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NBA Daily: The Implications Of Kemba To Boston

After all that they’ve lost, the Celtics will have potentially made quite the rebound by bringing in Kemba Walker, which gives us a glimpse into what they believe about themselves.

Matt John

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So… who saw this coming?

Since the summer began, the common consensus was that Kemba Walker was re-signing with the Charlotte Hornets. They have the most money to offer, he’s pledged his loyalty to Charlotte on multiple occasions and he’s right square in the middle of his prime.

Now it appears that Boston, in the wake of losing both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, is in the driver’s seat in the Kemba sweepstakes.

This would qualify as a twist, but is it really?

Keeping Walker would seem like the obvious move for Charlotte, but giving him the money he wants – upwards of over $150 million – would lead to paying tens of millions in luxury tax. That’s hard enough for a team that plays in a small market, but what makes it harder for the Hornets is that even with someone as good as Walker, they are already a capped out team with a pretty limited ceiling.

Remember how so many NBA followers gave Dan Gilbert endless flak for the number of luxury tax bills he had to pay for the Cavaliers from 2014-2018? At least then, he had the excuse of paying top dollar and then some for a contender. If the Hornets gave Walker a contract close to the Supermax, they’d be doing the same, only for a team whose ceiling is much, much lower.

Even for someone like Kemba, that doesn’t sound like it would be worth it. Charlotte could try to move some things around to help its financial trouble or improve the team’s makeup, but the roster is filled with overpaid role players and young players who have a long way to go. Letting Kemba walk would be tough – in hindsight, trading him probably would have been the better option – but Charlotte needs to get itself away from the treadmill team label.

Nothing is set in stone just yet, but if this is how things are looking, then there are some implications from this move if it is to take place when free agency arrives.

Kyrie was the problem, not the kids

In a season’s span, this most recent Boston Celtics team went from being a squad that fans couldn’t wait to watch, to a squad fans couldn’t stand to watch. The turmoil in the locker room was believed to be one of the primary reasons why things didn’t work out in Boston. Now that it’s over, we’re starting to get a few leaks as to what went on behind closed doors.

One of the prevailing theories for Boston coming up way short was Kyrie’s contempt towards his teammates, coaches and anyone really in the organization, which is a whole other story by itself. By bringing Kemba in and letting Kyrie walk, they are showing their faith that the youngsters can bounce back following a rough season. In so doing, it shows their belief that Kyrie truly was what was preventing the team from reaching its potential.

The proof is in the pudding. Kyrie deserves respect both as a player and for telling it like it is, but it’s clear that he did not uplift his teammates with his actions. We saw him yell at both his teammates and his coach. We heard him make empty promises that the Celtics’ fortunes would be different in the postseason. It’s gotten to the point that Boston seems to have fully accepted that he’s not returning and is happier for it.

It’s also very possible that the talented youngsters weren’t blameless victims in what happened. The unexpected success from 2018 with such young players could have definitely gotten to their heads that tension with Kyrie was inescapable. In fact, Boston may have to ask itself if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown did not like deferring to Kyrie Irving, is it going to be any different with Kemba Walker? Even so, that shouldn’t stop them from snatching someone as good as Kemba when they have the chance.

Experts weren’t wrong when they said that the Celtics had the talent to be something special. Making the lateral move from Kyrie to Kemba shows that the Celtics believe that they still can be and that now, they won’t have hubris stopping them from doing so.

Kemba wants Brad Stevens a.k.a. the point guard whisperer

At 29 years old, Walker is now at the height of his abilities as a player. At that stage, players want a coach who can bring the absolute best out of them. As odd as it sounds now in light of everything that’s recently happened with Kyrie, Brad Stevens is an expert at bringing the best out of his point guards.

Let’s get a rundown of Brad Stevens’ track record with point guards since he took over in 2013.

Jordan Crawford – He was seen as just roster fodder, but played well enough to earn a Player of the Week award as the team’s starting point guard and fetched the Celtics a first-round pick a short while afterward.

Evan Turner – He had one foot out of the NBA, but found his niche as a secondary playmaker/scorer in Boston. His role on the team was so perfect for him that he was paid handsomely by Portland to play the same role.

Isaiah Thomas – He was slated as a scoring spark off the bench and played well enough to not only get a starting job, but also elevated his play into becoming an MVP candidate and a core piece in a trade for Kyrie Irving.

Terry Rozier – He was viewed as a reach when the Celtics took him 16th overall, and he didn’t have the most productive tenure in his four years in Boston. But when the Celtics slated him into the starting point guard spot, he played a pivotal role in getting them to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Kyrie Irving – He already came in with the reputation of a superstar. As good as Irving has already proven himself to be, Stevens got the best out of him too. Irving is coming off of his two most efficient seasons as a pro shooting-wise, played the best defense of his career and even set a career-high in assists last season.

Brad has been a guru for his point guards with the only exception being Rajon Rondo. That may be attributed more to Rondo’s ACL tear/wanting out of Boston than Brad’s coaching. But besides him, the evidence speaks for itself.

Brad’s reputation with floor generals could very well be Kemba’s primary draw to the Celtics. If his magic works on Kemba, then we could see the best numbers that Walker has ever put up in his career.

Gordon Hayward will be back (or closer) to normal

The backbone for both the Celtics having such monumental expectations and disappointing such expectations last season came – through no fault of his own – from Gordon Hayward’s return.

Hayward was unsteady through the majority of his first season back from his gruesome leg injury. Every once in a while, he showed flashes of the star player he was when the team brought him in two years ago. As the season wound down, he started finding a little more consistency in his game. If it weren’t for his sudden disappearance against Milwaukee in the playoffs, fans would be more encouraged by his progress.

Not too long ago, Hayward was once a player who everyone believed was worth every penny of the max contract Boston gave him. Now, he’s seen as an albatross contract who Boston will have to swallow whole. While the public has its doubts about Hayward, the Celtics bringing in Kemba demonstrates that they don’t.

Boston would have a solid foundation talent with Kemba and “the Jays” at the forefront. If he resembles the player he once was, Hayward at full throttle would take their ceiling to a whole new level. Many forget the player that Gordon was before his leg snapped, but he was one of the league’s better all-around players. Having that at Boston’s arsenal opens up a wide range of possibilities.

That would only be hypothetical, but by potentially adding Walker, Boston has shown that it still believes Hayward can be that guy. This season, Hayward will be two years removed from his awful injury, won’t have nearly as many guys around him who want the ball in their hands and still has Brad Stevens coaching him.

A lot can change between now and Sunday. For all we know, these reports of Kemba deserting Charlotte for Boston are all just a negotiating tactic by Walker’s camp for the Hornets to pony up. Even if this is legitimate, Boston still has more questions to answer. More specifically, what they’re going to do with their frontcourt now that Horford and Aron Baynes are gone. Knowing Danny Ainge, those questions will be answered in due time.

For now, so much has gone wrong for the Celtics in the last few months that it’s nice to see that they’re not taking it all lying down.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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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