th, 95.59
2018-19: 2nd, 104.18

How does a team go from the conference cellar to postseason contenders in the West without blinking? In the Kings’ case, and credit to head coach Dave Joerger, all they had to do was nearly change everything about them. Last season, Sacramento knocked down seven or fewer three-pointers in 26 different contests and their record in such games was a poor 10-16 — thus making them massive suffers at the hand of the modern NBA. In 2017-18, the league average for three-point percentage was 36.2 and the Kings surpassed that mark in just 44 games and it’s tough to stay afloat, especially in the harder-to-navigate conference, without consistent shooting from long-range.

This time around, it’s been an entirely different story, full of positive boosts across the board. Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson have all upped their averages from 2017-18 — but three major leaps stand out. Buddy Hield has been one of basketball’s undisputed best shooters over the first half of the season, putting down 3.4 three-pointers per game (fourth-highest) at an elite 45.8 percent rate (fourth-highest, again). As a well-deserved selection for February’s three-point contest in Charlotte, Hield will get to do what he does best on the national stage and the sharpshooter shows no signs of slowing down.

But the Kings’ rise to behind-the-arc competency also falls squarely on the shoulders of Nemanja Bjelica and Iman Shumpert. The newly-signed stretch forward has rained 1.5 three-pointers per game on 42.7 percent from the floor, while Shumpert is in business after a down season in Cleveland. As a pair, they’ve turned the Kings into frighteningly competent three-point shooters — but it’s not the only thing that Sacramento has forcefully shoved back into 2019.

Their pace is currently ranked among the league’s quickest — that, obviously, is in large part due to Fox. Electric in nature, the greased lightning-like point guard is a one-man fast-breaking machine. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder record more field goal attempts than Sacramento (92.7) does, but the Kings still lead all teams with 21.4 fast break points per game. Bobbing and weaving through traffic — and perhaps, more importantly, a full season removed from the George Hill positional stranglehold — Fox has been an absolute menace. Without question, it helps to kick the ball outside to that previously cast of talented three-point assassins, but the Kings, who remain just 1.5 games out of the postseason, owe much of this surprise success to Fox.

Honorable Mentions:

San Antonio Spurs

Three-Point Percentage
2017-18: 26th, 35.2
2018-19: 1st, 40.9

In news that will shock exactly zero people: The Spurs are back. One season after backing into the playoffs by the tiniest of hairs on their chins — all without Kawhi Leonard, mind you — it was likely fair to wonder if it was the beginning of the end in San Antonio. Fair, but stupid, as always, of course. The Spurs aren’t even a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of three-point makes (21st, 10.2) but what they do hoist up has an excellent chance of converting. Leave it to a Gregg Popovich-led roster to not waste a single possession, naturally.

Discounting the deceiving numbers of Pau Gasol (50 percent, 0.5 attempts/game) and Dante Cunningham (49.1 percent, 1.1 attempts/game), there are exactly five three-point shooters making a difference so far for San Antonio: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli.

This is about par for the course in the cases of Belinelli — who the Spurs just gave $12 million over two years for this exact reason, two three-pointers per game on 39.5 percent — and Mills. It is, however, a much-needed effort for Gay, who hasn’t shot over 40 percent from deep for the entire season a single time in his 13-year career. The truest gems here are clearly Forbes and Bertans, two under-the-radar standouts in Popovich’s demanding system. Bertans has been solid since he joined the Spurs at long last in 2016 — he was drafted No. 42 overall back in 2011 — but this is something else entirely.

Over his first two seasons, Bertans averaged 1.1 three-pointers on 38.6 percent shooting. But in 2018-19, Bertans is up to 2.1 makes on a blistering 47.8 conversation rate — the second-best rate in the NBA.

To his credit, Forbes has responded well to join the Spurs’ starting lineup as well, turning into a quintessential Spurs contributor in the process. Over 53 starts, Forbes is averaging 2.2 three-pointers on 42.5 percent shooting, the 13th-highest mark out there. And although Forbes didn’t get an invite to the three-point shootout like his teammate, this has been a terrifying duo for San Antonio on the perimeter. Last year, the Spurs had zero players finish over 40 percent from three-point range; today, they’ve got four — five if you count Mills’ close-but-no-cigar 39.8 percent clip. Given these breakouts (plus having a superstar for a full season, thanks, DeMar DeRozan) the Spurs are right where they belong: Surging for homecourt advantage in the first round.

