In this juiced-up arms race of an NBA landscape, you’re either a contender or a pretender – but if you happen to be the Brooklyn Nets, the situation lately has been more akin to a dire, bleak nightmare. Long without control of their own draft pick and the inability to draw a top-level free agent in, the Nets have treaded water since Joe Johnson, the last reminder of their fruitless all-in gamble upon moving to Brooklyn, was bought out in February of 2016. By way of Brook Lopez’s sudden three-point explosion, their tireless chase on defense and their fast, chuck ‘em up offensive style, the Nets earned plenty of compliments last season — but without wins to go along with them, they ultimately mean little in the long run.
That why the Nets are focused on two keywords headed into an important 2017-18 season: Continuity and culture. If Brooklyn can build on a couple of the franchise’s main values, well, then there may just be a way out of this bottomless pit sooner rather than later.
He’s the Nets’ head coach, but that hasn’t stopped Kenny Atkinson from getting his hands dirty for the second straight summer. As the Nets fearlessly charge into the great unknown once again, Atkinson has long loved the opportunity that coaching in Las Vegas affords him. The Nets went 20-62 in 2016-17, the NBA’s worst record, and that means the entire team can stand to improve, even the head coach.
“Quite honestly, I need to get better,” Atkinson candidly admitted on Monday. “I need to improve my game, I’ve had some situations out there where I was like: ‘Man, I could’ve done that better.’ I just feel like you’re in a flight simulator, the more reps you can get, the better you get.”
And for Atkinson and the Nets, there’s always room to be just a little bit better, which is why five members of last year’s team are leading the way in Las Vegas. For many participants, the various Summer Leagues act as an opportunity for draftees to acclimate themselves to their new league and a chance for those not yet on franchise’s radars to do so. But in the Nets’ case, their raw youngsters also double as a large majority of the team’s core – enter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead and Archie Goodwin.
“Hungry is a good word, but they’re hungry to get better – that’s our whole theme this summer. We’re hungry to get better, we’re just so locked into the process,” Atkinson said. “That’s why we’re all here at Summer League quite honestly, rather than back in Brooklyn.”
The current roster is a complete work-in-progress, particularly so after the Nets moved Lopez, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, to the Los Angeles Lakers in June. Outside of D’Angelo Russell locked in at one of the guard spots and, hopefully, a sophomore year leap for LeVert, Atkinson and the Nets know that they’re far from out of the woods. Of course, they’ve got at least one more year of Jeremy Lin ahead of them – he owns a player option in 2018 – but it’s hard to imagine that he’s a long-term centerpiece in the way that Lopez was for nine years.
From there, the Nets have a chopped-together roster – one part youngsters trying to find their place, the other part a home for bloated salary dumps. Still, for a team that won less than a quarter of their games last season, they intend on bringing a majority of the roster back – well, those of them that aren’t traded away this summer. In fact, mid-way through July, K.J. McDaniels, Justin Hamilton and Randy Foye are the only three that won’t be returning thus far.
That’s because of the front office’s new commitment to continuity. As the Nets see it, it’s tough to find any type of stride with massive roster turnover year after year. Even if the team lacks an All-Star, why willingly start over at ground zero in each successive season? After clicking toward the end of Atkinson’s rookie year at the helm, in part thanks to Lin’s return after missing half the season, the Nets aren’t ready to hit the reset button again.
While Whitehead, LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson are all under contract for the upcoming season, the partial guarantees for Dinwiddie and Goodwin still loom large. As of now, both are expected to stay with the team, but should a few more free agents come along, the situation could play out differently – so that’s why Goodwin is in Las Vegas grinding: He’s trying to earn his spot back.
“I look at it as an opportunity to get better with our young core of guys, I been having up and downs throughout my career,” Goodwin said after their victory against the New Orleans Pelicans. “But I feel like here I really have an opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Goodwin is certainly raw, but he’s only just 22 years old and somehow entering his fifth NBA season after the Phoenix Suns waived him before the first game in 2016-17. Although Goodwin has never averaged more than 8.9 points per contest, the flashes are certainly there, lurking. In the pick and roll, Goodwin is a tough guy to defend, gliding to the hoop in Las Vegas like a seasoned veteran. With his 6-foot-5 frame, the Nets also like his potential as a pesky defender – but could he earn significant time on a guard-heavy roster?
