It’s All-Star Weekend, which means it’s a good time to take stock of the NBA season up to this point. We enter each season with predictions of what will happen, who the breakout players will be, which teams will turn the corner and make the postseason and which teams will be the real contenders, among other things.
Many times we are right and many times we are wrong. However, that’s what makes the NBA, and sports in general, so much fun. Each season there are players and teams that beat the odds and exceed our collective expectations, while others fall well short of expectations. If everything always played out the way we predict, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch the games each night.
Here, we take a look at some of the teams and players that have been pleasant surprises and disappointments roughly 50 games into the regular season.
Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis’ Quick Start –
Everyone expected the Minnesota Timberwolves to select Karl Anthony-Towns with the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was viewed as a versatile, multi-talented big man with athleticism and huge upside. What few expected was that Towns would quickly establish himself as not just one of the best prospects in the league, but one of the best overall centers. Anthony-Towns has shown an incredibly well-developed game so far this season. He can score around the rim, off the dribble and shoot the three-ball and has shown better defensive instinct and impact than we tend to see from players his age. We knew Anthony-Towns would be good, we just didn’t know he would be this good, this quickly.
Right behind Towns is Kristaps Porzingis. The New York Knicks took Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 Draft, which (unsurprisingly) drew boos from a majority of Knicks fans in attendance. It was soon after reported that Carmelo Anthony was upset that the Knicks picked a player that many predicted would need several seasons of NBA experience to become a regular contributor (a report that Anthony later denied). However, it didn’t take long for Porzingis to shatter those predictions and turn those boos into thunderous praise. Porzingis has shown an incredibly well-rounded game for a player his age and size and is now the cornerstone player for the Knicks, which no one anticipated to happen so soon, Carmelo included.
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors –
The Toronto Raptors were, and have been one of the few teams that is hard to gauge. The Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs last season to the Washington Wizards in a sweep and seemed capped as a pretender rather than a contender moving forward. But the Raptors are playing at a high level and proving their doubters wrong.
They added defensive-oriented players in the offseason like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, who have each helped solidify the Raptors’ defense (though Carroll has been out for some time with a knee injury).
These acquisitions have helped, but the biggest reason the Raptors are 35-17, second in the Eastern Conference and just three games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers is the improvement of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Lowry lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and as a result has hit another level of play this season. Through 52 games, Lowry is averaging a career-high 21 points, 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and a career-high 39.2 percent from three-point range.
DeRozan didn’t drop a dramatic amount of weight like Lowry, but it seems as though he spent a lot of time working on the finer aspects of his game. While he has always been an effective volume-scorer, DeRozan has been somewhat limited as an offensive player throughout his career because of his inability to shoot the three-ball consistently. However, this season he has been very efficient as a pick-and-roll ball handler, constantly picking defenses apart with drives to the rim, pull-up midrange jumpers and passes to teammates for open shots.
Both Lowry and DeRozan were named co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month for the month of January and were named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The Raptors are exceeding our collective expectations so far this season, and there is no bigger reason than the stellar play of their starting backcourt.
C.J. McCollum’s Rise –
When LaMarcus Aldridge decided to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, Portland general manager Neil Olshey made the decision to break up his roster and bring in young talent to put around star point guard Damian Lillard.
With Aldridge gone, Lillard was set to be the face of the franchise and its one and only established star player. However, C.J. McCollum, who never averaged more than 15.7 minutes per game through his first two season in the NBA, took on a bigger role early this season and has made the most of it so far. Through 52 games this season, McCollum is averaging 20.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from beyond the arc.
McCollum impressed with a strong performance in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Memphis Grizzlies. But even with that performance and a bigger role, not many expected McCollum to be quite this good. Similar to the Raptors, the Trail Blazers are beating expectations this season and most of that has to do with the terrific play of McCollum.
Will Barton’s Improvement –
The Portland Trail Blazers were looking to make a splash in the playoffs last season and traded for veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo to help with that. The Trail Blazers sent Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, a lottery-protected first-round pick and Will Barton to the Denver Nuggets for Afflalo and Alonzo Gee.
Unfortunately, Afflalo never found his stride in Portland, struggled with injuries and signed with the New York Knicks as an unrestricted free agent after the season. Barton, through 30 games with Portland last season, was averaging 3.0 points, 1.9 assists and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from distance. He was set to hit restricted free agency after the season, and so Portland decided to move on from the young shooting guard, which is surely a decision Olshey wishes he could take back.
This season, Barton is averaging 15.5 points, 2.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.
Barton is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and will compete in the Dunk Contest tonight. Additionally, the Nuggets were able to lock up Barton last offseason to a three-year deal worth $10.6 million, which is an absolute steal.
Philadelphia 76ers Abandon “The Process” –
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has tanked the last few seasons in an effort to rebuild his team through the draft. He has purposely stayed out of free agency, cycled through young fringe players in search of hidden gems and did little to hide the fact that he simply was not interested in winning regular season games. Through it all, the mantra was “Trust The Process.”
Well, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apparently lost patience for Hinkie’s process and coordinated with Philadelphia ownership to bring in someone that could help the franchise speed up the process. The team brought in Jerry Colangelo, who hasn’t made sweeping changes yet, but who seems poised to start making moves to get Philadelphia back to a level of competitiveness that they’ve purposely avoided for years.
