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NBA Daily: This Time, MJ Got It Right

Michael Jordan has definitely earned his sour front office reputation, but Matt John explains why recent moves might turn that all around.

Matt John

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All it takes to flip the narrative is one stretch. One prolonged streak – whether good or bad – and suddenly, everything turns on its head. Then again, all it takes is one stretch to revert the narrative back to what it once was. Sacramento seemed well on their way to flipping theirs as the league’s laughingstock two years ago. Two years later, it panned out as one step forward and two steps back for them.

The Charlotte Hornets are often in a similar predicament. They can take pride in that there’s no depressing streak of decade-long playoff misses, but it’s not much better. Since Charlotte got the franchise back in 2004, they’ve made the playoffs three times, only have three playoff wins and haven’t moved past the first round.

In fact, the last time Charlotte moved past the first round of the NBA playoffs was before LaMelo Ball was even born. Every team goes through changes. Some years are better than others. Success and failure usually come in clusters. What goes up must come down, right? For the Hornets, they can’t really say they’ve come down if they’ve never really gone up much to begin with. That all starts at the top, with the most recognizable face in NBA history.

But to put it bluntly, Michael Jordan hasn’t been the best at running professional basketball teams. Both on and off the court, Jordan’s efforts never got Washington back into the playoffs as he ran the ship. Since taking over operations in Charlotte strictly as an executive, it’s been more of the same.

When a team underperforms, the executive gets blamed for generally poor roster construction. For a team to have to consistently underperform as Charlotte has, it requires a much deeper dive for what the executive did wrong, like:

Missing on high lottery picks
– Turning down deals that could have changed the team’s fortunes
– Giving bloated contracts to role players that kill cap flexibility
– Failing to sell high on the best player when the ceiling’s already been reached

Above, those are all sins that Jordan is very much guilty of committing during his time down south, and it has made for some pretty miserable times in Buzz City. That was, until now. Charlotte heads into the All-Star break with a record of 17-18, which has been good enough for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Call it a so-so record, sure, but, boy, they’re fun to watch. A roster full of willing sharers, the Hornets dish it well – currently fourth in assists per game at 27.1 – while also consistently canning from deep, hitting on 38.5 percent from three, according to Basketball-Reference.

This might just be the most exciting Hornets team assembled since the days of Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. And it’s all thanks to… Michael Jordan?!

As it turns out, yes. After years of draft flops, max contract flops and a revolving door of head coaches, Jordan’s work as an executive has given the Hornets newfound stability. As unlikely as it sounds, Jordan might just be building a case for Executive of the Year.

Free Agency

Jordan has a pretty bad history with free agents. Mainly because of the top-dollar he has paid to keep role players on the roster. Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lamb come to mind. The point of emphasis is that he pays a lot to keep his free agents – but bringing in free agents is another story.

Michael Jordan’s history of luring free agents to Charlotte actually isn’t that bad. Before 2019, his most prominent free agent acquisitions were Al Jefferson, who made the 2014 All-NBA Third Team the following year, and Jeremy Lin, who played a role in Charlotte’s most extensive playoff run (technically) on a cheap contract.

Signing up Gordon Hayward on a four-year deal worth $120 million after all that had gone down in Boston certainly left people scratching their heads. And stretching Batum’s massive contract to make room for him on top of that? That meant paying $40 million give or take for Hayward.

If they were getting Boston Hayward, that was another disaster in a laundry list full of them. If they were getting Utah Hayward, it might be another story. So far, they’ve been getting the latter. Hayward’s been putting up pretty much identical numbers those from that last year with the Jazz.

He’s not the only castoff Celtic to thrive in Charlotte. Remember when (almost) everyone trashed the Terry Rozier sign-and-trade? That had to do more with the Kemba fallout (which, in all fairness, made Jordan look really short-sighted) combined with Rozier’s crummy last year in Boston.

Honestly, Rozier wasn’t that bad his first year in Charlotte. Since they weren’t really much more than an afterthought then, it didn’t matter. The Hornets are a League Pass favorite, so Terry Rozier has evolved from ‘Scary Terry’ to ‘Very Scary Terry’ and ain’t that just merry?

Growing into one of the league’s most killer three-point snipers has fueled a career year for Rozier. Averaging 20.5 points on 49/44/82 splits has proven to be quite the rebound from Walker. Again, Jordan acquired Rozier believing that his production in the 2018 playoffs was no fluke. Much like Hayward, he’s been proven right.

And they’re not even Charlotte’s main course.

Draft Successes

If there’s one thing Jordan gets wrong more than who he extends, it’s who he drafts. Even the best executives get a dud every now and then. For Jordan, it seems like clockwork.

Adam Morrison, DJ Augustin, Bismack Biyombo, Frank Kaminsky weren’t exactly hailed as good picks at the time, and they’ve only looked worse in hindsight.

Some of his failed picks weren’t seen as such at the time. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Noah Vonleh were praised when they were selected, they just didn’t work out. Even if Cody Zeller hasn’t done enough to justify being picked No. 3 in his draft, it’s not like those picked right after panned out much better. So in Jordan’s defense, some of his bad draft histories can be attributed to horrible luck.

Under Jordan’s tenure, the only Hornets pick before 2020 that panned out incredibly well for them was Walker. From 2006 to 2015, Jordan had a pretty rough stretch. That should all be put squarely in the past now because the last draft pick to flop under Jordan was Kaminsky.

He was picked over two franchise cornerstones, but Malik Monk is quietly having his best year as a professional. Miles Bridges is playing much more efficient basketball, despite lower overall numbers. An improved three-ball and block percentage have pegged PJ Washington as another potential undersized small-ball five in a league that craves them more than ever. But enough putting off the obvious.

Jordan snagging LaMelo Ball wasn’t deemed a bad move. In fact, there was a strong belief that he was Jordan’s smartest selection ever. Though his long frame and excellent vision gave him strong appeal, the iffy jumper and foreign competition bred questions if he could do it on the NBA level. He had the highest ceiling out of everyone in the draft but there were no guarantees. No one knew if Ball was going to reach it – and if he would,  he’d need time to do it.

Since James Borrego moved Ball to the starting lineup at the beginning of February, he’s averaged 20.7 points on 46/44/85 splits to do with 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and nearly 2 steals per game. In just half a season, Ball looks like he is the centerpiece of Charlotte’s future.

Ball has lived up to expectations and then some. He’s played so well that the man upstairs admits that he wasn’t expecting the kid to be this good. After years of trying and failing to get that young superstar, it appears MJ’s search is finally over.

Not every brilliant move an executive makes is a slam dunk from the get-go, especially when you’re managing a small market team. In order to be with the best of the best, there must be risks as means of aiming for a higher end.

Jordan hasn’t quite escaped his front office label but the Hornets’ roster construction no longer operates on the sunk-cost fallacy as it did throughout the 2010s. Simply put, for them, it has proven to be Jordan’s best work.

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: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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