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The Big 3: Hawks, Award Races and Play of the Week

This week’s Big 3 features the sneaky Hawks, award races and a slick Play of the Week.

Ben Dowsett

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Welcome to The Big 3, where we convene to break down three notable stories, features or plays from the week that was in the NBA. This week’s edition features the Atlanta Hawks’ strange trajectory, a wide-open awards race and a Play of the Week to help illustrate the value of spacing in the NBA. Let’s get started!

  1. The Hawks, Inscrutable

When Atlanta sent Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers a couple weeks ago for a return package that was effectively just a future first-round pick, it appeared the writing was on the wall. The Hawks were in the midst of a disappointing year where they were merely fighting for a playoff spot rather than potentially locking up a home series in the first round like some had expected and Korver move was expected to be the first domino in a series of tear-down moves that dropped them fully out of contention and focused on the future.

Things were already changing at the time they made the move, though, and they’ve kept changing. The Hawks had won four straight before dealing Korver, a streak which would eventually reach seven straight and nine of 10 once he was gone. They now sit in that once-elusive home playoff seed – they’d be fourth in the East if the season ended today.

There are a few ways to look at this from the Hawks’ standpoint. This stretch of schedule looked pretty friendly for Atlanta for weeks leading up to it, so could these recent wins just be an expected part of the deal? Maybe, but recent rumors that star forward Paul Millsap was now off the trading block make it seem as though perhaps their decision-making changed somewhere along the line.

If that’s the case, the options are a little juicier. Is it possible the Hawks were originally planning a major fire sale, but pivoted quickly due to their strong run? Even juicier, is it possible that Korver’s absence suddenly made certain staffers realize the team might be better without him? It sounds a bit crazy, but Korver’s level has definitely slipped this year and the team was performing much better with him on the bench while he was in town.

Or maybe this was the plan all along. Maybe the Hawks saw the writing on the wall with Korver and figured the best way to get real value for him was to frame a trade as the first domino in a rebuild before pulling back on their other assets. It’s a savvy bit of maneuvering if so, and one that could set the Hawks up better for the future.

We’ll never know for sure, and it’s likely the answer is some combination of these theories. No matter what, tracking the Hawks for the rest of the year – and especially up to the trade deadline – will be interesting.

  1. Wide-Open Races

Joel Embiid has liquefied the Rookie of the Year race before it even got started and Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be running away with Most Improved Player. Still, there are several other big end-of-season award races which, as of just over halfway through the season, still feel close to wide-open.

The MVP race has felt like a two-man job for most of the year, but squint hard enough and there are some cracks in the cases of both Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Oklahoma City Thunder are beginning to slide a bit in the standings, now jostling with Memphis for the 6-seed and three full games back of Utah for anything higher than that – it’s historically nearly impossible to win the MVP on a team that’s not at least hosting a home playoff series in the first-round.

In Harden’s case, the Houston Rockets’ prolific success while their star is off the floor (a situation not duplicated by guys like Westbrook or LeBron James) has some whispering about “value” conversations despite his amazing production. Those two still lead the pack, to be sure. But with Kevin Durant putting up a ridiculously efficient season for the league-best Warriors, James still functioning as Cleveland’s only on-court hope at regularly winning basketball games and names like Leonard, Thomas and Lowry lurking in the wings, don’t count any chickens here yet.

Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green likely lead Defensive Player of the Year, but it’s neck-and-neck between the two and dark horses like Kawhi Leonard and DeAndre Jordan still loom if their teams have strong second halves defensively. Coach of the Year could go about 10 different ways – it would seem like Mike D’Antoni and Dave Fizdale are near the top of the heap for now, but guys like Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Dwane Casey, Ty Lue and Quin Snyder could all deserve the spot depending on who you ask.

For Sixth Man of the Year, it would appear Eric Gordon and Enes Kanter are among the favorites. But who can count out Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford at any point? Does anyone ever have any clue who’s winning Executive of the Year until it happens?

All of this is without even getting into various All-NBA teams, which could create as much noise as ever this year due to their potential attachment to Designated Player contracts in the newly-signed CBA. It’s going to be fun to track several of these races as we close in on April and May.

  1. Play of the Week

If you still think of the NBA’s shooting revolution as nothing but a lazy replacement for “purer” kinds of basketball, there are dozens of reasons why the game left you behind years ago. One of the strongest? Three-pointers directly influence dunks and layups, the more “traditional” great shots purists continually yell themselves hoarse about.

