Nearly three weeks into the season, here’s a look around the NBA landscape, with ten observations ranging in impact from having a direct effect on the chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, teams who are exceeding or failing to meet expectations, examining the play of some of the league’s top rookies, taking note of milestone accomplishments and much more.
1. The Return of the Slim Reaper
In the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason opener against the Washington Wizards, it quickly became evident Kevin Durant is the same player he was before tearing his Achilles. He was slithering through the defense, stopping on a dime for pull-up jump shots and getting to the rim in a couple of strides.
Then, during a Christmas matchup against the Boston Celtics, Durant erupted for 16 points in the third quarter. He finished with 29 points, helping the Nets earn a 123-95 win. In Brooklyn’s next game, the former MVP poured in a season-high 33 points, en route to a 145-141 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
The only questions Durant has left to answer are how he’ll hold up as we get deeper into the season, and later, as the Nets advance further into the playoffs. Those questions are matters of durability. In terms of performance, Durant’s playing like an MVP candidate.
2. Joel Embiid, Early-Season MVP
The early-season front runners for MVP are Joel Embiid and Durant. You can certainly argue the latter’s in the lead, but the former is an offensive force who’s also making a compelling opening statement in his case for Defensive Player of the Year.
Defensive stats are flawed, so it’s best to avoid relying on one or two of them to paint the entire picture of how a team or individual is performing on that end. Yet, across the board, Embiid’s registering numbers that speak glowingly about the impact he’s making defensively. According to Basketball-Reference, Embiid’s yielding the third-fewest points per 100 possessions.
Additionally, he ranks fifth in defensive win shares and eighth in defensive box plus-minus. Embiid’s blocking 1.8 shots per game this season, the seventh-most in the NBA, and he’s corralling 10 defensive rebounds per game, which are the third-most in the league.
Offensively, Embiid’s producing 24.6 points per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the field and averaging nine free-throw attempts per contest, which are the fourth-most in the NBA, and he’s converting them at an 83.3 percent clip. Though the sample size is small, Embiid’s shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc while taking a respectable three attempts per game. For the last three years, he’s been a below-average three-point shooter.
What matters more for Embiid’s development and the Philadelphia 76ers’ title chances is his improvement in passing out of double teams in the low post. In previous years, he’s struggled to read where the second defender was coming from or how the defense would subsequently rotate. Last season, he lost confidence his teammates would make opponents pay when he kicked it out to them after drawing two defenders.
Now, Embiid is flanked by Seth Curry, who’s a career 44.9 percent three-point shooter that’s splashing 59.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season. He’s also showing trust in Danny Green, a career 40 percent three-point shooter that is converting 37.7 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season.
This season is in its infancy and the Sixers have mostly feasted on bad teams. But surrounded by players who are well-suited to complement Embiid’s game, he’s playing the best ball of his career, turning in an MVP-caliber performance that’s helped place Philadelphia in a four-way tie atop the NBA standings. For further reading, that’s even why Basketball Insiders’ Drew Maresca is calling to speed up the process.
3. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are Evolving
Jayson Tatum has an impressive ability to get significantly better at weaker parts of his game during the season. Last November, he shot 51.9 percent at the rim, and he took considerable flak for it. The next month, Tatum improved by 11 percent.
Being named an All-Star lifted a weight off Tatum’s shoulders, and his game subsequently soared to new heights. As his scoring average rose to over 25 points per game after receiving that validation, Tatum had to adapt to regularly dealing with double teams; especially, when operating out of the pick-and-roll.
Here’s an update on how that’s going:
Tatum’s also working on breaking his habit of settling for step-back three-pointers with the game on the line. Fortunately for him, a week after that exact shot clanked off the rim, sealing a 108-107 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Tatum got an opportunity to redeem himself.
As for the other half of Boston’s burgeoning duo, Jaylen Brown, who’s even more impressive off the court than he is on it, continues to maximize his time in the offseason to achieve significant growth every year.
With Kemba Walker injured and Gordon Hayward now on the Charlotte Hornets, the Celtics rely more heavily on Brown to facilitate their offense. He’s risen to the challenge, demonstrating improved handles and better court vision, allowing him to create quality scoring chances for himself and his teammates.
