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Stephen Curry Is Having a Season For the Ages

Stephen Curry is having a monster year – better than any of Steve Nash’s individual seasons, writes Nate Duncan.

Nate Duncan

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Stephen Curry Is Having a Season for the Ages

Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry’s 51-point game against the Dallas Mavericks last week led me to this observation during the game:

It provoked quite a bit of response on both sides, including from analysts who worked with Nash in Phoenix.  To be clear, the comment was not meant to denigrate Nash in the slightest.  As the quarterback of some of the greatest offenses of all-time, he deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Rather, the point was to provide some scale for how amazing Curry has been this season.  Coach Steve Kerr often compares Curry’s game to Nash (with the obvious differences that we’ll get to), and the comparison is a logical one since they are two of the few point guards in the NBA who have combined such levels of shooting and passing.

The biggest difference between the two players is defense, although we should avoid falling into the trap of overrating it for point guards.* While it is important at all positions, a team’s defensive fortunes rise and fall much more with its big men. Nonetheless, it does matter. Curry has become a good defender this year (although he has had lapses in certain games).  Nash was well below-average his entire career.

*Let’s call this the Kirk Hinrich principle. 

Curry has always been a steal maven, and has upped his steal rate to 3.1 percent of opponents’ possessions when he is on the floor. Nash never managed even half that in his prime. Nash’s only strength defensively was taking charges, as he was annually among the league leaders in that category.  But Curry’s quick hands and foot-speed make him a much better help defender than Nash.

More importantly, Nash almost never guarded the other team’s point guard in Phoenix if he were any sort of a threat, both because Nash was a poor individual defender and to save his energy for offense.  This was most notable in Phoenix’s titanic clashes against the San Antonio Spurs in 2005, 2007 and 2008, when Nash would usually be hidden on Bruce Bowen or someone like Brent Barry.  That forced Shawn Marion, usually the team’s power forward, to guard Tony Parker out on the perimeter.  Although those Phoenix defenses were a little underrated in that they managed to be average rather than terrible as is commonly believed, Nash essentially never played on a good defense in his career.  Although he did not exactly benefit from amazing defenders behind him much of the time, almost no one would argue that Nash was good defensively.

To date, the Warriors have by far the number one defense in the NBA by over 1.7 points per 100 possessions, per Nylon Calculus.  While much more of the credit for that should go to his teammates rather than Curry, it is very hard to imagine they could maintain that level with Nash in Curry’s stead. *

*Especially since the Warriors still had the number one defense while Andrew Bogut was injured for a month.

In terms of individual box score statistics, Curry’s 2014-15 has Nash beat.  His 27.4 PER is over three points better than any Nash season.  Nash four times recorded a better True Shooting Percentage than Curry’s .624, but never at anywhere near Curry’s 28.7 usage percentage.  Nash was certainly a much better passer as one of the best of all-time, but Curry is no slouch in that area. And Curry turns it over significantly less often than Nash, whether measured by turnover percentage, turnovers per 36 minutes or turnovers per 100 possessions.  Curry is also a much better rebounder this season than Nash ever was in his prime.

On film, Curry does a lot of things that Nash simply couldn’t.  He is much more dynamic off the dribble, making defenders look silly a few times per game.  And his jump shot is more versatile, especially from three-point range.  Curry gets his shot off much faster, and can do it easier one-on-one.  Teams periodically had a little success slowing down Nash by switching the pick and roll, but a big man on Curry is absolute suicide.

Nash was one of the greatest shooters ever, but it took him awhile to load up his release since he used his legs a little more. Curry’s volume and versatility from beyond the three-point line is a completely different animal for defenses to guard.  The Davidson product is also much more deadly using screens off the ball or shooting off dribble handoffs, roles in which Nash was not used nearly as much if at all.

The most common Twitter defense for Nash was that his offenses ranked number one in the league every year in his prime, and it’s a good one.  And even that probably understates how good those offenses were, since they often were two points/100 or more better than the number two offenses in those years. Clearly Nash’s effect on his team exceeded mere box score stats. He was certainly an enormous part of that.  But he does not deserve anywhere near all of the credit.  From the beginning of his run as an All-Star in 2001-02 through 2009-10, Nash played with perhaps the league’s best ever pick and roll big man and the league’s best ever pick and pop big man.  And the argument that Nash made Amar’e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki is not a good one.  He certainly helped their efficiency, but they were no slouches on their own. Stoudemire was awesome in New York before his body betrayed him, and Nowitzki achieved even greater heights after Nash’s departure.

Nash almost always played with either a shooter or a wing at the four, such as Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Channing Frye.  And those Suns teams in his prime had a ton of shooting around him along with some excellent wings like Jason Richardson and Joe Johnson.  Nash certainly improved the three-point shooting of guys like Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell by helping them get more open shots.  But even hitting 40 percent on open threes is a huge skill in the NBA – they helped space the floor for him as well.

Curry has never played with an offensive big man anywhere near the caliber of Stoudemire or Nowitzki, or even young (and skinny) Boris Diaw.  Klay Thompson is having his own breakout season this year and is a better shooter than anyone Nash played with, but even the Warriors themselves would acknowledge a lack of additional shooting beyond Thompson and Curry on the roster.  Nevertheless, Golden State’s offense has been awesome this year, especially with Curry on the court.  Per NBA.com, they are scoring 114 points per 100 possessions with him out there, and only 100.3 with him on the bench.  Overall, their net rating with him on the court is a crazy 17.3 points/100, and that 114 points scored per/100 is 3.4 better than the league-leading Clippers.  Although Curry is not the passer Nash was, Curry’s gravity and his own higher-usage scoring is pushing the Warriors to nearly the same levels as the Nash-led Suns.  Curry currently leads the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, which measures a player’s on-court impact while adjusted for the effect of his teammates and the opposition.

