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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: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA

NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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