New Orleans Pelicans Injuries and Ineffective Play –
The New Orleans Pelicans went 45-37 last season and squeezed the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the final playoff seed with a win over the San Antonio Spurs on the last day of the regular season. The Pelicans lost in the first-round to the Golden State Warriors, but looked to be on the upswing, especially with Anthony Davis looking like he would be a perennial MVP candidate each season moving forward.
The Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry to be the new head coach last offseason. This hiring had a lot of people excited since Gentry was credited with running the Warriors’ up-tempo offense, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers’ offense a few seasons back, which has been one of the best in the league stemming back to Gentry’s tenure. Many predicted that adding Gentry’s up-tempo offense would boost the Pelicans’ play this season, especially that of Davis.
However, injuries and inconsistency have submarined the Pelicans this season. Davis has been in and out of the lineup throughout the season, Tyreke Evans is out for the season with a knee injury and Eric Gordon is again sidelined with an injury. Additionally, Quincy Pondexter never fully recovered from his knee injury from last offseason and will sit out this entire season as well.
The Pelicans have managed to beat some of the better teams in the league this season, but too often they lose to teams they should have the edge on. The Pelicans are currently 20-33 and are 6.5 games back from the eighth seeded Utah Jazz. As things currently stand, it looks like this year’s Pelicans will miss the playoffs and fall short of every expectation we had for them entering this season.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Regression –
The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the biggest surprise teams from last season. After going 15-67 in the 2013-14 season, the Bucks went 41-41 last season behind the strength of their defense (rated second best in the NBA) and pushed the Chicago Bulls in an exciting first-round matchup.
With Jabari Parker returning from injury, the addition of Greg Monroe and the continuing development of other core players like Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson, many expected the Bucks to take another step forward this season. However, the Bucks have regressed significantly this season and are now ranked 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The trade that sent out Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams continues to look like a huge mistake and the team is collectively struggling with a lack of three-point shooting and spacing on offense.
The Bucks are now rumored to be looking to shake up the roster and even Greg Monroe is reportedly available. The Bucks still have a strong core of young talent and Khris Middleton in particular has been a bright spot for the team this season. But at 22-32 and ranked 13th in the East, there’s no doubt that this team has been one of the most disappointing so far this season.
Phoenix Suns’ Turmoil –
There weren’t over-the-top expectations for the Phoenix Suns entering this season. However, since trading Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons and signing Tyson Chandler in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, things have fallen apart rather quickly in Phoenix.
Markieff Morris has been disgruntled since his brother was traded, has been inconsistent all season and only started showing any signs of life after former head coach Jeff Hornacek was fired. He also recently got into an argument with teammate Archie Goodwin during a recent game in which both players shoved each other. Chandler looks pretty washed up and his contract runs for several seasons after this one. Rising point guard Eric Bledsoe is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery for yet another torn meniscus. T.J. Warren is out for the season after breaking his foot. The only real bright spot for Phoenix run now is the impressive all-around play of rookie Devin Booker.
There is still talent in Phoenix, but after so many botched transactions, internal strife and injuries, this has been a disastrous season so far for the Suns.
Blake Griffin Fight and Injury –
Blake Griffin started off this season playing as well as just about anyone not named Stephen Curry. He was hitting his midrange jumper, showing improvements in almost all facets of his game and was even improving defensively.
However, Griffin was sidelined in late December with a quad tendon injury that was to keep him on the bench for several weeks. Then, when Griffin was on the cusp of returning, he got into a fight with Clippers’ assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, who is a good friend of Griffin.
Griffin ended up breaking his hand, which required two surgeries and will keep him sidelined for several more weeks. It’s disappointing when a player is injured during a game or in practice, but it’s even more so when a player brings about the injury through poor decision making off the court, as is the case with Griffin here. The Clippers already had an uphill battle to climb with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors dominating the Western Conference and with Griffin’s status unclear for the playoffs, he has jeopardized the Clippers’ chances of making a deep run in the postseason.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s Injuries –
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist underwent surgery last October to repair a torn labrum he suffered during a preseason game. It was believed that Kidd-Gilchrist would miss the season because of the injury, or would be out until the last few weeks of the season at best. But Kidd-Gilchrist pleasantly surprised everyone by managing to return to action roughly two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, roughly two weeks after making his return, Kidd-Gilchrist reinjured the same shoulder that sidelined him earlier in the season. Subsequent testing revealed that he tore his labrum in his right shoulder and is now out indefinitely.
Kidd-Gilchrist played well through seven games, averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 54.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance. Kidd-Gilchrist brought his defensive prowess and overall versatility to a Hornets team that is currently 27-26 and fighting hard to hold on to the eighth seed in the East. He will be reevaluated after the All-Star break and will decide whether to rehab the injury, or undergo surgery.
NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?
Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.
This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.
As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.
And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.
Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.
Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.
At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.
While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.
In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.
But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.
Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)
A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.
First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?
When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.
Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.
Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.
Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.
And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest. And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.
But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.
And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.
Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.
So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.
NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?
The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.
As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.
1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)
The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.
Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.
Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.
Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.
Ben Simmons comments on his Defensive Player of the Year race against Rudy Gobert: “I scored 42 points on him in Utah, and apparently I’m not a scorer.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) April 13, 2021
2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)
Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.
Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol.
If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?
3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)
If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.
Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.
While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.
4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)
The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball.
But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game.
If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)
The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable.
Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15.
While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)
The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.
As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.
Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.
NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?
Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.
The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.
The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.
Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.
As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)
But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?
The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.
The timing of the injury is apropos.
The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.
Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.
A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.
Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.
But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.
Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.
But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).
And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.
Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.
Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.
Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.
The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.
So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.
The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.
And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.