Indiana Pacers

Net Rating
2017-18: 12th, 1.3
2018-19: 7th, 4.1

Admittedly, this is not the most eye-popping rise in this category — that, of course, belongs to the Bucks again, who have stunningly grown from a net rating of minus-0.3 to plus-9.5. But since Milwaukee has earned plenty of love already, it’s time to praise the Pacers. For a roster that was slept on last season but earned league-wide respect, Indiana just continues to get better with age.

The Pacers, mostly, are the same team it was in 2017-18, just with the additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, plus an offseason of development for Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Notable statistical improvements from the latter two — particularly in the rebounding department — have been important, but Turner’s charge into a fearsome rim protector might be the biggest achievement to date.

Turner went from a respectable 1.8 blocks per game — a rate that left him third in NBA last season — to a monstrous 2.7 clip. That’s ahead of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobert, good for the best average in the entire league. Furthermore, Turner’s current defensive rating of 100.9 is sixth-highest, a stark difference to his 106.2 mark that was tied for 47th-best in 2017-18. Sadly, this upstart team — well on pace to smash their 48-win total from the previous campaign — will likely sink following the loss of All-Star Victor Oladipo.

But the Pacers are built to weather the regular season storm, a well-constructed rotation with plenty of able veterans that can step in to help replace Oladipo. Thanks to the internal growth of their young forwards and the microwavable shooting from the steady Bojan Bogdanovic, the Pacers aren’t in real danger of missing the postseason just yet. Unfortunately, Indiana holds a 0-4 record since Oladipo’s devastating injury, so this promising net rating hop is bound to drop sooner rather than later. Even then, it hardly makes the Pacers’ year-to-year growth any less noteworthy.

While many onlookers get deservedly swept up in annual consistencies, some of the NBA’s best stories come from the bottom up instead. For the Bucks and Kings, their swift reversal has been a treat to watch unfold. One has become a sporting juggernaut in nearly every area, while the other is in contention to break a playoff drought that dates back to 2006. Elsewhere, the Spurs will never die and the Pacers, despite a brutal injury, remained impressive in their quest for respect. All-Star Weekend is right around the corner, but this list of trendsetting turnarounds should serve as some fun trivia fodder as Bertans, Fox and Antetokounmpo inevitably prove their worth on the national stage.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Storylines To Watch For In 2020

Just 10 days into the offseason, Matt John takes a look at what storylines have been created from all that’s happened so far.

Matt John

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If it wasn’t clear before, it is now – the NBA is a year-round sport. Even though the season lasts up to nine months, we never seem to get a break from professional basketball. Honestly though, that’s probably because we don’t want one.

The offseason gives us so much drama that it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off our phone. Woj and Shams “bombs” are like a shot of adrenaline, and we as the audience are basketball junkies anxiously waiting for our next score.

We’re not even two weeks past the NBA finals, and the drama has already started. And it started with a bang. Anthony Davis and LeBron can stake a claim as the league’s fiercest duo. The Jazz have solidified themselves as a Western Conference contender. New Orleans is now a league pass team. The sky is suddenly falling in Boston and Houston. All that New York had hoped for is blowing up in its face. So, just another Tuesday for Knicks fans.

We haven’t even entered the main course of the NBA offseason and we already have some storylines to keep our eyes on for next season. There are going to be plenty more once free agency starts, but let’s take a look at what to keep an eye on when it comes to next season.

Is Lonzo Ball good?

Now we’ve been asking ourselves this question since he came into the league. Lonzo is the most polarizing young player in the league. Some of it comes from the bias, both positive and negative, that he’s had to face in the last two years. Some of it comes from the limited sample sizes we’ve had to watch. Some of it has come from playing for one of the league’s most storied franchises.

There’s no doubt that what Lonzo does well, he does spectacularly. At 6-foot-6, he brings so many rare qualities to the court. He has excellent handles, boasts a court vision that not many others in the league has and can get after the rebound. He’s even shown that he can make life hell for anyone who tries to take him one-on-one.

But his holes are clear as day. His funky shooting form has not held up well since transitioning to the NBA. He hasn’t shown much of a scoring instinct. He can’t seem to stay on the floor. Still, he was the second overall pick for a reason.

