This is a strange year when it comes to the NBA’s end-of-season player awards.
Typically, there is a lot of debate over who deserves each honor. There are 129 sportswriters and broadcasters who make up the voting panel, and they receive their ballots two weeks before the regular season ends. Some years, voters will wait until the absolute final moment (after the final regular season game) to cast their ballot because the competition is that intense and they want to have as much information as possible before making up their mind.
However, this season’s award races will be relatively anti-climactic because the results seem rather obvious. Stephen Curry will be Most Valuable Player, Karl-Anthony Towns seems poised to be Rookie of the Year, C.J. McCollum will likely be Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year seems like it’ll once again come down to Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green.
There doesn’t seem to be many wide-open award races this year. That is, except for Sixth Man of the Year. The award is obviously given to the most productive reserve and, in order to be eligible, a player must come off of the bench in more games than he starts.
The top two vote-getters from last season are currently ineligible, so it’ll be interesting to see who the media turns to now. Last year, Lou Williams and Isaiah Thomas finished first and second in the voting, but both players used their successful 2014-15 campaign as a springboard to an increased role.
The veterans who are typically mentioned as possible Sixth Man candidates, such San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry and Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, seem like long shots now. Each of these players have seen their production dip significantly as they’ve gotten older and all three are averaging single-digit points.
The only “usual suspect” left in the race is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is competing with a host of new candidates such as Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton, Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin and New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson among others.
But while it seems there isn’t a clear-cut frontrunner, NBA players see the Sixth Man of the Year race very differently. Basketball Insiders talked to a long list of NBA players and almost every single one said that Crawford deserves the award.
Obviously Crawford’s teammates were quick to campaign for him, but players from all around the NBA voiced their support for the 36-year-old guard as well.
If Crawford is named this season’s Sixth Man of the Year, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to win the award three times. He also earned the honor in 2010 (with the Atlanta Hawks) and 2014 (with the Clippers), joining Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as the only two-time winners.
“When you win games, those individual honors have a way of working themselves out,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “You can’t be in the conversation for any of those things if you’re not winning. To be recognized again would be a great honor! But obviously winning is the most important thing, especially this season. We revamped our team to start the season and then lost our big gun, Blake Griffin, for a while. No one thought we would be in this position now – fourth in the Western Conference – but here we are. It’s taken a collective effort from the coaches and players to get here. And we’re not satisfied with where we are because we still have a long way to go. There’s so much more work to be done.”
This season, Crawford is averaging 14 points in 26.8 minutes off the bench. He stepped up significantly once the Clippers lost Griffin due to injury. Since Dec. 25 (the last time that Griffin played), Crawford has increased his average to 15.5 points per game and he has scored 15 or more points in 27 contests, which is the most of any bench player during that span. He has scored in double figures in 54 games this season. Many players who felt Crawford deserved the award mentioned how he’s helped keep the Clippers’ offense performing at it’s usual high level in Griffin’s absence. L.A. currently has the NBA’s sixth-best offense, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions.
Crawford has also played well when his team needs him most: in the fourth quarter. This season, he leads the Clippers in total points scored in the fourth quarter with 319. He may not start games for Los Angeles, but he often finishes them and makes an impact in the final period.
The fact that Crawford is putting up these numbers on a legitimate contender helps his case for the award too. In the past 20 seasons, every Sixth Man of the Year winner came from a playoff team. Crawford is the leading reserve scorer among all postseason-bound teams.
But perhaps the biggest reason Crawford is so universally respected among opposing players is his ability to create his own shot. He ranks seventh in the league in isolation points (223) behind only stars James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant.
Crawford does some amazing things with the ball in his hands, and he’s excellent in one-on-one situations. Even the best defenders in the NBA admit that they hate guarding Crawford because he has so many different weapons in his offensive arsenal and he’s completely unpredictable. Fouling him is pointless too since he is ranked first in the NBA in free throw percentage this season, hitting 90.9 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
Crawford certainly doesn’t look like a 36-year-old on the court. In fact, as SLAM recently noted, he’s the first NBA player in history to average over 13 points while playing fewer than 27 minutes per game in at least his 16th NBA season. Crawford found that stat amusing. He also laughed when he learned that he’s averaging 18.5 points per-36-minutes this year, which is actually higher than his per-36-minutes scoring average from over a decade ago when he was in his prime with the New York Knicks.
On many teams, Crawford would be starting. However, he has embraced the sixth-man role and enjoys leading the second unit. Still, if asked to start, Crawford will rise to the occasion. In his three starts this season for the Clippers, he averaged 28 points, five assists and four rebounds while shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from three-point range and 94.7 percent from the free throw line.
