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New York Knicks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Knicks didn’t land a max-level free agent this offseason, but they did add a number of serviceable players who will help their younger players develop. Basketball Insiders previews the upcoming year in New York.

Basketball Insiders

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The New York Knicks enter 2019-20 hoping for development and cohesion. As recently as this time last year, the Knicks expected to enter the season with at least one cornerstone piece in Kristaps Porzingis, a free agent superstar and a lottery pick added to the roster. Instead, the team experienced tremendous turnover, returning only six players from the 2018-19 team.

But the Knicks can boast one thing they haven’t had in some time – a unified vision from its leadership. David Fizdale is still viewed as a player-friendly coach, and general manager Scott Perry is slowing improving the Knicks’ reputation around the league and with free agents.

The Knicks’ 2019-20 season is more of a stepping stone than it is about the end result. They must demonstrate a good culture – because they’re structured to potentially be players in free agency again in 2020.

Five Guys Think…

Coming into season two under David Fizdale, there are actually some positive vibes in the Big Apple. The Knicks have a blue-chip prospect in RJ Barrett taking over as the face of the franchise, meaning they’ll have quite the young talent to work with and develop over the season. Contrary to belief, the offseason wasn’t quite a bad one. There were plenty of forwards signed -and there will be a logjam in the frontcourt – but this team didn’t have the veterans in the locker room to show the inexperienced players the ropes. Plus, the deals are flexible enough that there are some contracts that could be moved for more assets. New York will be in the basement of the Atlantic Division due to the ridiculous amount of tough competition, but this campaign should prove to at least be a step in the right direction.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

The Knicks struck out on their top free-agent targets such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But they did sign a quite a few players, including a couple in Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson who all play the same position. Not bad signings at all, just a question mark as to how they’ll all fit together. They actually have some intriguing young talent on the team including RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox. It’s still going to be a rebuilding year for the Knicks, but if a few of those young guys pan out, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, sooner rather than later.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Knicks had an underwhelming offseason. They expected two max-level free agents, but had to settle for next-tier players and journeymen. While they enter 2019-20 with more talent than a year ago, it’s still nowhere near enough to compete with the likes of the 76ers, Celtics or Nets. However, if you’re looking for progress, the Knicks should demonstrate a decent amount of it. Coach David Fizdale is back for his second season in the Big Apple and president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry enter their third season together. So while there is practically no continuity on the court – only six players return from last season – at least there is some in philosophy and culture. Further, rookie RJ Barrett and free agent addition Julius Randle inspire a bit of guarded optimism.

5th place – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca

Despite the hype of free agency misses, the Knicks actually came out of the summer set up smartly. They have promising young guys that should continue to see development opportunities while being surrounded by solid win-now veterans that are pretty attractive trade chips as the season plays out. Sure, many likely wanted the superstar this past July, but when you consider the modern NBA roadmap to sustained winning, the Knicks are well-positioned for the future. That may stink this season, as the Knicks may not have enough star-level talent to really compete on a night to night basis, but there is a glimmer of hope in this regards – no-name teams have done pretty well over the last decade, especially if all of those discounted veterans seize their moment in the New York spotlight. It’s likely the Knicks are lottery team, not a playoff team, but in the end, they may come out better positioned for a promising future than where they were two seasons ago.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

The New York Knicks and their fans had very high hopes entering this offseason. I won’t go deep into those details since it has already been covered in great detail and there isn’t much value in constantly reminding Knicks fans that they flooded social media with photo-shopped pictures of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson in Knicks jerseys. The more interesting discussion revolves around what the Knicks did after they missed out on their star targets this offseason. Through the draft, trades and free agency, the Knicks added RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris to the roster. Oddly enough, the Knicks put major resources into acquiring four power forwards in Randle, Gibson, Portis and Morris (though some of these players can play center as well). Individually, each move makes some sense. However, it’s unclear why the Knicks felt compelled to sign Portis to a two-year, $30.75 million contract. It should not be noted that New York has a team option on the second and final season of the contract, so there’s no long-term risk. But the market wasn’t particularly hot for Portis this offseason and there doesn’t seem to be any long-term advantage to signing him to this deal. However, the Knicks also signed most of their new players to short-term deals, so there’s no significant loss in future flexibility. This wasn’t a bad pivot from the Knicks’ front office after missing out on their key targets, but it’s just a bit confusing when you look at the structure of the roster at this point.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

