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NBA Daily: Rough Times for Five Key Role Players

A quarter of the 2020-21 season has been played and many teams are trying to dig themselves out of a hole. Chad Smith identifies five struggling role players that will need to turn things around in order for their teams to find success.

Chad Smith

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Role players may not have the spotlight, the insane contracts or the endorsement deals, but they are vital pieces that contribute to team success. There have been countless examples in the past, including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers just last year. The focus for the role player is to excel in one or two areas of the game that they are highly skilled in.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has continued to shoot the lights out for Los Angeles this season. Jordan Clarkson has cemented himself as the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year for the red-hot Utah Jazz. There have been pleasant surprises like Nicolas Batum with the Los Angeles Clippers and vital contributors like De’Andre Hunter with the Atlanta Hawks. Even Andrew Wiggins has produced for the Golden State Warriors.

These players have been thriving in their roles so far this year and their teams are winning because of it. But, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you might find these five players, who just haven’t gotten their season off the ground. Their teams rely on their production, which goes a long way when determining whether or not they make it to the postseason. Time is running out as we hit the quarter-mark of the season but there is still time for these guys to turn it around.

JJ Redick, New Orleans Pelicans

Coming into this season, the New Orleans Pelicans had a very odd collection of talent on their roster. The pieces didn’t really seem to fit well with Zion Williamson and Steven Adams playing alongside each other. The floor spacing looked even bleaker with Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe not providing much of any outside shooting.

In fact, the most glaring issue with this team is their clear lack of three-point shooting. That is the one thing that JJ Redick has been known for his entire career, but the 14-year veteran has gotten off to a slow start this season. New Orleans currently ranks last or in the bottom three in nearly every statistical category related to three-point shooting.

Despite his slow start, Redick would seem to be a coveted trade piece for a title contender. Perhaps a change of scenery could do the sharpshooter.

Redick’s shooting percentages have been abysmal this season. He is shooting 30 percent from deep, the lowest mark of his career. The struggles are not just behind the arc, however, as he is also shooting just 44 percent from inside the three-point line. Throughout his career, he has only had two seasons in which he shot that poorly.

Perhaps a change of scenery would do Redick some good. Either way, he must figure out his shot if he’s to make any meaningful on-court contributions this season.

Robert Covington, Portland TrailBlazers

The run of bad luck in Portland has continued as Terry Stotts’ team has been hit hard by the injury bug once again. Zach Collins is still on the shelf after ankle surgery and, after missing nearly all of last season, Jusuf Nurkic is out with a broken wrist. CJ McCollum was putting up career-high numbers to start the season but is currently in a walking boot.

After making several great additions over the short offseason, the Trail Blazers were supposed to lean on their depth. Derrick Jones Jr. has been invisible aside from the occasional highlight dunk, Harry Giles has barely seen the floor and Enes Kanter has provided some offensive punch in his return but their biggest acquisition has not lived up to expectations. But, arguably the biggest disappointment has been Robert Covington.

Covington was supposed to be the defensive presence on the wing that Portland has lacked for so long. His ability to knock down three-pointers was also supposed to give Damian Lillard and McCollum even more room to operate. But, on the season, he is averaging just 1.5 made threes per game after averaging more than two per game in every season of his career.

On the floor, Covington is shooting just 30 percent overall and an even worse 27 percent from distance. The 30-year old has scored in double figures just twice this season and has missed the last two games due to a concussion. With so many guys out of the lineup and inconsistent play from others, Portland needs Covington to step up now more than ever — if he can turn it around, the team might just barely be able to withstand their current bout of injuries.

Aron Baynes, Toronto Raptors

After having a career-year in Phoenix last season, Aron Baynes was meant to fill the void left by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka up in Toronto. But his production has fallen off of a cliff, to the point where Nick Nurse has had difficulty justifying his minutes. Last week he made his first three-pointer of the calendar year, while last Sunday’s victory over the Indiana Pacers was the first time he scored in double figures since just after Christmas.

The big man’s shooting percentages are down across the board: he is shooting just 18 percent from beyond the arc after shooting at a 35 percent clip last season. The numbers don’t even tell the full story, as this situation has a Roy Hibbert-type meltdown feel to it. Fortunately, Toronto has developed another rising talent in Chris Boucher that has stepped in and filled the void.

Baynes is a 31 percent career shooter from distance, so that is not a large part of his game. The problem is he has been unable to finish around the rim, either, nor fit into any type of role on offense. His calling card has always been defense, but he has been underwhelming on that end of the floor as well.

What Toronto thought they were getting with Baynes is exactly what Boucher has been — and more — so, while a return to form might not make-or-break their season, it might be the difference between a roster spot and a stint on the waiver wire for Baynes.

Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

While the Clippers have been one of the best teams in the entire league, not all of their pieces are thriving. Lou Williams nearly won his fourth Sixth Man of the Year award last season but, so far this season, he hasn’t even been the sixth-best player on his own team.

Perhaps playing fewer minutes has contributed to his regression, or perhaps it is the loss of Montrezl Harrell, who took home that award last season. The two were a dynamic force off of the bench for Los Angeles a year ago, but Williams just has not been able to find his groove without the big man.

Williams’ 18 points per game average from last year has been cut in half this season; it is the first time since the 2006-07 season that he has failed to average double figures in scoring. It wouldn’t be so bad if he was aiding in other areas, but that isn’t happening, either. His assists are down from 5.6 to 2.5 per game while he is offering nothing on defense.

The good news for the Clippers is that they are winning despite his struggles. That said, the team, as much as Williams himself, is likely hoping to see a turnaround at some point this season.

Dāvis Bertāns, Washington Wizards

After opting out of the bubble in Orlando last season, Dāvis Bertāns elected to play it smart when it came to his upcoming free agency. He signed a five-year contract to stay with the Wizards as one of their most potent offensive weapons.

Unfortunately, the sharpshooter has been anything but that this season, getting off to a rocky start in nearly every category.

Last season, Bertāns nearly doubled his career-best scoring average, finishing at 15.4 points per game. He shot 43 percent from beyond the arc and had an effective field goal percentage of 60. But those numbers have fallen significantly this year as he is scoring just 11.8 points per game on 36 percent shooting from deep and 37 percent overall.

His effective field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks are all down from last season. In their loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night, Bertans played 25 minutes and was 0-7 from the floor and finished with just one point.

It has been a rough season in Washington D.C. as the Wizards own the worst record in the entire league. Russell Westbrook has been a shell of himself, while Thomas Bryant is out for the season and the basketball world is just waiting for the team to finally let go of Bradley Beal. The problems for Washington are much deeper than Bertāns, but he is not contributing at the level that he has in the past; if they ever want to dig themselves out, Bertans must step up.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?

The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?

Ariel Pacheco

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After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.

Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.

Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.

That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.

Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.

With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?

In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto. 

Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.

Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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