Now here comes perhaps the real test for him. New Orleans could be the perfect team for him. Now that he’s no longer in LeBron’s shadow, Ball should have the ball in his hands more often than not. Alvin Gentry has a reputation for having his teams run the floor – the Pelicans tied for second in pace last season (103.3) – which should make Lonzo feel right at home. Jrue Holiday, one of the better all-around point guards in the league, should be the perfect complement to him as a playmaker, shooter and defender.

Oh, and you’ve probably already fantasized about how beautiful those Lonzo-to-Zion alley-oops are going to look four months from now.

There will be challenges up ahead, like how Lonzo is going to do now that he’ll be a more featured player for his team. New Orleans needs more three-point shooting, as it was ranked 24th in three-point percentage (34.3) and 21st in attempts on average (10.3). Lonzo’s a career 31.5 percent shooter from three, and even with the haul they got from the Lakers, not a whole lot of the new guys space the floor, which could hurt Lonzo’s ability to space the floor.

Now that Lonzo no longer has the pressure to contribute to a winner right away, time is now on his side. Progress may come quickly or it may come slow, but as long as he avoids the injury bug, we can finally see what the guy is made out of this season.

Can Donovan Mitchell be relied on in the playoffs?

Spida has been exceeding expectations from the moment he entered the league. It’s not every day you see a late lottery pick be the leader of a pseudo-contender in the first two years of his pro career.

You can’t honestly complain about what he’s been able to do for Utah since the team has had to endure through losing Gordon Hayward. What can you do is point out his flaws, and he’s got a few.

Mitchell can definitely put the ball in the bucket, as he’s averaged 22 points in his brief career so far. However, he doesn’t exactly have the best shooting percentages, as he’s put up splits of 43/35/80 over his last two years. Those numbers only get worse in the playoffs. While his scoring average is slightly better at 23.4 points a game, his shooting falls off a cliff, shooting 39/23/89 splits.

Utah has shown that it can’t afford to have its young franchise cornerstone struggle on the game’s biggest stage, as they’ve been eliminated two consecutive times in gentleman’s sweeps at the hands of the Rockets. Not that it’s entirely on his shoulders, but if Donovan struggles, so do the Jazz.

Jazz fans will point out without a second’s hesitation that his low efficiency is because the team does not have another scoring threat to take the pressure off of him. Definitely a valid point. Utah has not had a secondary scoring threat to ease the burden put on Mitchell. No help in that department would make life hard for anyone in the league. That won’t be a problem anymore Utah now that they made their summer splash with Mike Conley.

Conley should be exactly what the doctor ordered. An experienced vet who’s scoring and playmaking abilities should do wonders both for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Technically, he has no All-Star appearances to his name – and probably won’t now that his prime will most likely end in the West – but anyone who’s watched him knows how much this should improve the Jazz.

Now that Conley has arrived, we’re finally going to see how Donovan will do now that he won’t have to take the entire scoring burden by himself. The Jazz still have some issues to take care of such as their now desperate need for a stretch-four, but with Conley on board, we’ll at least see what Mitchell’s true ceiling is now.

What is Danny Ainge going to do with his newfound cap space?

Once upon a time, the Boston Celtics had the most promising future in the NBA. Now, what’s happened to them is indescribable.

Losing Kyrie Irving was always in the back of Celtics fans’ mind that by the time reports started circulating that he wasn’t coming back, they were okay with it. Al Horford’s departure was the real gut punch. There was never any drama that came with Horford, and he did all he could for Boston. Seeing him gone is going to hurt both on and off the court.

Silver lining: Horford and Irving’s departures, along with the recent Aron Baynes trade to Phoenix, opens up a lot of cap room for Boston. In fact, if the Celtics renounce Terry Rozier’s cap hold – $9+ million – they will have enough room to add a player with a max contract.

How Danny Ainge uses it is something people should watch out for. The Celtics now have a gaping hole at center with both Horford and Baynes gone, so odds are they may use it on a center. Combine buzz said that the Celtics were looking at Clint Capela, which could still be in play this summer if Houston really wants cap relief.

They could also look to take Steven Adams off the Thunder’s hands or pay up for Nikola Vucevic. Knowing Ainge, it’s very possible what he does is mess with other teams who have guys they can’t afford to lose but don’t want to pay top dollar for.

Brooklyn did this for two years when they gave rich offer sheets to Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter so that their teams would have to pay up for them. Ainge doesn’t have a history of doing that, but he does have a history of ripping off other teams.