Brown’s averaging 26.3 points per game; shooting 59 percent from inside the arc, while taking 5.7 three-point attempts per game and connecting on 42.1 percent of them. After never dishing out more than 2.1 assists per game in the first four years of his career, the 24-year-old is averaging 3.5 assists per contest to start this season.
All four of those teams made it to the Finals, and three of them won championships.
Just sayin' 🤷♂️https://t.co/iRJnq8tsXT
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) January 9, 2021
4. The Improving New York Knicks
One of Tom Thibodeau’s strengths is he can immediately change the culture of a franchise. In his first season with the Chicago Bulls, the team won 62 games, tying the NBA record for the most wins by a rookie head coach. He was named Coach of the Year, and the Bulls won their first division title since Michael Jordan was on their roster.
In 2018, in his second season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he helped guide the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
Fast forward to this season, and while it’s early in the campaign, it’s clear the New York Knicks are reaping the benefits of buying into what Thibs is preaching.
They beat the Milwaukee Bucks by 20 points and came from behind to earn road wins against the Pacers and the Hawks. Those two victories away from Madison Square Garden, along with their home win over the Utah Jazz, meet NBA.com’s definition of clutch wins, meaning the game was within five points in the final five minutes.
The Knicks performed so well in crunch time of those games, their plus-minus rate in the clutch is seven, which is second-best in the category.
That is the result of a stingy defense yielding 3.7 points per game in its first three opportunities of the season to play in contests that came down to the wire. Furthermore, New York has yet to allow a point off a turnover, fast break, or surrendered a second-chance basket in the clutch. The Knicks’ late-game success is also a testament to an offense that ranks in the top 10 in crunch-time scoring, averaging 10.7 points in those wins against Indiana, Atlanta and Utah.
In terms of individual performances, RJ Barrett is averaging 17.3 points per game, and opponents can’t keep him out of the paint, where he’s scoring 55.1 percent of his buckets. Those drives to the paint are often getting Barrett to the foul line – and he’s averaging 5.1 free-throw attempts per game and converting on those opportunities at a 71.7 percent clip.
As for the rest of his game, the former third overall pick is averaging 7.2 rebounds per game, 3.2 assists per contest and he’s contesting 4.6 three-point attempts per game, which ranks fifth in the association, and is a sure-fire way to win over his new head coach.
Barrett’s also forming an effective tandem with Julius Randle:
Speaking of Randle, he is playing like an All-Star, averaging 22.6 points, 12 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game, which is a testament to him passing up shots to play a more unselfish brand of basketball. Randle’s also exerting more energy defensively, limiting opponents to 105 points per 100 possessions. The sample size is small right now, New York has played nine games, but his defensive rating is lower than it has ever been in his career.
The Knicks are also getting quality minutes from their point guards: Elfrid Payton’s producing 14.8 points, 4.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. Austin Rivers is generating 13 points per contest while shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc, providing much-needed spacing for the likes of Barrett and Randle. And rookie point guard, Immanuel Quickley, is off to an impressive start to his NBA career, including a 16-point performance against the Hawks, a game he played 18:47 minutes.
Barrett and Randle ranking first and second in minutes per game, respectively, is concerning, yet not a surprise, considering who their coach is. However, the Knicks are off to an expectation-defying start to the season, and Thibodeau appears to be living up to his reputation as a head coach who can quickly change a franchise’s culture.
5. Standout Rookies
Anthony Edwards: 15.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists
The decision to make Anthony Edwards a part of the second unit is paying off for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s shooting 51.4 percent from inside the arc, and while he has a lot of work to do to round out his game, averaging 26.3 minutes and not having to deal with the opposition’s starters as often as he would be if he were starting, helps that cause.
James Wiseman: 11 points, 6 rebounds, 1.7 blocks
James Wiseman’s NBA career is off to an impressive start. As a shot blocker, he times his leap well, and he can quickly cover a lot of ground around the rim. Wiseman runs the floor well in transition, and he generates easy points for the Golden State Warriors when he dives to the cup. If the defense leaves him open from beyond the arc, he’ll make them pay for that decision, as evidenced by him shooting 42.9 percent on 1.6 three-point attempts per game. And as if that wasn’t enough to earn the second overall pick rave reviews, he’s also comfortable making plays off the dribble.
