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NBA PM: Jamal Crawford Shining With Clippers

Jamal Crawford is having yet another dominant season and he’s the favorite to win this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award

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Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford is 33 years old and this is his 14th season in the NBA, yet somehow he continues to improve from year to year. While other veterans show signs of decline, Crawford continues to strike fear in the opposition with his humiliating crossovers and jaw-dropping scoring ability.

“It’s weird, but I feel like I’m still getting better,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “Now that I’m 14 years in, some people have been like, ‘Why are you still playing?’ A lot of guys start to plateau at that point or start to [decline], but I feel like I’m still getting better. I love the game of basketball. I’m entrenched in it every single day whether I’m playing it or watching it or talking basketball. For me, it’s still fun. It’s fun to work and see yourself get better. For me, I feel like I can do this for a very long time; God willing, no major injuries.”

This season, Crawford is putting up numbers on par with the best seasons of his career. He’s averaging 18.6 points, 3.3 assists and one steal, as well as the second-highest efficiency rating of his career (17.8). His 29.2 points per 48 minutes rank 12th in the NBA and second among shooting guards (behind only Houston’s James Harden). Crawford is also one of the top clutch players in the league, averaging the third-most points per fourth quarter (6.7 points).

Crawford also has a number of signature performances under his belt this season. He had 31 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds off of the bench in a win over the Sacramento Kings in late November. He also had 37 points and 11 assists off of the bench in a win over the Toronto Raptors in late January. No other bench player in NBA history has recorded 31 points and 11 assists in a game, yet Crawford did it twice in a two-month span. Crawford is the favorite to win this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award, which would be his second Sixth Man trophy after winning it in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta. However, he’s focused on a bigger goal: winning a championship.

“It would be a wonderful honor,” Crawford said of winning the Sixth Man of the Year award. “Whenever you can get an award, I think it means that your team is successful and you’re having a pretty good season with that. I’m not against it by any means at all, but I’m not playing for it. I’m just playing to win. I’m having fun playing basketball and learning more about the game from my coaches and teammates. It’s still fun for me, especially to see improvement and to see how I can get better. I’m playing to win, and that’s the only thing that really matters to me. Everything else that comes with it, I’ll take it in stride. It would be a total team accomplishment. No matter what awards you win in the season, all that matters is winning the championship.”

Crawford and the Clippers believe that they have what it takes to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this season. L.A. is currently 37-18, which is good for the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

“We feel like when we’re really playing our best, we can play with anybody in the league,” Crawford said. “Not to make a cocky statement or anything, we just like our chances. Of course, we have room for growth down the stretch here. We have to get guys healthy and we have to continue to build our trust on both sides of the ball every single night – that’s what we’re working towards. But I like our chances, I really do. I feel like the West is a dog fight every single night so that kind of helps keep you on your toes. The injuries we had were unfortunate, but they caused us to come together and become more of a close-knit group, so that was one blessing. We’re just going to keep growing every single day and then go from there.”

The team continued to play well even after Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury on Jan. 3. Crawford believes the injuries to key players like Paul and J.J. Redick will help the Clippers in the long run since other players had to step up and it forced the Clippers to battle through adversity under head coach Doc Rivers.

“I think it was a blessing in disguise because, while you never want to lose anyone to injury especially someone of Chris’ magnitude or J.J. earlier in the season, those guys got a chance to watch us grow,” Crawford said. “We had no choice but to grow without them. Doc said he’s lost guys like that before, losing [Paul] Pierce for games here and there and losing KG [Kevin Garnett] here and there, but he said, ‘We’re going to be a no excuse team.’ No matter who’s out there, those are the guys who we’re going to go to war with. We tried to do that and hold down the fort. Blake was more of a vocal leader and was able to grow. And Chris, watching from afar, was able to see the growth of some of us and how we can help him so he doesn’t have to make every single play. He is the best point guard in the league, but still, if we can lighten the load off of him a little bit and everybody steps up a little bit more, I think our team will be better because of it.”

Crawford has been extremely impressed with Coach Rivers and his staff, and he credits them for his success this year.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Crawford said of Rivers. “Watching him all of those years in Boston and even back in Orlando, I knew he was good, but you don’t know how good he is until you’re around him every single day. That’s what we’re experiencing with him now and he’s unbelievable. … I worked really hard over the summer to improve, but I think a lot of it is that Doc has put me and my teammates in positions to be successful. I think I’m a much better player thanks to him and his staff, and a more well-rounded player as far as rebounding, defending, making plays and scoring; I think I’m the best player that I’ve ever been and there’s a direct correlation between that and the arrival of Doc and his staff.”

The development of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan has also been a huge factor in the Clippers’ success this season. Crawford has been blown away with how much they have improved.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Crawford said of Griffin’s development. “If you just watch Blake from a distance, I guess you may say it’s just all about dunks and highlights, but people don’t see how he understands all of the intricacies of the game, the subtle passes, the screens, the charges he takes, the 15-foot jump shots, the 17-foot jump shots, everything he does for our team. It’s just been unbelievable. He’s such a hard worker, and to see how good he’s gotten in such a short amount of time, it’s been fun to watch and be a part of. The second Chris went down, we kind of looked at each other like, ‘Okay, we’re going to have to carry the load.’ Everybody else has definitely stepped up and played their part. We win as a team and lose as a team. But Blake, DeAndre [Jordan] and I definitely felt that we had to take on more of a leadership role.”

Without missing a beat, Crawford proceeded to praise Jordan’s development as well.

“He should have been an All-Star this year, there’s no question about it,” Crawford said of Jordan. “He should have been an All-Star. He gets 15 to 20 rebounds on any given night. He’s always covering our backs on defense. He does so much for this team. I told him yesterday, every time he even rolls hard, he opens up the floor for our shooters. He spaces the court so well because everybody is scared of how he rolls because they’re thinking about the possibility of getting dunked on. He’s been an All-Star-level player this year and hopefully he’ll win Most Improved Player or be right there at the end.”

Crawford and the Clippers have been impressive this season and they have as good a shot as any team to come out of the loaded Western Conference.

Van Gundy Doesn’t Believe Hayward is a Max Player

Former Orlando Magic head coach and NBA analyst Stan Van Gundy doesn’t believe that Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward is a max-contract player. He made that clear in a recent interview with 1280 AM in Utah.

“There are a lot of people out there that seemed to think this guy was going to go for near max money,” Van Gundy said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “I don’t see that, myself. I think he’s a very good player, very athletic, can do a lot of things. But I think the way the game is going, a perimeter guy who is not a good shooter, not a real good shooter, I think that limits his value in today’s game.”

Van Gundy said that he believes he’s worth “a little bit above the mid-level exception,” or about $6.5 million to $7 million.

“But from what I’ve heard, he’s going to get a lot more than that interest-wise,” he added.

For what it’s worth, Hayward says he isn’t thinking about the contract since it’s out of his control. He’s just focused on playing the best basketball that he can.

“I don’t really think about it directly, about the contract,” Hayward said. “I think about going out there and trying to prove my value in the league.”

“We’re trying to get better as individuals, as a team,” he added. “For a lot of us, it’s a contract year. Guys are not only playing for us, but because it’s a business, they’re playing for everybody else.”

This season, Hayward is averaging 16 points, five rebounds and five assists a game while shooting 40 percent from the floor.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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