From The Cap Guy

Unable to land a single superstar this summer, despite the cap room for two, the Knicks invested heavily in players on extremely friendly contracts. Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock each signed two-year deals with just $1 million guaranteed apiece for 2020-21. That’s only $4 million of a combined $29.7 million of guaranteed money. Additionally, Bobby Portis has a team option for $15.8 million.

In addition to their multiple movable contracts (along with the one-year, $15 million deal for Marcus Morris), look for the Knicks to be active in discussions leading to the NBA Trade Deadline. New York also has a couple of future first-rounders from the Dallas Mavericks to include, along with young players like Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. If a star becomes available, look for the Knicks to pursue aggressively.

– Eric Pincus

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Julius Randle

Julius Randle posted career bests last season in points and three-point percentage, and he will have far more opportunity on the Knicks as their primary scorer. Randle entered the league at essentially the perfect time – just as positionless basketball was really catching on. His ability to push the ball up the floor following a rebound is rare for his size. He is a tricky cover because he is too strong for most players his height or smaller, but quicker than most centers. Randle will be used in smaller lineups as a five and could even play some alongside two bigs. The Knicks are going to need every bit of production from Randle, though. The bar is higher this season as he enters the year as the Knicks best player And the pressure will be on immediately as New York is traditionally not an overly patient city.

Top Defensive Player: Mitchell Robinson

Robinson was one of the few positives on the Knicks last season. He oozes potential thanks to a unique combination of length, athletic ability and shot-blocking instincts.

Robinson averaged stellar per-36 numbers last season as a rookie: 12.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and an astounding 4.3 blocks. And despite playing nearly 1000 minutes less than most guys ahead of him on the blocks list, he still finished fourth overall for the entire league.

But it isn’t just blocks. It’s how and where he blocks shots. Robinson closes out on shooters, disrupting and blocking shots at an incredible rate. His instincts must improve while guarding ball handlers; and despite showing improvement regarding fouls, he must continue to improve his defensive footwork and avoid bailing opposing players out by using his hands. But the sky is the limit for Robinson, and he’ll be a huge part of the Knicks’ future.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith Jr. has been criticized for not progressing enough between his rookie and sophomore seasons; however, his play after being traded to the Knicks in February should inspire hope.

Smith Jr. is the Knicks’ best established off-the-dribble player. He seems to have improved his shooting stroke this offseason based on offseason workout videos, which will only further his playmaking abilities given that opponents will have to defend him even more closely. While he is regarded as more of a scorer than a creator, he can create for others simply by breaking down the defense and making the easy pass.

This season is a make-or-break year for Smith Jr. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how he reacted to the Mavericks drafting Luka Doncic. He must demonstrate more maturity in New York. The Knicks just drafted a high-profile rookie (RJ Barrett). Smith Jr. must understand that he might not be the most important piece on the Knicks, but that he is still instrumental to their success. If he can accept his role and contribute whenever possible, it will begin repairing his image and – probably – benefit him on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Reggie Bullock

Bullock’s signing with the Knicks had a bit of drama. He originally signed this offseason for 2-years/$21 million; but once a health issue was identified in his physical, the deal was reworked (2-year/$8.2 million), which also allowed the Knicks to sign Marcus Morris.

While Bullock’s recovery from neck surgery will disallow him from starting the season with the Knicks, he will be a welcome addition once he’s available to them. Bullock shoots 39.2 percent from long-range for his career. He was brought on due to the fact that he’s seen as a sniper – unfortunately, injuries have derailed his career. If Bullock can get (and remain) healthy, he’ll be a fixture in the Knicks line-up in 2019-20. That is a big if, though. Currently, the timeline for Bullock’s return is undefined. He could miss the first month, or he could miss the entire season.