Simply put, Wiseman looks like the total package.
LaMelo Ball: 12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists
On Jan. 9, Ball became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, putting together a 22-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist performance.
Ball’s three-point shooting and his defense are noticeable blemishes, but he’s a 19-year-old rookie who’s ten games into his NBA career. He has a preternatural feel for the game and delivers highlight-reel passes with regularity.
Deni Avdija: 7.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists
The ninth pick in the draft has started every game for the Washington Wizards, making a positive impact on both ends of the floor.
Deni Avdija’s 6-foot-9, he sets his feet quickly and he has a fast release. That combination makes it difficult for defenders to challenge his shot. What’s worse for his opponents is he’s knocking down 45.7 percent of his three-point attempts. Shortly, expect him to increase his current average of 3.5 shots from beyond the arc per game.
The other part of Avdija’s offensive repertoire that requires mentioning is he’s a flashy passer, especially off the dribble.
Defensively, Avdija’s effort doesn’t wane. According to NBA.com, he’s contesting 7.5 shots per game, which is the fourth-most among rookies this season. He’s also averaging 1.9 deflections and 1.1 steals per game.
The Wizards have gotten off to a slow start this season, and even their most optimistic fans probably don’t envision them getting past the first round of the playoffs. However, Avdija’s play has been a bright spot, and he’s quickly proving he can be a part of this team’s turnaround.
Tyrese Haliburton: 12.1 points, 5.5 assists, 1.4 steals
Tyrese Haliburton is playing like he’s a 10-year veteran. He has a tremendous feel for the game, he’s decisive, and he’s a threat with and without the ball.
At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-7.5 wingspan, Haliburton’s long strides allow him to quickly get to the basket, where he effectively utilizes his length to finish at the rim. As a shooter, despite unorthodox mechanics, the former Iowa State Cyclone is averaging 4.8 three-point attempts per game and making 50 percent of them. His deep range permits him plenty of space when he shoots, but when defenders close in on him, he’s unfazed.
Defensively, even when shooters create space against Haliburton, his length typically allows him to recover quickly enough to challenge their shots.
Payton Pritchard: 8.6 points, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals
The most surprising name on this list is Payton Pritchard. He plays like a veteran point guard, rarely picking up his dribble, patiently probing the defense until he finds a weakness to exploit.
Pritchard’s provided the Boston Celtics with a much-needed boost off the bench, serving as the catalyst for their comeback win over the Pacers and tipping in the game-winning shot against the Miami HEAT.
For more on how this season’s freshman class is performing, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco wrote in-depth about the race for Rookie of the Year.
6. Steph Curry’s 62-Point Bonanza
In a Jan. 3 showdown with the Portland Trail Blazers, Steph Curry put on a scoring clinic en route to a career-high 62 points, which remains the highest individual scoring output in the NBA this season.
Curry was in rhythm from the opening tip, setting the tone for his milestone performance by scoring 21 points in the first quarter. The two-time MVP had 31 at the half and 45 after three quarters. Curry scored 17 points in the final frame, guiding the Warriors to a 137-122 win.
The anatomy of Curry’s career night is as follows: He shot 58.1 percent from the field, made eight of his 16 three-pointers and converted 18 of his 19 free-throw attempts. This season is in its infancy stage, yet it would hardly be a surprise if no one tops Curry’s performance.
7. Bradley Beal’s Career Night
The Washington Wizards don’t win many games, but no matter how much they’re trailing by, they seem capable of making the matchup competitive. That is mostly thanks to Bradley Beal, who in a Jan. 6 tilt with the Sixers, nearly helped his team overcome what at one point was a 21-point deficit by going supernova for the first three-quarters of a career-high, 60-point performance.
In the opening frame, Beal had 13 points. He finished the first half with 32. Entering the fourth quarter, Beal had 57 and seemed poised to break Gilbert Arenas’ franchise scoring record of 60 points. Surprisingly, in the final frame, Beal shot 1-for-6 from the field, missed all three of his three-point attempts and he went just 1-for-2 in his lone trip to the free-throw line, meaning he had to settle for tying rather than surpassing the franchise’s single-game scoring record.
