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NBA Daily: The Battle of the Benches

In a season where superstars have dominated, there are three franchises with strong second units ready to make some postseason noise, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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In recent campaigns, the importance of a good, reliable bench unit has soared out the window as the rise in superteams grew larger.

This is not to say that the Golden State Warriors regret not having a consistent Sixth Man of the Year contender in their second unit because, well, their back-to-back championships speak for themselves. But since every franchise can’t be blessed with four future Hall of Famers there have to be alternative routes to the top, even if it doesn’t culminate in a ring. The recipe for success is simple: Get a superstar, whether via the draft or by trade, and then build around them — more or less, that’s how it works in the modern NBA.

Naturally, the six lowest scoring benches this season also happen to boast a large amount of the league’s very best players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and, of course, the Warriors. Rocket science, this is not. In a superstar driven-landscape, this is the tried and true method to reach the postseason.

LeBron James is almost certainly not extending his eight-year streak of reaching the NBA Finals summit by executing this exact strategy – Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, et al — but this Lakers roster, youth-driven headache and all, is the exception.

In 2017-18, just four the of NBA’s top 10 scoring bench units reached the playoffs: the aforementioned James-led Cavaliers (6th), the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs (4th), the notoriously superstar-absent Miami HEAT (8th) and the Toronto Raptors (5th). Of that group, only Cleveland went past the second round after defeating Toronto in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. From there, the postseason teams ranked in order by bench points went as follows: Washington Wizards (16th), Utah Jazz (17th), Boston Celtics (18th), Indiana Pacers (T-22nd), Golden State Warriors (T-22), Philadelphia 76ers (24th), Houston Rockets (25th), New Orleans Pelicans (26th), Milwaukee Bucks (27th), Portland Trail Blazers (28th), Oklahoma City Thunder (29th) and Minnesota Timberwolves (30th).

Beyond all that, you’d have to go back to 2014-15 to find the last time a top two-ranked bench scoring unit even made the playoffs. That season, both the Celtics (41.4) and the Spurs (41) did so, only to be wiped out in the first round. During the three seasons since then, those first- and second-highest scoring units – one time for the Lakers, Kings, Pelicans and Nuggets, two times for the Nets — finished with a combined record of 164-328 and an average conference standing of 13th place.

Again, this isn’t any grand breakthrough or novel theory. No, not at all. The NBA demands star power and, generally speaking, you can often sort franchises into one of two categories: the Haves or the Have Nots. This year, however, there are three high-scoring bench groups poised to make some serious noise in the postseason, all without a go-to superstar to boot. Only time will tell if they can buck the everlasting trend of their historical prisons but, as it stands, nobody wants to face the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings or Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series — and for good reason.

Los Angeles Clippers

Once the calendar flipped to December, the Clippers were basketball’s surprise darlings at 15-7, led by the perennially underrated Tobias Harris and his motley crew of veteran contributors. From Danilo Gallinari to Avery Bradley, Los Angeles had taken their presumed rebuild season by the scruff and effectively ignored all the outside noise. A few months later, the Clippers aren’t nearly as red-hot and no longer feature Harris — who was traded to Philadelphia close to the deadline — but they’re hanging in there. As of now, the Clippers are 34-28, good enough for the NBA’s seventh seed in the Western Conference — but just 4.5 games separate the Jazz in sixth and the Lakers in 11th.

To the Clippers’ credit, they’re 4-3 since dealing away Harris and the always-bold Steve Ballmer still wants to make a playoff push, even if it costs them their first-round pick, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic. Los Angeles’ bench is the best scoring bunch in the NBA by a considerable margin, dropping a ridiculous 53.2 points per game — six full points more than second place. At the top of the totem pole is Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner and microwavable sharpshooter. Any roster that boasts Williams’ 19.9 points per game average gets a massive headstart in this bench category and his tally is 33rd-best in the entire league.

But it’s not just him either, as Williams has formed a terrifying one-two punch with breakout sensation Montrezl Harrell. The 6-foot-8 big man has seen his basic statistics jump to 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, thus demanding opposing defenses to stay sharp and focused versus the Clippers’ renowned second unit. Elsewhere, Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green have done well to replace Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic’s season-long efforts. And don’t forget, they’ll get Luc Mbah a Moute and Wilson Chandler back for the playoff push eventually too. As good as this bench squad has been all campaign, it got even scarier at the trade deadline.

Sacramento Kings

Next up are the Kings, who are currently tied in the loss column with eighth-seeded San Antonio. Overnight, Sacramento morphed into a fast-paced, high-scoring monster, much in part thanks to the massive growth both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have found alongside one another. But the Kings’ grind for their first playoff berth since 2005-06 doesn’t fall on their budding stars, because for the second-straight season, the Kings are in the top five for bench scoring. This year, the Kings have nearly replicated their 44.4 points per game average. It’s a drop from first to fifth in the category, but they’ve also surpassed last season’s win total by four already in late February.