The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris

Morris is the blue-collar bruiser New Yorkers have been clamoring for – only a modern version. Morris is a tough, versatile defender. He can also get the Knicks a bucket when they’re in need in a multitude of ways. He averaged 13.9 points last season and happily accepted a role with the Celtics behind Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and others. So there should be no fear in New York of Morris demanding a particular role.

He is a tough-nosed veteran who will be a leader in the locker room and on the floor. And more importantly, he will set a great example for the Knicks’ youngsters. He has been credited by opposing coaches for inspiring his team’s defense. Pacers head coach Nate McMillian said of Morris following a playoff win last April, “He’s a guy that really establishes their defense. He gets after the best player and they feed off that.” The Knicks definitely hope that he’ll have a similar effect in New York.

Best New Addition: RJ Barrett

RJ Barrett was selected third overall – shockingly, the Knicks highest draft pick since 1984 (Patrick Ewing). Knicks fans are obviously clamoring for a quick win with Barrett. Will he be able to pace himself and overcome efficiency issues with Knicks’ fans and the New York media breathing down his neck? Most rookies would struggle mightily with this – but not Barrett.

Barrett’s approach has been solid so far. Remember – it was Barrett who coyly said workout videos aren’t for him, and it was Barrett who was squarely focused on playing in New York throughout the draft process. He’s aware of the expectations and he understands the pressure. New York is an entirely different beast. But Barrett has the right mental makeup to get through all of the stressors that New York will throw at him.

– Drew Maresca

Who We Like

1. Kevin Knox

Knox struggled with efficiency last season – his effective field goal percentage was only 34.3 percent. He settled for threes when given space and he relied too heavily on runners rather than taking the ball up stronger and looking to draw fouls.

But Knox also has an incredible amount of potential. He is a well-built 6-foot-9 swingman who can score in a number of different ways. His shooting stroke was inconsistent last season, but he has good form and should show improvement now that he has a better understanding of the NBA game.

Further, the Knicks didn’t have a go-to scorer last season. So Knox came on board and was immediately among the primary focuses of opposing defenses. The addition of Randle, Morris and company will mitigate the attention on Knox, at least in the early going.

2. Elfrid Payton

Payton’s career has been a bit disappointing so far. While seen as a defensive specialist, he has underwhelmed – mostly gambling too much by jumping in passing lanes. Payton actually posted the worst defensive rating on the Pelicans in 2018-19.

But he can still contribute – especially considering the lack of experience amongst Knicks point guards. He is a solid rebounder and he creates opportunities for his teammates. He has shown flashes throughout his career – erupting for five straight triple-doubles last season.

It would be naïve to expect Payton to develop too much more at this point in his career. But his positive attributes can steady the ship when Smith Jr. has an off game and/or Ntilikina’s confidence wavers.

3. Bobby Portis

Portis is a player the Knicks might consider keeping on the roster beyond next season. He is an above-average rebounder– and most importantly, he has displayed the ability to shoot from distance. Portis shot 35.9 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 with Chicago, and he upped the ante last season connecting on 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts.

But Portis isn’t a one-dimensional offensive player. His size and athleticism enable him to score in a number of different ways. He rolls to the hoop well and can catch and shoot from the mid-range, as well.

Portis struggles on the defensive end of the court, though. And unfortunately, he is a sub-par defender in practically every way possible including pick-and-roll defense, shot-blocking. While he probably won’t improve much at this point of his career, the Knicks can mask his deficiencies by pairing him with guys like Robinson and Morris.

4. Allonzo Trier

Trier was a welcome surprise last season. But if you knew his game in college, you couldn’t have expected any less. Trier is a scorer who exudes confidence. He slowed down a bit as the season progressed last year, but that is to be expected from rookies.