At the end of the Wizards’ nearly miraculous comeback win in Philadelphia, Beal had made 20 of his 35 field goals, good for 57.1 percent. He hit 7-for-10 on three-point attempts and 13 of his 15 free throws. For good measure, Beal also chipped in seven rebounds and five assists – but will he end the year as a Wizard?
8. The Chris Paul Effect
Where Chris Paul goes, winning follows. After missing the playoffs his first two seasons in the NBA, his team has only failed to make the postseason once in the last 12 years. Now, the future Hall of Fame floor general is elevating the Phoenix Suns, who are in a tie for the league’s best record.
Paul is averaging 13.2 points, 8.5 assists, the fourth-most in the league, and 4.6 rebounds per game. The stingy Suns are yielding just 106.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks seventh in the association. Offensively, they’re scoring 112.5 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-most in the league. That two-way production has led to Phoenix having the fourth-highest net rating in the NBA.
Paul is an ideal option to run the point alongside the Suns’ young cornerstones, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and catch-and-shoot three-point threats such as Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder. They’re making the 15-year veteran’s job easier; in turn, each one of them is benefitting from playing off the nine-time All-NBA point guard.
9. Toronto Raptors Stumbling Out of the Gates
Even those anticipating the Toronto Raptors would regress after finishing with the second-best record in the NBA last season probably didn’t forecast them losing six of their first seven games to start the 2020-21 campaign.
Eight games into their season, they have the fourth-worst record.
As the first team to arrive at the Orlando bubble, the Raptors spent two grueling months there. They had little time to recover, thanks to a condensed offseason, and they’re playing their home games in Tampa Bay this season, creating more strain than usual for organization members who didn’t bring their families with them.
In the offseason, Serge Ibaka signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Marc Gasol joined the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors signed Aron Baynes to start at center, yet he’s getting outplayed by Chris Boucher, who’s slender frame restricts how head coach Nick Nurse can utilize him.
While Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet continue to perform at a high level, Pascal Siakam is yet to shake off the struggles that plagued him in the bubble. The Raptors need Siakam, whose $130 million maximum contract extension kicked in this season, to snap out of his funk. Perhaps, his 32-point performance against the Suns is a sign he’s thawing out from his ice-cold start to the season.
10. Los Angeles Lakers’ New Additions Fitting in Seamlessly
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are wisely pacing themselves with the big picture in mind. They’re also two of the best players in the league, meaning they can still average over 20 points and eight rebounds per game.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ new additions, Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, and Wesley Matthews, are veterans who know their roles, helping them mesh quickly with James and Davis.
Though Talen Horton-Tucker isn’t new to the team, he’s already played in more games than he did as a rookie, and he’s contributing quality minutes as well as 7.1 points per game this season. He’s another new member of the Lakers’ rotation, helping keep them atop the Western Conference standings without taxing its superstar duo, which should pay dividends in the postseason.
While the season is still in the early goings, there’s plenty of worthwhile tidbits to dig through. From impressive rookies to future all-timers, the NBA and it’s revolving carousel of parity never fails to disappoint – and it hasn’t thus far through a fraction of the frantic 2020-21 campaign.
NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.
The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.
But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.
After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.
“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.
“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”
One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.
They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.
With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”
In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.
“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”
A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.
He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.
“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”
NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch
The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.
Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?
The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.
The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.
The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.
The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.
Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.
New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.
If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.
One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.
The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.
NBA Coach of the Year Watch – April 14
With the final quarter of the NBA season here, a few names have emerged as the favorites for Coach of the Year; who are they? And what are their chances of winning the award come the end of the season?
The NBA season is hitting its final stretch, and teams are gearing up to make a run at the postseason. With the season nearing its conclusion, who is in the running for the NBA end-of-season awards are becoming clearer and clearer.
Today, Basketball Insiders will take a look at the four candidates that have become clear favorites for Coach of the Year and break down why they’re in the running.
The Utah Jazz’s Quin Snyder currently appears to be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award. Snyder has led the Jazz to the best record in the Western Conference and the NBA at an astounding 40-14. Snyder has become a favorite because he is doing this with nearly the same roster as last season, a team that went 44-28 and was the six seed in the Western Conference.