Some of this has to do with Sacramento’s skyrocketing focus in pace – outlined here – but there are some absolutely potent members of the Kings’ core bench rotation. Bogdan Bogdanovic has averaged the squad’s third-highest total from the second unit (14.7 PPG) and the Serbian continues to be a nuisance for any defense. Still, Bogdanovic mostly succeeded in this same role during his rookie campaign in 2017-18, ditto for second-year forward Justin Jackson – the latter of which was moved to Dallas at the trade deadline. Newcomer Yogi Ferrell, who signed with the Kings last summer for $6.2 million over two years, has had his fair share of bright moments too, including a scorching-hot 19-point performance on 4-for-4 from three-point range during a season-defining victory over the Spurs earlier this month.

But the grandest addition to the Kings’ lethal bench rotation is rookie Marvin Bagley III, hands down. In just 25 minutes, Bagley has torched defenses to the tune of 14 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, outworking and out-leaping most other backups. When Bagley missed 11 games with a bone bruise in his left knee, the Kings went just 4-7. That alone speaks volumes about the talents of the former Duke standout.

In the wildcard department, there’s the also the quickly improving Harry Giles, now playing the best professional basketball of his young career. After missing the entirety of last season as he rehabbed and strengthened a previously torn ACL, Giles has recently earned a spot in head coach Dave Joerger’s crowded unit. Since officially entering the mix in January, Giles has scored seven or more points in 13 of his 23 appearances.

As the Kings prepare for the important stretch of games for the franchise in over a decade, they’d do well to lean on their impressive and young second unit. It’s worked wonders so far.

Brooklyn Nets

Perhaps the surprise to end all other surprises, the Nets — owners of a whoppingly poor 69-177 record from 2015-18 — are your sole holders of the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed. The cherry on top is that it comes in the campaign that Brooklyn finally regains control of their first-round pick after what feels like an eon. Nevertheless, the Nets have been banged up since the year began, but somehow they continue to chug along while head coach Kenny Atkinson tinkers with his deep roster. D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris have been the only totally healthy starters as the Nets have needed to bounce back from longterm injuries to Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe and Spencer Dinwiddie throughout the season already.

Heading into March, the Nets will only be missing Dinwiddie, who inches closer to returning after thumb surgery last month, but their bench unit remains fearsome all the same. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll have proven to be useful pieces once more, combining for about 36 points per game as a foursome. Of course, Napier and Davis came from Portland as highly-recommended free agent signings during the offseason and became reliable role players for the well-oiled Nets. Even better, Carroll underwent a career resurgence during his first year in Brooklyn (73 starts, 13.5 points) and has seamlessly embraced his new second unit catalyst role for the scrappy Nets this time around.

The Nets’ bench mob has scored about more points per game in 2018-19 – good for a 47.2 average and the 2nd-best mark league-wide – and it’s been a fascinating reshuffling to watch. Shockingly, replacing Quincy Acy, Dante Cunningham, Tyler Zeller and Timofey Mozgov with Carroll, Davis, Napier and, at times, Jared Dudley, Crabbe and Hollis-Jefferson has given Brooklyn so many clear and obvious upgrades. In any case, the final piece to this gasoline-infused backup battalion still remains the return of Dinwiddie, last year’s third-place finisher in the Most Improved Player race and clutch bucket-getter extraordinaire. Before his ill-timed injury, Dinwiddie was even putting together a compelling case for a late All-Star Game bid, averaging 17.2 points and 5.1 assists in 28.6 minutes per game.

The Nets play fast, work hard and jack up three-pointers at an efficient rate, all while starters and key figures have bobbed in-and-out from the injury report the entire year. There’s a reason why many have pegged Brooklyn as a top-seeded team’s worst first-round nightmare, but their reliable bench contributions might top the whole list. Once they get healthy once and for all, the Nets may just be a force to be reckoned with.

Ultimately, it’s hard to project how these revelation seasons will pan out for the Clippers, Kings and Nets, especially as two of them battle it out for the same spot in a crowded, competitive conference. Even more spectacularly, these three crews have done it without a bonafide superstar on their roster – a true sign of their roster’s balanced attack from top to bottom.

Although Russell, Harris and Fox have all shown signs of getting there, it’s certainly not the same as having a rested MVP candidate to put away any late and lingering affairs. Now, Los Angeles will need to keep surging without Harris, while Brooklyn looks forward to getting healthy and Sacramento attempts to give the reins to the youngsters.

April is right around the corner, folks,  and if things fall into place, these three franchises could be a tough out in the postseason.

A reality that’s fully in play due to their incredibly strong bench units.

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

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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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