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NBA PM: Los Angeles Lakers’ Progress Report

Jabari Davis examines why progress is more important than their overall record as he looks at the Los Angeles Lakers through the first third of their season.

Jabari Davis

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We continue our early season progress reports with today’s look at the Los Angeles Lakers. If you haven’t already, check out Tommy Beer’s breakdown of the New York Knicks from last week.

When attempting to grade the progress of this young and developing team, it is important to remember the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts just yet. The Lakers may have lost their last eight games, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already shown a great deal of progress from last season.

It’s also just as paramount to maintain perspective about their ultimate progress being the most significant factor in a season like this, whether you are in the midst of some unexpected, early season success or the predictable difficulties that every team endures over the course of an 82-game season. Especially when it comes to a team with so much youth at its core, don’t get too high on the highs nor low on the inevitable low points that are bound to come as the NBA’s pendulum of organizational growth swings back and forth.

The Lakers have done a good job of finally matching the right type of talent with the appropriate coach and at the proper time, but need to also maintain the patience they’ve exhibited to this point as things continue to come to fruition with this group. After finally hitting their proverbial and quite literal “rock bottom” as a franchise at the conclusion of 2015-16, the Los Angeles Lakers appear to have actually sprung back towards the surface a lot faster than some may have anticipated. That doesn’t, however, mean they don’t still have a ton of work to do moving forward.

Here is a look at the 2016-17 Lakers through just about one-third of the season (all stats as of 12/14/16):

Starting Lineup:

Timofey Mozgov: C

All of these ratings will factor in what our expectations might have been for a player, what the perception about a player has been and what the actual reality has been for this player thus far through nearly 35 percent of the season. All of that is to say that while much was made of the timing of Mozgov’s deal and the amount of money he received (a reported four years, $64 million), the reality is he’s actually been an improvement over the level of play they’ve recently received from that position and has been a positive fit with the group. Coincidentally, for the “Mozgov’s making how much?!?” crowd from over the summer, his per-36-minute numbers are pretty much in line with that of an average center in today’s NBA, much like the terms of his deal.

Although the actual productivity (8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per contest) isn’t “bad” for the amount of time he’s playing, you would like to see a bit more of a defensive impact when he’s actually on the floor. The Lakers completely lack a defensive identity at this point, and while no single player can be faulted for the myriad issues on that end they’ve displayed at times, they’ll need to individually embrace the idea of also being a part of the change for the better on the less glamorous side of the court. The Lakers still seem to get bullied in the paint with a frequency this coaching staff cannot possibly be comfortable with, and Mozgov has to share in the responsibility for that as well. Opposing players shoot 49.3 percent when directly against Mozgov, and the 30-year-old center ranks behind the likes of Jahlil Okafor (43 percent), Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky (44.7 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (45.7 percent) in the category.

As a veteran player, Mozgov needs to do his part in shoring up a defense that is currently surrendering 111 points per game and a league-worst 54.2 percent on two-point shots.

Luol Deng: C-

If Deng, himself, were to grade the first few weeks of the season, he probably would not have been very satisfied with the results. Fans and the organization alike would likely be in agreement if all were being honest and forthright. Whether a result of being slowed by nagging leg or lower extremity issues from the preseason, as has been speculated, or simply adjusting to life in a new city, organization and system, there were times (prior to his last stretch of games) where the question wasn’t, “How much more will he have in the tank by the time he’s 34 or 35?” Rather, it was already looking like, “What does he actually have left in the tank right now?”

He’s shown some life over the last seven games, scoring 16 or more points in three of them and shooting 40.9 percent from deep (9-22) over that stretch. It will be interesting to see whether the coaching staff elects to continue starting Deng (the lone player to start every game so far) now that players have returned to the rotation. The more comfortable rookie Brandon Ingram looks at this level, you’d think the more likely it would be for the coaching staff to at least consider moving Deng into even more of a support role. Regardless of where he plays in the lineup, they’ll need Deng to continue producing on both sides of the ball as he has of late.

Julius Randle: B-

Beyond showing noticeable improvement both as a finisher around the basket, Randle has continued providing the energy and effort that led to 39 double-doubles in his first 100 games in the NBA. Per NBA.com, that feat ranks him 26th among players since the 1982-83 season. His two-point percentage is at a career-high 51.8 percent (43.6 last year) and even though he’s only shooting 17.6 percent from beyond the arc, he’s at least attempting to settle into open looks here and there. He looks more comfortable facing the basket in general and has made better decisions when playmaking at times (his 3.3 APG are nearly double that of last season), but does still turn the ball over (2.8 TPG) a bit more than you’d like.