For example, take the Milwaukee Bucks. Malcolm Brogdon will be on the open market this summer, and the Bucks cannot afford to lose him. Should Ainge give him a max contract, the Bucks would have no choice but to match it since they want to stay a contender with Giannis. There are plenty of scenarios like this. He could do this with Khris Middleton. He could do this with Vucevic. He could do this to anyone who is valuable to get paid a lot, but not enough that he would deserve a max.

The Celtics are going through pretty much their worst nightmare right now, but losing their star players is more of a setback than a doomsday scenario. If there’s one man who has shown that he can rebuild as quickly as possible, it’s Danny Ainge. They’re not going to get a star this summer, but counting out the Celtics is ill-advised because, like always, they usually have something up their sleeve.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Losers On Draft Night

With another year in the books, James Blancarte looks at the 2019 NBA Draft’s biggest losers.

James Blancarte

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For months it has been accepted that Zion Williamson would be the number one draft pick. Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett were also drafted at two and three as expected. What transpired after that was much less expected, including a few major surprises along the way. There had been rumors leading up to the draft that the New Orleans Pelicans, in possession of the number four pick after agreeing to terms with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade, would be looking to move the pick.

The 2019 NBA Draft is now in the books and we can take a step back and evaluate how things unfolded. Take a look at Ben Nadeau’s analysis as to who the big winners on draft night were. Whether any selected player lives up to expectations or is ultimately successful is something that can take years to determine. But, for now, let’s take a look at some who may have not had the best night.

The Phoenix Suns

The Suns started draft day by dumping forward T.J. Warren to the Indiana Pacers to be rid of the remaining three years on his contract while sending the Suns’ number 32 pick to help complete the trade. The frustrating issue here is Warren is in his mid-twenties, is productive, doesn’t have a toxic contract and can be very useful on a contending team. In another trade, the Suns moved down, sending the number six pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for power forward Dario Saric and the 11th pick. Saric is a useful player on offense and a good fit on the Suns who is now another player on the roster who will likely contribute to the team’s defensive woes. Also, moving Warren seemed to be about clearing cap space so the Suns could go after a player like D’Angelo Russell. However, taking on Saric’s contract cut into that strategy.

With the 11th pick, the Suns selected Cameron Johnson, a sweet shooting forward who figures to slot in extremely well as a compliment to franchise cornerstones Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, who both require the ball in their hands frequently to be successful. This pick shocked many including Johnson’s own teammate, Coby White, who displayed shock and enthusiasm for his teammate’s unexpectedly high selection. The issue for the Suns is that Johnson is an older prospect who is somewhat limited beyond his outside shooting, has had hip issues, which could be an indicator that he will have trouble staying healthy and he doesn’t have the same potential upside as other players in the draft.

Many projections had Johnson going as low as early in the second round. Imagine if the Suns could have had Johnson at their original 32nd pick. The Suns also traded a 2020 first-round pick (acquired from Milwaukee) to Boston to obtain the number 24 pick to get Ty Jerome and center Aron Baynes. The biggest and most puzzling part of this trade is that it cost the Suns much of the cap space they just cleared, presumably for Russell. For these moves to really pay off going forward, the Suns will need to maximize the cap space freed up in the Warren trade (and then somewhat given up) and find a way to shore up a team that sorely needs better point guard play and is weak on the defensive end. On a day that saw the Suns give up so much and saw so many other players go far below their projections, this day may sting for a while.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers also came into the draft with a high pick but, like the Suns, they were moved down a couple of spots in the draft lottery and were bumped out of the top three. Just before the draft, there was chatter about the Cavaliers moving out of the fifth pick in a possible trade. Ultimately, with the Hawks jumping up to take De’Andre Hunter at four, the Cavaliers selected Darius Garland, after he had been slotted at fourth in many mock drafts.

A talented shooter and isolation-based scorer, Garland has a high potential ceiling due to his offensive capabilities. The issue is team fit. The Cavaliers are still rebuilding following LeBron James’s departure and until draft day only had one foundational talent in Collin Sexton. Garland and Sexton will likely occupy much of the same space on offense and don’t complement each other based on their preferred style of play.

Garland is a good player and the Cavaliers can still make this work but considering the value that other teams were able to extract for moving down in the draft (see Pelicans; not the Suns), it is a shame that the Cavaliers didn’t use the opportunity to move down and possibly add additional assets in a trade or perhaps select a better fitting prospect.