Crawford has had a number of signature performances this season too.
He had 37 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a November win over the Detroit Pistons (numbers that only Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook have matched this season). Crawford had 32 points (including 6-9 three-pointers) and five assists to beat the Orlando Magic in December. Later that month, he led the Clippers to a win over the Washington Wizards by scoring an efficient 21 points on 9-12 shooting from the field. In January, the veteran guard contributed 26 points (on 11-15 shooting from the field) and three assists to defeat the Chicago Bulls. Last month, Crawford had 26 points in 25 minutes – hitting 10-17 shots, including 3-4 three-pointers – to beat the Brooklyn Nets.
For an example of Crawford getting hot and helping lead L.A. to a victory, look no further than last night’s 25-point performance against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Some NBA decision-makers also believe Crawford is the obvious choice for the award.
“Jamal is worthy of the award almost every year, but he has to get it this year,” said one rival Western Conference executive who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “Without Jamal, they’d have been sunk by the Blake Griffin injury. He is definitely one of the elite sixth men in the league and somehow he still remains underrated. He not only comes off the bench and scores, he does it in a way that helps them win games.”
“Jamal has been amazing; he provides the type of spark off the bench that can be the difference between a team having an early exit in the postseason and making a deep playoff run,” said an NBA assistant coach, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “His instant offense really comes up big in games where game plans are thwarted early and you simply need to get buckets. In my opinion, he deserves Sixth Man of the Year honors.”
It’s clear that there’s an overwhelming number of NBA players who are adamant that Crawford is the NBA’s best sixth man. Many players – young and old, short and tall, East and West – all have a lot of respect for Crawford. Here’s what players told Basketball Insiders:
Sacramento Kings forward Caron Butler: “He’s the greatest sixth man in NBA history. He should win the award this year, and that would solidify him as the best sixth man ever. He was a great teammate [on the Clippers] and an even better person. I’m happy to call him a friend. He has the respect of all of his peers. As athletes, that’s what we all shoot for: winning, being respected and having a solid legacy.”
Indiana Pacers point guard Ty Lawson: “[Winning three Sixth Man awards] has never been done. It would be a big honor for him to win that award three times because he’s one of the best players to have ever come off a bench. You never know what he’s going to do. He might come down and just pull up for a three, or he might give you a hesitation move (which he normally does right before he pulls up for a three) or he just blows by you. It’s so hard to guard him. Even in the lane, he knows how to throw up floaters and he always seems to make them.”
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin: “Jamal is not only a huge part of our bench, but also our team. I’ve never seen a guy be able to come off the bench and consistently score and carry a second unit the way he does while accepting his role. As good as he is on the court, he’s even better off of it. He’s a terrific locker room guy. He should win Sixth Man of the Year this season. And I think he should have won the award two more times than he already has, in my opinion.”
Five-time All-Star Chauncey Billups: “Of course Jamal should be the Sixth Man of the Year this season – again! He’s a guy who deserves a tremendous amount of credit for accepting a reserve role while knowing that he could be a top-five scorer in the league if put in that position. He’s extremely valuable to the Clippers. They depend on his production every night. He’s the best in the league at what he does.”
Two-time All-Star Baron Davis: “I love Jamal Crawford. He is one of my favorite players to watch. He has always been stellar and consistent. He is a player that every team wishes they had coming off the bench. I think he is a key to the Clippers making a run this year. He deserves Sixth Man of the Year because of the impact he has on the team.”
Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton: “He deserves to win Sixth Man of the Year. He’s so important to that team because he’s instant offense off of the bench. He’s somebody who can come in and bring energy and get the crowd into the game. Also, when it comes to closing games, he’s someone who can create his own shot, so he’s very important to the Clippers. He’s tough to guard because he is so good at making tough shots. No shot is a bad shot for him. I remember watching him when I was younger – four-point play after four-point play.”
Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas: “He’s in the conversation every year. He does for his team what other guys try to do and can’t. And it happens to be year 16 in his NBA career! It says a lot about the type of player he is. He could easily start around the league, but he’s a guy who doesn’t care about that and cares about doing what’s best for the team. It’s a blessing to play against Jamal because he is a big brother to me and I’ve known him for so long. Going against him is like playing in his pro-am in the summers; we battle and have fun at the same time. He’s very important to the Clippers. I watch all of their games when I’m not playing and it seems like if Jamal doesn’t play well, then they don’t play well. He’s a big part of their team and when he plays well, they usually win. I believe he should be high up in the conversation about another Sixth Man of the Year award. He deserves it, and his team is winning.”
Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard: “He’s a game-changer for them. They could be having a bad night and he can take over. He makes big shots, tough shots, and draws fouls if you’re too physical.”
Washington Wizards forward Jared Dudley: “Jamal Crawford is one of the most unique players in the NBA. His shot-making ability off the dribble and his uncanny way to get to the free throw line makes him dangerous. He’s the Benjamin Button of the NBA. He’s simply not aging at all.”
Seven-time All-Star Grant Hill: “Aside from his impressive shot-making ability and his vast array of illusory skills, what’s impressed me most about Jamal is his longevity and durability. To be able to dominate off the bench in now his 16th year in the league is quite remarkable.”
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert: “He is, for sure, one of the frontrunners. You know he can go off anytime, so you cannot relax against him.”
Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick: “Jamal is one of a kind – both as a player and a person. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and playing with him the past three seasons. He’s the epitome of what a sixth man should be: someone who instantly changes the flow and dynamic of the game with his skill set. For Jamal, that is scoring the basketball. There are few players, if any, like him.”
Nine-year NBA veteran Mo Evans: “Jamal Crawford is a prolific scorer with a high basketball IQ and a knack for hitting big shots. He did this for our Atlanta Hawks team over and over again in 2010, when he won his first Sixth Man of the Year award. His game is proving to be timeless. He is still equally impactful at 36 years old as he was in his younger years. He has heavily contributed to the Clippers’ success this year, especially with Blake Griffin out of the line-up. He’s a big reason L.A. is fourth in the Western Conference. All things considered, I believe he deserves a historic third Sixth Man of the Year award.”
Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum: “Jamal is one of the toughest covers in the league. His ability to shoot off the dribble and manipulate ball screens makes him a unique guard. [He] also gives the Clippers a secondary ball handler. … Jamal could potentially win [the Sixth Man award] every year.”
Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside: “When he has the ball, you never know what he is going to do with it. [Until this interview], I didn’t know he was 36 years old. Wow. That’s crazy.”
Brooklyn Nets point guard Shane Larkin: “I think Jamal Crawford has a good chance at winning Sixth Man of the Year because he is crucial to the Clippers’ success. He comes into the game for J.J. [Redick] most of the time and immediately makes them more dangerous because he can do everything with the ball offensively and pretty much carries the second unit for them. Whenever you’re playing against him, you have to respect his jumper but he also keeps you on your heels because at any moment he can cross you over and make a mid-range pull-up or get all the way to the bucket. He is the one guy on their second unit who consistently gives other teams problems and produces starter-like numbers. For a team that has been without their leading scorer in Blake Griffin for a long time, he has been huge for them. He finishes a lot of ball games for the them alongside of Chris Paul and it is very difficult to guard them both in multiple pick-and-roll actions with DeAndre [Jordan] rolling to the rim. I think JC has a good chance of winning the award for the third time and it would be pretty cool to see it happen.”
New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn: “It would be nice for him to make history by winning his third Sixth Man award. Not only does he deserve it, that will separate him as the best sixth man ever, which he is. Every time people talk about sixth men, his name comes up and people compare themselves to him. He means a lot to the Clippers. He’s that spark that could really push the lead against teams. And honestly, he’s scouted more than a lot of starters.”
Brooklyn Nets center Willie Reed: “I definitely think Jamal deserves to be Sixth Man of the Year. What he’s done in the absence of Blake [Griffin] to help the Clippers keep rolling has been amazing. Playing against him, you definitely have to shrink your defense. He can shoot the ball and draw contact to get to the line, where he shoots over 90 percent. Also, he has the handles to get wherever he wants on the floor. He’s so difficult to defend.”
Former NBA player and current Providence assistant coach God Shammgod: “I think he should win the award every year, and there’s no doubt that he’s the best sixth man ever. He would start on most teams. As an assistant at Providence, I’ve worked with guards like Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton and I make sure they study Jamal’s game. They study everything from how he breaks defenses down to his pull-up jumper. Every guard can learn from him.”
Portland Trail Blazers forward Ed Davis: “He is super important for that team. He’s a guy who you have to game plan for, otherwise he’ll beat you. He can produce instant offense. He’s the kind of player who can easily go for 16 points in a single quarter.”
Cleveland Cavaliers D-League affiliate player Quinn Cook: “Did Jamal influence my game growing up? Hell yes! I’ve watched every single video of his and I still watch them to this day. He should be Sixth Man of the Year. He’s the primary scorer for their second unit and he’s in the game when it matters. He’s more important to his team than any other sixth man in the league.”
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.