The Good:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D048sXB2Pcc

Randle is patient while sizing up and attacking a bigger man, absorbs the contact and knocks it down at the buzzer.

Randle plays really solid defense on Anthony in a late-clock situation and not only forces the pass, but puts a body on Joakim Noah to secure a rebound before taking it up court to start the break. That’s the versatility the Lakers are absolutely looking for from their 22-year-old power forward. (Footage via https://3ball.io/)

The Bad:

While under far more control than before, there are still times where Randle can get ahead of himself while in a playmaking situation. He’s trying to make the right play by getting it ahead to a fellow big man in Mozgov, but doesn’t execute the pass.

You absolutely take the bad with the good when it comes to Randle because more often than not, his positive contributions outweigh any errors he makes along the way. That said, you do still have to hope he continues developing as a defensive player along with adding to his offensive repertoire over the next few years. Even though the coaching staff has made playing defense without fouling a priority in terms of focus, the Lakers still find themselves ranked just 21st in the league here (20.9 team personal fouls per game) and are trending the wrong way during this losing streak.

This could sound like a repetitive theme by the end of these assessments, but Randle’s defensive impact remains a work in progress in his second year of full-time action. Randle called the team’s defensive efforts “embarrassing” following a recent loss to the New York Knicks, and the 22-year-old power forward has definitely emerged as a voice in the locker room that is willing to shoulder responsibility for some of the ongoing issues. The effort seems to be there on most nights, but a lack of focus and attention to detail applies to the entire roster.

Nick Young: B

In perhaps one of the bigger surprises in recent years when it comes to this team, Nick Young was able to completely reverse momentum and a pretty damning narrative when it came to his future certainly beyond the terms of a contract that ends following 2017-18. This is in part because of a total team buy-in to Coach Walton’s far more favorable offensive tempo and freedom, but mainly because Young was able to reverse what was an alarming trend of declining productivity and efficiency coinciding with off-court distractions – not the combination of attributes you want to be associated with when you are in year ten and heading into what could be the most lucrative period in the NBA’s history over the next decade.

Beyond the finances of it, Young has been able to mend all necessary fences and, most importantly, he’s been able to return to the form that caused this front office to sign him to the four-year deal back in 2014. Averaging 13.4 PPG, Young is actually on pace to shoot a career-high 45.3 and 91.9 percent from the floor and free throw line, respectively. He’s also knocking down his highest percentage from deep (39.5 percent on a career-high 6.2 attempts per contest) since the ‘09-10 season.

D’Angelo Russell: B-

When healthy, Russell has also been a player that has shown definite signs of improvement for the Lakers. The Lakers have to hope he can remain in the lineup moving forward, not only because they went 3-9 during the time he missed following a PRP treatment a few weeks back, but also because we’d all like to see what his continued progression might look like throughout his early career. Like most young players, and potentially more importantly than with any other player, Russell could be exponentially more effective and impactful if he took as much pride in becoming a better defender as he did in knocking down big shots and reminding us about how frosty his capillaries happen to be.

That might seem like a shot, but it is actually said with true respect to how special of a player he truly can be. At 15.3 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds (up to 38.7 percent from beyond the arc, 77.5 percent from the charity stripe), Russell has shown an ability to truly elevate his game on certain nights to the point where you can really start to believe the hype.

The key for Russell will be in finding a way to bring a consistent effort in all aspects of the game, whether he knocks down his first couple shots or is asked to impact the game in other ways. Although not the type of freakish athlete that imposes his will on the game like a Russell Westbrook, at 6-foot-5 Russell should be able to utilize his size and stature in certain matchups beyond just the occasional post-up or two.

Again, this is all viewed through the lens of Russell’s potential to continue to develop into a special player in this league. When he takes care of the ball and utilizes sound defensive principles, Russell possesses enough intangibles to impact the game in a plethora of positive ways regardless of how he’s shooting. When he’s hot from the floor and also looking to create for others while focusing in on the defensive end as well as he has on occasion thus far, Russell has given reason to disregard all outside noise and revisionist history about whether he should or should not have been the player the organization selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. Thing is, it’s up to Russell to continue proving why they made the right decision, and he certainly seems up to the challenge of at least attempting to do just that.

Reserves:

Larry Nance Jr: B

Nance Jr. has been a really nice rotation player for these Lakers (19th power forward league-wide in Real Plus-Minus), and part of why they’ve been one of the best bench units in the league all season. He’s a “hustle guy” who also has skills around the rim and with the ball in his hands. He plays the passing lanes, provides support as a weak side defender and is a willing and capable passer on the offensive end. Every team needs a team oriented, jack-of-all-trades guy willing to do the dirty and less heralded work that doesn’t always show up in the box score or on the highlight package.

https://vine.co/v/5QjBj9q6D7w

Oh yeah, he’ll also do that to you, too.