Bol Bol

Being drafted in the NBA is a blessing. Period. Of course, expectations are relative and being drafted lower than is widely expected is disappointing. Going lower also comes with fewer contractual guarantees and decreased pay. Bol Bol might still have a productive career but many projected him as a possible lottery pick or at least a late first-rounder. Conversations about Bol leading up the draft did not appear positive and his stock seemed to be falling. Even still, Bol slipping to 44 to Denver still came as a shock. Of all players in attendance, Bol was also the last person to be selected. By the time his name was called, he left his table and awaited off stage, still hoping to be drafted.

Without immediate pressure or need to play him in Denver, Bol should have the time he needs to focus on any health issues and develop physically. It is possible that his foot and possible knee issues are worse than is widely reported. Perhaps issues with his durability, extremely light frame and potential for re-injury outweighed the shot blocking, shooting and offensive creativity Bol displayed in his one injury-shortened season in Oregon.

Many other players went far below their projections. Nassir Little fell to the Portland Trail Blazers, which is actually a favorable fit for him. Tacko Fall fell out of the draft, although there have always been limitations to his game that made him a more limited prospect. Still, Bol’s drop stood out as one of the top stories. While the odds are against players drafted this low, Bol could make news again should he succeed and prove doubters wrong.

 

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NBA Daily: Biggest Winners On Draft Night

With another year in the books, Ben Nadeau looks at the 2019 NBA Draft’s biggest winners — go get that money, Cam!

Ben Nadeau

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As usual, chaos reigned supreme during Thursday’s NBA Draft, an annual tradition like no other. Spearheaded by pre-draft trades involving Anthony Davis, Mike Conley Jr. and a number of smaller-sided deals, a rambunctious amount of league-wide movement went down in Brooklyn this week. After the all-but-announced business involving Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett had been decided, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Pheonix Suns helped to push the draft into an early frenzy — so, from there on out, matters only continued to rise. The New Orleans Pelicans used their freshly-replenished haul of draft picks to add even more depth to a young, athletic roster, while multiple surprises kept much of first 30 choices shrouded in mystery.

But when the dust settled at the Barclays Center, a few teams had notably come out on top. Whether by sticking to their front office guns or just simply reading the room, there can be no doubt that these franchises bettered themselves for both the present and the oncoming future.

New Orleans Pelicans

Now That’s What I Call Rebuilding A Franchise, Vol. 19! David Griffin, the recently-hired Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Pelicans, has absolutely smashed his opening months in charge. Anthony Davis’ trade deadline value had been torpedoed by that infamous public trade request — and doubled-down upon in June by Rich Paul’s insistence that his client would end up in Los Angeles — but that didn’t stop Griffin from squeezing every possible ounce of profit from the desperate Lakers. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were quality centerpieces, but Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will factor in for years to come too. Naturally, that list doesn’t even include the trove of future draft picks that they received too

Billy King, unofficially, you are off the hook.

If that weren’t enough, Griffin also ditched the final year of Solomon Hill’s contract, a move that’ll put the Pelicans in prime position to chase a key free agent. For a franchise that looked stuck between a rock and hard place four months ago, it’s far more likely that New Orleans reaches the playoffs instead of the lottery next season. In short, even if the Pelicans weren’t your secret second favorite team, they probably are now.

Cleveland Cavaliers

There were no insane deals for Cleveland this year, nor did they have to worry about placating a nearly decided-upon LeBron James either. Now firmly entrenched in year two of their unanticipated rebuild, a palpable shape is starting to take form for the Cavaliers. Sure, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton play the same position — but that’s something for John Beilein, Cleveland’s shiny, new hire at head coach — to figure out. Joined by the excellent 1-2 scoring punch of Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. to finish out the night, the Cavaliers snagged plenty of ceilingless shooting potential. Although they’re likely to see at least one more lottery appearance, there’s plenty to be excited about in the Midwest — with or without a deep postseason run ahead of them.