Trier isolates incredibly well and gets buckets in bunches. He has a pure shooting stroke and a series of primary and secondary moves. While slightly undersized for a shooting guard, he was seen as a strong defender in college – which could help his case to carve out minutes on a crowded roster.

Trier must improve off the ball. Last season he attempted just 2.1 three-pointers per game, but converted on 39.4 percent of them. And his opportunities to play as the primary ball-handler will be limited given the number of lead guards on the roster, so it’s in his best interest to embrace his opportunity as a shooting guard.

5. David Fizdale

Coach Fizdale had a challenging first year in New York. But that had very little to do with him. Last season was about initiating a culture in the locker room. And Fizdale did just that. His “chopping the tree” mantra caught on in the locker room with players citing it time and again as the season wore on. He must continue building camaraderie in the locker room, and he must continue representing the Knicks outwardly – as the entire league will continue judging the Knicks moving forward based partially on Coach Fizdale.

– Drew Maresca

Strengths

Young talent. The Knicks have a tremendous number of recent draftees with loads of potential including Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and Ignas Brazdeikis – all of whom have less than three years of experience in the NBA.

But youth and wins don’t go together too well.

The Knicks are going to struggle to close out games. They must focus on developing their youth, especially Robinson and Barrett – the most important duo to take the court for the Knicks since Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. They must push through the discomfort of losing games as a franchise and maintain the course. They cannot default to their veterans in an attempt to get a few more wins, robbing their young core of valuable experience in the process.

However, there is a balance they’ll have to strike. They do not want to find themselves playing meaningless basketball too early in the season. That tanking-like strategy breeds bad habits.

– Drew Maresca

Weaknesses

Point guard play has been an issue for the Knicks since approximately 2005, when Stephon Marbury famously declared himself the best point guard in the NBA – the season didn’t go as planned for the Knicks, nor have most since then.

It was widely assumed that the Knicks would acquire a lead guard in each of the last three seasons, beginning with the 2017 NBA Draft when they selected Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has looked good in the FIBA World Cup so far, even stealing starting point guard duties and drawing praise from the teammates including Rudy Gobert. But FIBA and the NBA are entirely different games, and Ntilikina’s confidence seems to wane when he’s back on this side of the pond.

The other point guard they had an eye on in the 2017 draft – Dennis Smith Jr. – is also now on their roster, and he is viewed as a more likely solution at this point than Ntilikina. Smith Jr.’s summer workout videos have been well-received by fans and the New York media, but most experts understand that those videos are engineered to build hype and are showing only highlight-worthy clips.

The Knicks also added Elfrid Payton, who is a Scott Perry draft pick from Orlando in 2014.

To summarize, the Knicks have three talented and unproven point guards on their roster – each of whom has his share of flaws. They can use 2019-20 to gauge who plays well with one another and which ones they hope to keep moving forward – if any. But don’t expect All-Star level play from any of them this season. And if that somehow happens, Knicks’ fans won’t be the least bit upset.

– Drew Maresca

The Burning Question

How will Fizdale manage the rotation?

The Knicks onboarded a number of fairly established players – Gibson, Morris, Payton, Portis, etc. He can’t play all of the new vets and continue ahead with the youth movement. And while Knicks fans and the New York media are behind the idea of a youth movement now, they will probably change their tune after falling a number of games below .500. Coach FIzdale has to strike a very delicate balance between playing his young core and keeping veterans on the court – after all, rookies and second-year players don’t usually win games.

But Fizdale also wants to get his youngsters experience playing in clutch situations. He must define lineups that complement each other deliberately while making sure to play as many of his young players as possible.

In addition to allowing the Knicks to remain competitive, playing veterans alongside younger players removes pressure from Knicks’ rookies and second-year players. Putting too much pressure on younger players can lead to poor habits and/or hurt their development.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ management and coaching staff must remember that this season is mostly a precursor to the future. While they are probably beyond tanking, they should be more concerned with developing their young talent than with wins; however if they can accomplish both at the same time, that would be best.

– Drew Maresca

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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