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NBA Sunday: Danny Ainge Deserves Credit

Since trading Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge has done everything right. Signing Al Horford is just the latest example.

Moke Hamilton

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The Boston Celtics haven’t won a playoff series since 2012—the year they took the Miami HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Piece by piece, the team began splitting up. Ray Allen left for Miami and, the following summer, after the team lost to the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Danny Ainge parted ways with Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

With Rajon Rondo being the final domino to fall—he was traded in December 2014—Ainge was said to have embarked upon the most proactive rebuilding project we had seen in quite some time.

Now, with the signing of Al Horford—less than two years after trading Rondo—the Celtics will reemerge as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

* * * * * *

What July 2016 may be remembered for more than anything else is how a number of impact players in the league changed addresses.

Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan rode off into the sunset while Derrick Rose was traded to New York.

Meanwhile, Al Horford joins a list that features the likes of Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah, each of whom signed with a new team in search of greener pastures and an opportunity to prove himself.

Of them all, one can make the argument that Horford is the acquisition that comes with the least amount of risk, at least from a basketball perspective.

In signing Durant, the Warriors had to rescind Bird rights on a few of their pieces and will begin the 2016-17 season without Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. As much as Stephen Curry’s injury played a major role in the demise of the Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals, the absence of Bogut in Game 6 and Game 7 was underplayed. He was vital to the Warriors offensive scheming and defensive planning and without him—one of the best passing centers in the league—they will have to make major adjustments. It should also be pointed out that both Stephen Curry and Durant will have to make major adjustments in their respective games to coexist, as will Klay Thompson, who will go from the team’s secondary offensive option to third.

Odds are, things will work out in Oakland, but to overlook the fact that a substantial roll of the dice was taken in signing Durant would be to overlook logic.

Fortunately, for the Celtics, none of those concerns exist with Horford.

* * * * * *

As Joakim Noah was leading Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, scouts began whispering about one of Noah’s teammates—Horford.

There were a great many that felt that Horford’s gifts meant that he would translate better at the NBA level, and after nine years, it’s difficult to argue. Horford was eventually selected by the Atlanta Hawks at number three, six picks before Noah was selected by the Chicago Bulls at number nine.

Since then, Horford has made four All-Star teams and has played a crucial role in the Hawks qualifying for the playoffs each year since. During his time in Atlanta, the Hawks have won six playoff series and have found consistent success under three different head coaches.

Noah’s team accomplishments are not on par with Horford’s, but that isn’t the major point. What should be understood about Horford is that he is a rare breed in today’s NBA. In the long run, Horford seems destined to be remembered by history in much the same way that Rasheed Wallace and Lamar Odom will be. In each their own right, Wallace and Odom were players whose career statistics and numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of the kind of impact they had on the culture of their respective teams and the role they played in contributing to the win column.

Since Horford began playing internationally with his native Dominican Republic, he quickly earned the reputation of being a hard working player who was more concerned with playing a better team game than his hunt for personal numbers or statistics.

One of Horford’s father’s former teammates on the Dominican National Basketball Team remembers interacting with Horford when he was a young teenager and remembers being sure that he had exactly what it took to excel in the NBA.

Apparently, he was correct.

* * * * * *

In today’s NBA, where winning requires at least three All-Star caliber performers and three above-average bench contributors, building a team capable of winning it all requires the adherence to two main principles. The first is to not allow an irreplaceable asset to leave you for nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets each saw Dwight Howard exit without netting them any assets in return. The Thunder have now experienced that with Durant, as well, and in each instance, each franchise has been set back. Ainge managed to avoid this by dealing Rondo for value. Among the items returned to him from the Dallas Mavericks were Jae Crowder (who has since emerged as a vital rotation piece for Brad Stevens) and what ended up being the number 17 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. That pick was used on Frenchman Guerschon Yabusele. Yabusele will play in the Chinese Basketball Association for the 2016-17 season, but at just 20 years old, he is exactly the type of asset that a young and toiling team like the Celtics could use.

The second principle is one that the New York Knicks learned through experience—don’t sacrifice your assets for a player that could be had outright with cap space in the near future. When it became common knowledge that Carmelo Anthony had eyes for the New York Knicks, he and the franchise played a real life game of chicken wherein, under pressure from James Dolan, the Knicks opted to pay a king’s ransom for Anthony. In that trade, the Knicks gave away almost every asset they had in the cupboard—Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph, two second round picks, a first round pick and cash.

While the Knicks did receive some good rotation pieces in return, it’s clear that trading for Anthony set them back. It has been more than five years since Anthony became a Knick and in that duration, the Knicks have won one playoff series and missed the playoffs for three consecutive years.

Now, imagine for a moment that the Knicks would have signed Anthony outright after the 2011 lockout had subsided. Other than Wilson Chandler, each of the aforementioned trade chips would have been with the Knicks and those pieces could have been used to build around Anthony, instead of being sacrificed to acquire him. Had things played out a little differently, Chris Paul would have likely ended up a Knick and it would not have taken Anthony five whole years to have a fairly young, exciting core built around him.

It would appear that Ainge saw the mistakes of other franchises and opted to not repeat them. He maximized the value that he was able to get in return for Garnett, Pierce and Rondo and have used them to rebuild his team. He got incredibly fortunate with Horford and will now add him to a young core that is reminiscent of the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. Those Pistons were renowned for being a sum that was greater than its individual pieces, and it was something that each member of the team realized.

The culture that Ainge has built in Boston and the pieces that he has accumulated there are oddly reminiscent of something we have seen before. So, to say that things are looking up for the Celtics would be a bit of an understatement.

* * * * * *

As it stands, the Celtics only have four players under contract for the 2017-18 season: Al Horofrd, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. They have a team option on Marcus Smart that is likely to be exercised, but next summer, when a ton of superstars will be free agents, the Celtics could have in excess of $50 million available to them under the salary cap.

On a personal level, it has been difficult to see Paul Pierce wearing other jerseys. He never looked quite right in Brooklyn’s black or in the red, white and blue of the Washington Wizards. As his career appears to be coming to a close as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, objectively speaking, based on what has transpired in Boston over the past few years, it is difficult to argue against the fact that Ainge has set the franchise up for success in both the immediate and distant future.

In all likelihood, Horford is just the first big catch of the post-Paul Pierce era in Boston. Just think: if Russell Westbrook decided he wanted to move East, there are few teams that would make as much sense for him as the Celtics.

It has been four years since the Celtics have won a playoff series, but in all likelihood, that is a streak that will end this year. And thanks to some prudent management and the signing of a low-risk piece who puts winning above all else, over the next four years, the Celtics are likely to experience some major success.

Despite being across the country in Los Angeles, even Paul Pierce can see that.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

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

Bobby Krivitsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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