Brooklyn Nets

Since Sean Marks was hired as the Nets’ general manager, he’s drafted exceptionally well — particularly for a franchise that didn’t hold their own first round pick for half a decade. Caris LeVert (No. 20), Jarrett Allen (No. 22) and Rodions Kurucs (No. 40) all seem like tent-pole contributors for Brooklyn — so the Nets, who once had two first-rounders in 2019, believe it or not, traded both of them away. With the Kyrie Irving gaining serious steam lately, Marks and the front office needed to keep the roster lean for a second max free agent — unfortunately, that came at the expense of those pesky guaranteed first-round deals. Brooklyn didn’t come away empty-handed, however, as the green room-invited Nic Claxton and late-round draftee Jaylen Hands are intriguing in their own ways — but their biggest prize remains that flexibility.

If the league has learned anything over the last four years, it should be that the Nets don’t willingly toss aside draft picks, especially with their sturdy track record. Whether or not Brooklyn lands some combination of Kevin Durant or Irving in July remains to be seen — but this marked a warning shot to the other 29 franchises: The Nets are back.

Atlanta Hawks

While the Luka Dončić-Trae Young debate is set to rage on until the end of time, it’s safe to say that the Hawks have crucially navigated their rebuild nonetheless. Flipping Nos. 8 and 17 — the former coming via the Allen Crabbe deal — with New Orleans to move up for De’Andre Hunter was shrewd business, but using the No. 10 overall selection, the extra asset from the aforementioned Mavericks trade, to collect Cam Reddish might be the cherry on top. Very suddenly, the Hawks have collected an entirely new starting five in just under three years. Additionally armed with Kevin Heurter, John Collins and Young — three of the league’s brightest breakout stars in 2018-19 — that core, somehow, got even better.

At No. 4, Hunter is a versatile, two-way standout that’ll protect Young on defense and shoulder some offensive millage for Heurter as well. In an alternative collegiate dimension, Reddish could’ve been a bonafide star — instead, he falls perfectly into the lap of Atlanta. Any franchise thinking about hitting the reset button should carefully study the Hawks — it’s early, but the signs are extremely positive.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are included on this list of winners precisely for Not Messing That Up™ — at long last, RJ Barrett is the new king of New York. Throughout the springtime, Barrett was merely considered a consolation prize compared to the real-deal main courses in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — same, consequently, for whichever team ended up at No. 3 overall. Even if that many-times-rebuffed draft narrative comes true, Barrett was still the easy call for the Knicks to make. As if a sight for sore eyes, New York-area fans actually celebrated their latest first-round selection — a facet that hasn’t happened frequently as of late. But for everybody else, it was just refreshing not to see the always-struggling franchise not outthink itself for once.

The former Blue Devil averaged 22.6 points and 7.6 rebounds on 52.9 percent from the field and, in all likelihood, this will be his team from day one.  Now paired with Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr., the newly-drafted Barrett and the Knicks may finally be on the path to something bigger and brighter.

Cameron Johnson

One of the most-puzzling moves of the night came at the expense of the Phoenix Suns, a team so badly in need of above-average defense that they moved down from No. 6 to No. 11 in exchange for Dario Saric. To slightly compound matters, the Suns then grabbed Cameron Johnson, an excellent shooter that was projected as a mid-to-late pick in the first round. Pundits have since crushed the choice — Jarrett Culver, a solid two-way player, slid to their original selection — but the Suns clearly saw something they loved in Johnson.

All that aside, the former Tar Heel just got much, much richer on behalf of the Suns.

If Johnson had fallen a little closer to his mocked-out range — let’s say to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 24 overall, just as an example — his initial salary would’ve been a paltry downgrade. Of course, salary cap numbers differ year-to-year but the Trail Blazers’ Anfernee Simons went No. 24 in 2018 and was paid about $1.8 million during his rookie season. Simons will earn $2.1 million in 2019-20, plus $2.2 and $3.9 million over the following two years should Portland continue to pick up his team options ahead of restricted free agency.

So, across his first four NBA seasons, Simons will earn roughly $10.2 million — whereas Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, last year’s No. 11 overall pick, will take home close to $17 million on the same type of structured deal. For a 23-year-old like Johnson that was supposed to land closer to the second round than the lottery a week ago, that’s a significant financial windfall. Even if he doesn’t end up proving all his doubters wrong, he will, at the very least, be paid far more handsomely for his efforts.

From franchises that are looking to stockpile talented youngsters to those readying themselves for the hectic free agency period, most did fairly well during the 2019 NBA Draft. But in this world, there are always winners and losers — and, in this iteration, Cameron Johnson may be the biggest victor of them all.

So congratulations to Johnson on the major pay raise and best wishes to the rest of this promising class as well — October can’t come soon enough.

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