NBA.com only has on/off data going back to the 2007-08 season, but from that year through 2010 the Suns were right around 115 points/100 with Nash on the floor.  The Suns performed at similar overall levels going back to 2004-05, so it is reasonable to assume they were playing at a similar level with Nash in the game back then as well.  The point is, the Nash-led Suns only performed about 1 point/100 better on offense with Nash in the game than this year’s Warriors are with Curry playing.  Now, that must be normalized for the fact the league’s offensive environment was worse in many of those years, but we also must consider that teams these days are much better at using the new rules defensively and dealing with spread pick and roll.  But even more importantly, the offensive talent on the 2014-15 Warriors pales in comparison to those Suns teams.  Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are skilled passers and screeners, but neither qualifies as an above-average scorer.  Andre Iguodala is in the same boat, while David Lee has played few minutes with Curry this year, can’t shoot threes and is not having one of his better years.  The biggest flaw in the pro-Nash argument is that it seems to give almost no credit to his teammates. Nowitzki and Stoudmire are two of the best offensive power forwards ever, while Marion should probably also join them in Springfield one day. The rest of the cast included a number of very good offensive players. Curry’s supporting cast doesn’t come close to measuring up offensively.

So Curry is pushing the Warriors to nearly Suns-esque heights even with a much worse offensive supporting cast.  Add in Curry’s vastly superior defense and rebounding, and it is clear to this writer at least that Curry is now playing at a higher level than Nash ever achieved.

With that said, it must be noted that the comparison was just a snapshot between what Curry is doing right now compared to any particular season of Nash’s career.  Nash’s longevity is very unique in NBA history, as only John Stockton managed to maintain such a level of effectiveness late into his career at point guard.  Curry has an incredibly long way to go to match Nash’s career.  But it must be noted that Nash did not even have his first good season until 2000-01 in Dallas at age 26.  If Curry’s shooting ability allows him to age anywhere near as well as Nash did, he could eventually eclipse Nash.  That, however, is an extremely tall order; only another 10 great seasons to go.

Payne Trade Positions Hawks for Off-Season

As noted on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks’ 2015 offseason is complicated by the fact they only have the Early Bird rights of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, meaning that they may have to use salary-cap space to re-sign those players.  In that piece, I speculated that Atlanta might try to dump salary to facilitate those re-signings or use the space for outside players if Millsap and Caroll are willing to fit their salaries within the Early Bird exceptions.  Atlanta’s trade of Adreian Payne for a 2017 lottery-protected first-rounder from Minnesota today gives them a little more breathing room in case Millsap and Carroll’s market is a little better than anticipated.  His $1.9 million for 2015-16 and $2 million for 2016-17 is now on Minnesota’s books.

*The protections on the pick, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst: Lottery-protected through 2020.

Given how little Payne was playing, the fact they have Mike Scott under contract for another two years after this one at a bargain $3.3 million per and the fact Payne is already 23 and has had health issues, Atlanta surrenders little in this deal.  Since they are unexpectedly contenders this season and probably expect to be next year as well, Payne wasn’t helping a lot.  The 2017 pick is a lot more useful, as by then Millsap, Korver, Horford and Carroll will likely be out of their primes and some rebuilding will be necessary.  Although discounting the 15th pick of the 2014 draft for a worse pick in 2017 or possibly later is a bit of a disappointment, Atlanta’s changed circumstances meant they just weren’t going to have a use for Payne.  They also may have seen enough of him in practice that they realized he wasn’t that good.  In that case, it was time to cut bait immediately before his value was further degraded by sitting on the bench.

From Minnesota’s side, it seems pretty clear that Flip Saunders sees little hope for Anthony Bennett.  Saunders brought in Thaddeus Young to play over Bennett in a disastrous trade of Miami’s top-10 protected first rounder to Philadelphia (part of the Andrew Wiggins deal), and Payne is yet another stretch four.  Hopefully the Wolves can find a trade market for Young, a potential free agent after the season, and find some time for both Payne and Bennett.

But there is some good news in this trade for NBA fans. Since the pick is lottery-protected rather than at some arbitrary number within the lottery, NBA fans will be spared the prospect of the Wolves tanking to keep their pick. NBA watchers will recall the annual tradition of Minnesota tanking down the stretch in the late 2000s after they attached a top-10 protected first-rounder to Sam Cassell so they could acquire Marko Jaric.  No need yet to bring in Mark Madsen as an assistant starting in 2016-17.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division

Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.

Chad Smith

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Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.

But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?

The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.

Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense

After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.

Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.

The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.

Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.

They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.

John Collins Suspension

The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.

But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.

Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.

As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.

If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.

At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start

Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?

On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.

With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.

And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.

Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.

Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.

Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.

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NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution

Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.

Jack Winter

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Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.

When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.

The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.

The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.

Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.

Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.

It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.

Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.

He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.

Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.

Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.

The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.

Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.

Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.

Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.

And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around. 

Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles

Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.

Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).

But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.

Knicks Offensive Woes

The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.

And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).

Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.

The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.

Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.

Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.

Now,  he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?

On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.

But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.

Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug

This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.

Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.

And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.

Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again –  to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.

We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.

But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.

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