The Nets’ patience in Goodwin has paid off and the guard has averaged 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 57.7 percent from the floor in just 20.7 minutes per game during Summer League so far. The Nets are no strangers to taking on D-League projects, but it feels like Goodwin has some legitimate sticking power in Brooklyn – just like key bench scorer Sean Kilpatrick did last season – all because those around him are giving him the chance to succeed.
“When I got here, the guys accepted me right away, so they made it a lot easier for me than I thought it would be,” Goodwin said upon arriving at Summer League last week. “They made it easy for me. . . and hopefully, I’ll be around for the long run.”
Yet, for all the Nets’ losses last year, general manager Sean Marks isn’t looking for any get-rich-quick shortcuts. Their commitment to continuity has gone hand-in-hand with their evolving culture during the lengthy rebuild.
Although Hollis-Jefferson is now Brooklyn’s longest-tenured player at three seasons, the franchise has aimed to cut out the pitfalls that doomed their roster’s former versions. From arriving late to practice to animosity between players, that veteran-laden Nets roster – created by way of today’s missing draft picks – fell short season after season until most were traded, bought out or fled in free agency.
But now, the roster is full of players that actually want to make a name for themselves in Brooklyn, a big difference in just a few years time for a team this far out of long-term contention.
“We can make a huge jump, we’re all young, [those at Summer League are] all under 25,” Dinwiddie told Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders. “We’re all hard workers, we’re all hungry for success, to be better as a team and try to win. The sky’s the limit.”
And it’s true – the team’s oldest players heading into next season are currently Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll, both acquired this summer via salary dump and each turn 31 next week. But as of now, chemistry is one of the Nets’ biggest foundational supports, banking on kinship and unity to help build the culture that the franchise has lacked since they played a state over in New Jersey. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it’s given this young roster with no expectations a reason to be confident.
That’s why nearly every member of the Nets has popped up this summer in some way, shape or form. There are cuts to Marks in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center as he speaks on the phone and evaluates his young assets. That’s why Lin, Kilpatrick and Joe Harris took in Sunday’s contest courtside, and why Russell was working out past midnight with LeVert just days after he was acquired.
It’s one thing to get players to compete for a rebuilding, pick-less franchise like the Nets, but it’s another thing altogether for them to uniformly buy into it.
“I think when you’re trying to build a culture, reestablish yourself in the league and start really from the ground up, you kinda have to do stuff like this because chemistry is so important,” Dinwiddie said. “When you look at the Warriors, it’s not just their collection of talent but the way they play together and that’s what we’re trying to foster.”
The Nets’ situation is well-documented at this point – although it got a little better following their pending trade for the aforementioned Carroll and the Toronto Raptors’ first- and second-round selections in 2018 – but this small core competing this summer represents a very real, tangible ideal for the struggling fanbase: hope.
Heading into to another season without control of their own draft pick for a final time and a playoff berth still unlikely, finding any type of advantage is key. That’s why they’re all in Las Vegas grinding away, even Atkinson. While these wins won’t translate to any automatic successes in the fall, it’s the idea of family and togetherness that’s dragging Brooklyn through the last stage of their grueling rebuild.
Of course, the results of these glorified scrimmages mean very little. But for a franchise well on it’s way to changing their status league-wide, stacking their roster and sending the head coach for a tune-up doesn’t signify desperation, it displays readiness.
“I’m going to fight Sean to do it again next year, he probably won’t let me,” Atkinson admitted on Sunday. ”[But] it’s like a dress rehearsal for the regular season, I love it.”
As Dinwiddie put it, the sky’s the limit for the Nets, particularly so as they look to build on a difficult 20-62 season. Although they may need to wait a few more years before real – ahem, postseason – results arrive, it appears as if Atkinson, Goodwin, Dinwiddie and the rest of the franchise’s key contributors will enjoy the ride every tiny step of the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
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
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
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.