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NBA PM: Hornets Adjusting to New Faces

The Hornets are getting new players acclimated and hoping this group can lead the team back to the playoffs.

Cody Taylor

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Hornets Adjusting to New Faces

Teams often use preseason basketball to do a lot of adapting. Coaches are able to get their first look at their players and how ready they are for the season. Some players come into training camp in peak condition, while others still need some more work.

Preseason also allows coaches to integrate new players acquired over the offseason into their system. They begin to formulate a plan for what each player’s role will be for the upcoming year.

For head coach Steve Clifford and the Charlotte Hornets, the weeks leading up to the October 28 regular season opener will be critical. The team underwent a lot of change over the summer. They brought in at least seven new players either by way of the draft, free agency or trades and each of those players figure to be significant contributors this season in one way or another.

Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lin, Tyler Hansbrough and Aaron Harrison headline the list of newcomers to the team. The number of new players on the team actually is much higher, factoring in the camp invites and players on non-guaranteed deals.

The Hornets have maintained a top-10 defense during the last two seasons under Clifford, and will be trying to keep that trend going for a third consecutive season. Clifford acknowledged that trying to replicate another stout defense is a concern given the amount of new players transitioning to the team. He’ll also be challenged to improve the offense, which has struggled during that same time frame.

“To be good and to become the team that I think we can, we need to be good at both sides of the ball,” Clifford said. “Two years ago, for instance, we were sixth in defense and 24th in offense. That got us into the playoffs, but we weren’t a factor, you know? If you look at most years, teams that go deep [in the playoffs], they’re top 10 in both.”

Perhaps one player who could have a much larger role than originally anticipated will be Lamb. The Hornets acquired Lamb from the Oklahoma City Thunder at the end of June in exchange for Luke Ridnour and a 2016 second-round pick. Clifford spoke very highly of Lamb and has high expectations for him this season.

“We picked him up the last week in June [and] he was in Charlotte by the third week in July [and] he’s been there ever since,” Clifford said. “He’s worked hard in the weight room [and has] worked hard on the court. I think he understands where he’s at in his career and he’s done a good job. The thing that has surprised me is he’s a much better pick-and-roll player than I realized. He’s got size, he can pass off of the dribble so that’s an aspect of his game that hopefully we can utilize that I didn’t know he had.”

Lamb’s hard work over the offseason seemed to pay off in the Hornets’ first game of the preseason on Saturday as he dropped 16 points and went 5-of-10 from the field against the Orlando Magic. He failed to see any significant time with the Thunder, as he averaged just 13.5 minutes in 47 contests last season. Trades can often be refreshing for players, as it provides a new opportunity to earn more playing time and a chance to kick start their careers.

“I wasn’t on the court really at all last season, so this season’s approach is definitely different,” Lamb said. “[I’m] more focused [and] they’ve really welcomed me. … Right when I heard the news that I got traded, I came and spent as much time [in Charlotte] as I could. I think everybody is invested in the team and I’ve gotten to know everybody. I think everybody is just locked in. Thank God that I’m in a good situation; I was praying for a good situation.”

The team received a blow to their high expectations this season when it was announced that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder against the Magic on Saturday. The team hasn’t announced an official timetable for his return, but it was reported by Yahoo! Sports on Monday that Kidd-Gilchrist will need shoulder surgery and likely miss the entire 2015-16 season.

His presence has strongly impacted games. The Hornets are 62-55 with Kidd-Gilchrist in the lineup and are 14-33 without him over the past two seasons. He’s perhaps one of their best defenders as the team posted a 96.3 defensive rating while he was on the court, compared to a 104.1 rating when he was off of the court.

One way the Hornets will try to get past the loss of Kidd-Gilchrist and improve the offense will be to take more three-point shots. The team has finished 28th and 24th in offensive efficiency in Clifford’s two previous years as head coach. He’s trying to change that this season by drawing up more plays for his players to take more three-point shots.

After two games this preseason, the Hornets have taken 60 three-point shots and have converted on 40 percent of those shots. Last season, the team averaged only 19 attempts per game, while they’ve averaged 30 so far in two preseason games. Players like Batum, Lamb, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lin, Marvin Williams and Kemba Walker will be asked to take those shots as they all boast career three-point averages of at least 32 percent.

Clifford will also be tasked to integrate rookie Frank Kaminsky into the lineup. He played in just 10 minutes on Saturday, and then 28 minutes on Sunday against the Miami HEAT. Clifford said he does plan on using Kaminsky next to Jefferson throughout the season, but isn’t sure yet exactly how much time he’ll see.

“He’s going to be very, very good,” Clifford said. “He’s still got to figure out the NBA game. … It’s not going to take him that long to be good. Most guys that can come into this league and play right away, if you think about it, are physically-dominating players. So, in my time, [Dwyane] Wade was terrific right away. LeBron [James]. Carmelo [Anthony] was terrific right away. [Damian] Lillard was terrific. Those guys were all physically ready to compete and he has the skill level, the toughness [and] basketball IQ; he’s just not physically as ready as those guys were. Once he gets that, he’ll be ready to help us.”

There is still much to be figured out for the Hornets before the regular season gets under way. The team figures to be among those in the race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but with one of their best players likely missing most of the season, it remains to be seen just how competitive they’ll be. It’ll be Jefferson, Walker and Batum others shouldering the load offensively, with contributions coming in from others. If the team can continue to be a great defensive team and see an improvement on offense, they could become a dangerous squad in the East.

New-Look Trail Blazers Impress in Loss to Kings

Despite losing to the Sacramento Kings on Monday night, the Portland Trail Blazers gave fans some excitement and optimism during their first preseason game.

Five players scored in double figures for the Blazers, but it was newcomers Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh that stole the show. Harkless scored 14 points to go along with six rebounds, two steals and two assists, while Vonleh added 12 points and 11 rebounds (including nine offensive rebounds).

“Noah played really well,” said head coach Terry Stotts. “He had a couple of easy ones inside that I think, if they’d gone in, we might have been able to pull out a win. But he has a knack around the basket and he finds the ball. Noah was getting offensive rebounds, obviously. To get 11 rebounds and nine offensively was pretty impressive. What he’s been doing in October, he’s doing what he needs to do. He’s a conscientious worker and he’s attentive and just trying to learn.”

Other players on the team have been raving about the addition of Harkless. He’s had a great camp thus far and is living up to the expectations as a player that can do it all.

“[I] definitely just want to build on tonight and just keep on improving and showing what I can do,” Harkless said. “I can do a little bit of everything, so I’m trying to show what I can do and just get better at every little part of my game.”

Harkless and Vonleh were just part of the turnover the Blazers underwent this offseason. They most notably lost LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs, but also lost three additional starters as well. With so much turnover, the team isn’t projected by many to make a return to the postseason.

However, if Monday’s outcome is any indication on how the season could go, the Trail Blazers appear to be in good shape. In addition to Harkless and Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis and Tim Frazier all had solid showings as well.

Frazier is battling Phil Pressey for the backup point guard spot behind Lillard and further helped his cause of remaining on the team after Monday’s game. He finished with nine points (on 3-of-4 shooting from three-point range), three assists and three rebounds.

Although it was just the first preseason game, a lot of positives were drawn from the game, which left Stotts happy.

“Obviously, you always want to win games but I thought we took a lot of positives away,” Stotts said. “I liked our defense, particularly in the first half. We did a lot of good things offensively. We moved the ball really well and created opportunities. I thought the first half, it was good basketball. We got off to a little slow start in the second half, but I thought everybody that got in the game, they competed and, for the most part, played the right way.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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