Although, the subsequent apology may or may not be something to expect.

Tarik Black: B

Every team needs a player willing to stick his nose into the action on defense and be happy to simply play clean-up duty on the offensive end, and Black is one of several guys the Lakers have to execute such a role.

He’s missed the last five games due to an ankle sprain, but Black’s relentless pace and effort had been a big part of what was working for this group to start the year. Black (32nd among centers in RPM) may only average 15.4 minutes per contest when available, but he tends to get his money’s worth in terms of action and production when on the court. In fact, along with impressive per-36 numbers (13.7 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.4 RPG), his per-100-possessions numbers are more impressive than some guys starting at the position around the league.

Brandon Ingram: C+

Ingram is a guy that came in being sold as a player with the potential to be an offensive weapon, but so far this coaching staff has actually been able to capitalize on the one-year Duke product’s well-rounded skill set. 

Ingram closes out well and avoids the foul, then grabs the rebound and pushes the ball up the length of the court in four dribbles.

The conclusion of the previous play, and although Ingram doesn’t convert the finger roll, he applies the pressure that has defenders on their heels. Then he fights for the rebound and resets another possession for the Lakers.

Ingram doesn’t knock the shot down, but probably gets a bit of contact (sorry, rookie). The key to the play is the amount of separation he’s initially able to get and how comfortable he looks settling into those shots.

Even though Carmelo Anthony is 6-foot-8 and right there in front of Ingram to contest, he smoothly rises above and knocks down the deep ball.

Even though he ultimately gets called for the foul, it’s mainly because he still isn’t quite strong enough to avoid being shed by the offensive player. Even though the offensive player is the very talented and very tall Kristaps Porzingis, Ingram appears to have the length to stay right there with him once he adds some core strength.

Again, even though his floating baseline jumper doesn’t fall, Ingram’s decisive move at such a key moment of the game wound up drawing the double-team from Porzingis and permitting Clarkson to sneak in for the put-back.

He has been able to score in double figures in eight games and has shown evidence of eventually becoming more of a scorer at this level, but the 19-year-old was asked to be a jack-of-all-trades of sorts when the team lost the starting backcourt and reserve guard Jose Calderon (all within a game or two) for an extended stretch a few weeks back.

It should also be noted that his overall grade may seem to indicate less of a true appreciation for all that has been asked of a rookie swingman, but in actuality it is because you get the feeling that so much more could and likely will be there on the horizon for a young man that will be adjusting to the physical side of the NBA for the next couple seasons.

Although some may worry that his laid back vibe may bleed over into his actual approach, it is probably what led to him being able to handle being affixed with so many responsibilities while simply trying to adjust to life at this level. The young man just turned 19 in September and was worrying about things like Senior Prom just about 16 months ago. Let’s pump the brakes when it comes to questioning whether he’ll already be a bust (as some have), simply because he didn’t hit the ground at a full sprint.

We should also be reminded that simply because someone isn’t the most outwardly expressive, that doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting the moment in terms of intensity from an internal perspective. Also, simply looking at his box score won’t always paint an accurate portrait when judging his overall impact on the court. The more you watch for his individual impact and actual movements on the court, the more you realize that he is generally either in the right position or trying to do the right things on both sides of the ball whether or not the effort is successful.

Jordan Clarkson: C+

Clarkson’s scoring off the bench alongside Lou Williams was also a key part of the early success, but his numbers and overall efficiency seemed to dip when the Lakers endured those injuries. Keep in mind Clarkson is actually a year ahead of Russell, Randle and Nance Jr. in terms of on-court experience, so the expectations for his learning curve are naturally a bit higher. He’s obviously comfortable in a scoring role (14.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.3 APG), but this team could also use a bit more of a focus on being a well-rounded contributor at times. He isn’t asked to do all that much playmaking when everyone is healthy, but when he does, they need him to make better decisions (2.0 turnovers per game) and avoid being guilty of tunnel-vision when attacking off the dribble.

Like others, Clarkson came into the season saying all the right things about being more of an impact player on the defensive end and embracing the idea of being a difference-maker on that side of the court. Unfortunately, his defensive rating (113) is actually worse than last season, and the trouble for the Lakers is that it falls in line with several of his teammates: Mozgov (115), Russell (112), Williams (112), Deng (111), Randle (110). For those unsure of what that rating means, it is the number of points per 100 possessions the opponents score when each player is on the floor. To quote the great 20th-century fictional character philosopher Pete Campbell (‘Mad Men’ fans, eat your hearts out) that’s not great, Bob. But at the same time, it’s not something to necessarily throw the baby Lakers out with the bathwater over. It will continue to be a work in progress for each player, for this team as a whole and for this staff.