The Jazz have emerged as dominant on both offense and defense, holding the fourth-best defensive ranking and second-best offensive rating in the NBA. Snyder has been instrumental in the improvement of the young players on his roster. Donovan Mitchell is having the best season of his career, averaging 26.3 points and 5.3 assists per game and Rudy Gobert himself is one of the favorites to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s also managed to get top-tier production from Jordan Clarkson, who seems like a runaway favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, putting up 17.2 points per game in 51 bench appearances.
While there are other coaches with solid resumes, at this point, it’s Snyder’s award to lose. If the Jazz keep the foot to the throttle for the last quarter of the season and remain at the top of the NBA, it’s hard to see Snyder losing to anyone.
The other person who has a good shot at winning the award is the coach of the NBA’s second-best team, Monty Williams. Williams – the coach of the Phoenix Suns – has had an equally impressive season as Snyder, leading the Suns to a 38-15 record, good for second in both the Western Conference and the NBA. Williams gains points because he is coaching an exceptionally young team; Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges are 24-years-old and Deandre Ayton is just 22. That’s a lot of wins for a team starting three players under 25 nearly every game.
Williams loses some points, however, due to the Suns just not having as impressive a statistical team. The Suns are behind the Jazz in both offensive and defensive rating, seventh in offense and fifth in defense. Both excellent marks, but not at the same level of excellence as Snyder’s Jazz. Williams also gets docked some points because, unlike the Jazz, the Suns made a major offseason pickup, grabbing veteran point guard Chris Paul from the Thunder. Paul’s presence has been a game-changer for Phoenix, and his play has elevated the games of all of his young teammates.
Williams has a real shot at winning Coach of the Year, but as of now, Snyder marginally has the edge. But there is still plenty of time left in the season, and Williams could snatch the award from Snyder if the Suns make a late push or the Jazz find themselves faltering.
Steve Nash deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in his first year as the Brooklyn Nets head coach. Nash has helped keep the Nets not only competitive but elite despite all three of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missing significant time this year. The Nets are second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 36-17 and are considered one of the favorites to win the NBA Championship, if healthy.
Despite Nash’s great work as a first-year head coach, he is a bit less of a favorite than both Williams and Snyder. The trio of Durant, Harden and Irving has a combined 27 All-Star appearances, 18 All-NBA appearances and two MVPs; excellence was the expectation for this group. Nash has done a great job keeping the Nets afloat despite injuries and many, many off-court dramas, but his roster alone compared to those of Williams and Snyder, makes it a touch more difficult for him to win the award. Nash is also at the helm of one of the worst defenses in the NBA, with the Nets clocking in at 25th in the league in defensive rating. While the Nets offense could very well be the best in the league, it’ll be difficult to win the award with a defense performing that poorly.
Nash is still a contender even if he isn’t at the same level as those listed above. Nash just needs things out of his control to happen to get him back in the running. If both the Jazz and Suns struggle down the stretch, and the Nets thrive, Nash could find himself winning Coach of the Year in his rookie season.
It’s been a hell of a renaissance for Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers had a tough stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, ending his seven-year run there with an embarrassing second-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets. Now in Philadelphia, Rivers has coached the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 37-17. Rivers has turned the 76ers into a defensive juggernaut, rocking the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, a 107.2. Their defense is anchored by MVP candidate Joel Embiid and three-time All-Star Ben Simmons. Rivers has also gotten major contributions from Tobias Harris – who looked lost in his past few seasons in Philly – and former Dallas Maverick Seth Curry.
Rivers has done a great job helping turn around a team that looked like a mess just at the end of last season, but like Nash, he too falls a bit short of Snyder and Williams. Working against Rivers is the 76ers offense, which just hasn’t produced at the same level as both the Jazz and Suns. The 76ers have the 14th best offensive rating in the NBA of 112.2, while not bad, it’s also not good. Rivers also has a disadvantage through no fault of his own, having already won the award before and being an established name in the league for over a decade now, voters are just more likely to vote for the fresher names.
Rivers isn’t out of the race yet, and with a good push – and some help from other teams – Rivers could end up as the Coach of the Year come May. But, the 76ers will have to take a step forward on offense, or that will never become a reality.