There’s no doubt Clarkson has proven he can play the game and even score at a relatively high level in this league, but if the former 46th overall pick wants to take yet another step as a player, it will have to come in the form of providing a more well-rounded and consistent product when on the court.

Lou Williams: A-

Williams is legitimately in the midst of his best season in the league, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for these Lakers. He’s averaging his highest number of points (19.3) off the bench for this group while shooting at career high levels pretty much across the board (45.4 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep, 49.1 two-point percentage). The 30-year-old veteran, already in his 12th year in the league, is also up to 26th among point guards in Real Plus/Minus while boasting an 116 offensive rating per 100 possessions.

All of those are reasons why, even though he’s been a fantastic scoring influence on these guys, it wouldn’t be shocking to see opposing teams begin to really inquire about his services over the next couple months. The Lakers may not ultimately be in a position to fully capitalize on a scoring machine like Williams during a playoff run, but there are plenty of other teams that will be on the market for his services. Although they are certainly in no rush to get rid of a guy that has easily been one of their best players this season, it will be interesting to see if an opposing GM finds a way to present this front office with an offer they simply cannot refuse.

Jose Calderon: C

Calderon played sparingly until the injury bug hit this rotation, but prior to his own right hamstring strain that has sidelined him for the past five games, the 35-year-old point guard was able to put in some productive and efficient minutes for the Lakers. The initial estimates for a return ranged anywhere from early next week to as far off as toward the end of the year, and we have received no concrete update about his condition. No matter how much it actually was, the Lakers have seemingly missed what Calderon was providing in his absence. Perhaps their roster balance (when at full strength) truly was the strength behind their 10-10 start to the year.

Marcelo Huertas: C

Huertas continues to be a solid third point guard who generally tends to see playing time when others are missing extended stretches. His overall limitations and defensive deficiencies, in particular, would seem to be a factor in why he didn’t make his debut in the league until after the age of 30, but Huertas does continue to bring a professional attitude and approach to that locker room and practice and seems to be very well received by his teammates.

Thomas Robinson: B+

When news of Robinson’s one-year deal with the Lakers came in late-September, it was met with a raised eyebrows. This is now the sixth NBA jersey the former No. 5-overall pick has worn in just his fifth season in the league. Any doubt whether he truly wanted to make it at this level was cast aside when he outworked other, younger prospects to earn a roster spot. The biggest testament to his professionalism is how he stepped right in for Tarik Black, providing quality minutes as a reserve for both post positions (including his most recent four-point, six rebound, three-steal and two-block performance in 19 minutes against the Kings) after playing a grand total of 21 minutes over the team’s first 15 games of the season.

Metta World Peace: Incomplete

Outside of a few minutes to simply change the pace or an attempt to influence the defensive intensity, World Peace has mainly served in a mentorship role for these young Lakers. Whether you agreed with the team’s decision to occupy one of the final roster spots with the 37-year-old forward now in his 17th NBA season, by all accounts World Peace is providing the type of support, insight and practice/work ethic examples you want for a young roster.

Ivica Zubac: Incomplete

Zubac has only seen action in five games for a grand total of 35 minutes, so attempting to assess his performance wouldn’t be realistic. He’s played well during his time with the Los Angeles Defenders (Lakers’ D-League affiliate), showing a wide array of skills on the offensive side plus promise and a willingness to compete on the defensive end.

The Lakers have wisely utilized the ability to send players with under three years of experience to their affiliate an unlimited amount with Zubac. The mix of practice and in-game knowledge with the Lakers with the on-court experience he’s getting with the Defenders (16.8 points, 9.4 rebounds in 29 minutes per contest through eight games) should continue to expedite his learning process.

They are no longer playing an antiquated brand of basketball, and most importantly seem to no longer embrace an outdated philosophy when it comes to the on-court and front office decision-making that has plagued them in recent years.

At the very least, they’ve put themselves into a position as an organization to have choices moving forward. Whether they keep the current rotation intact or even ultimately elect to shake things up with the roster before the deadline, the Lakers have quickly gone from a team that looked dead in the water to one that shows some serious promise. You just hope that all parties involved will maintain the patience it takes to not only develop as individual players, but to also allow for the growing pains that will come when cultivating the type of chemistry it takes to win as a unit at a high level.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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