There’s no better team to illustrate this than the league’s three-point poster boys, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors launch a ton of triples, but they supplement their unparalleled shooting arsenal with smart plays designed to leverage that shooting into free points – and they do it using a bit of nitty-gritty Xs and Os.

The common tactics for defending Stephen Curry when he handles the ball in pick-and-roll have mostly been tried and tested down to two methods most opponents take: Either they blitz him with both his defender and the screener’s defender, forcing the ball out of his hands earlier, or they simply switch the screen and live with whatever damage Curry does to a bigger defender. The other main option – defending him conservatively and dropping the big man back into the paint like many teams do against most pick-and-rolls – is suicide, as it leaves Curry an open pull-up three anytime he wants.

For teams who choose to blitz or trap Curry with both pick-and-roll defenders, the Warriors have a wrinkle to get an even higher expected point value out of the play. They use a tactic called “shorting” the pick-and-roll – let’s see who can spot it on first viewing.

As Curry is rounding his pick set by JaVale McGee, it’s clear the Kings are looking to trap him with Kosta Koufos, who was guarding McGee. At the same time, note Draymond Green (left side of the screen) moving from a standard weak side dunker position over to the opposite, strong side:

The biggest obstacle in this play is honestly Curry getting the ball out over two defenders, and he generally does just fine given his craftiness. Here, by the time the ball is leaving his hands, look at the head start McGee has on Koufos:

Draymond catches the ball on the right block – there’s no effort from Rudy Gay, guarding Andre Iguodala in the strong side corner, to interrupt the pass to Green, which might have been Sacramento’s last actual chance at stopping this play. Instead, Green (one of the best taller passers in the league) and McGee are two-on-one with the helpless Anthony Tolliver:

The Warriors are smart and detail-oriented – note in the above still how Klay Thompson is the guy spacing the floor on the weak side, meaning his defender, Garrett Temple (17 in black), can’t sell out helping McGee, lest he risk a wide open three for Thompson. As a result, McGee gets the easy two points. Watch it again:

Before you rip on the three-pointer next time, remember that it’s all connected.

 

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?

Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?

Ariel Pacheco

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The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East? 

The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.

The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis. 

Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills. 

Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line —  in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.

RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.

But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.

The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games. 

There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.

Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games. 

That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.

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NBA Daily: Raul Neto Seizing His Opportunity in Washington

Tristan Tucker examines Raul Neto who, in the midst of a career resurgence, has provided the Washington Wizards with some much-needed stability at the point guard position in the absence of Russell Westbrook.

Tristan Tucker

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Washington Wizards guard Raul Neto is coming off one of the more disappointing seasons of his career. Waived by the Utah Jazz, Neto joined a Philadelphia 76ers’ roster in 2019 that had some serious championship aspirations. Unfortunately, like the 76ers, Neto’s season fell flat.

For many former second round picks, a rough season could signal the conclusion of a career. But not for Neto, who has persevered and turned his career around to start the 2020-21 season.

Neto exploded onto the scene for the Wizards and has really shown an ability to hold it down on the court, especially in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. He’s averaged career-highs almost across the board so far, recording 8.9 points and 1 steal per contest on outstanding percentages; Neto’s shot 52.7 from the field and 42.4 percent from three, both by far the highest of his career and, among Wizards with at least 10 games played, rank fifth and sixth on the team, respectively.

“I think I have been around different teams and I try and do whatever the team needs on the court,” Neto said. “If it needs to play with more pace or if it needs more scoring, I will try and do whatever I can to help. I think that’s how I fit so quickly on the team.”

Neto began his professional career in Brazil when he was just 16 years old, playing for the World Team in 2010 at the Nike Hoop Summit and then heading to Spain for the 2011-12 season. After two impressive seasons, the 28-year-old point guard was selected with the 47th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta then traded Neto to the Jazz where he eventually signed on for the 2015-16 NBA season.

Immediately, Neto was cast into a big role with the Jazz, starting in the season opener and starting in 53 of his 81 appearances that season. His efforts earned him a spot as a member of the World Team in the 2016 Rising Stars Challenge.

Neto would go on to play a majority of his next three seasons in the G-League, finding a hard time sticking to a role that suited him in Utah. When Philadelphia tried to remake its roster in the 2019 offseason, Neto was called in to give the team an able-shooting ball-handler, one that they desperately needed. However, Neto was, again, miscast and, while he was getting good minutes, the team as a whole struggled to find their identity and, as a result, everyone’s play suffered.

In the 2020 offseason, Neto was able to find a roster spot on the Wizards, who saw him as a potential diamond-in-the-rough type and a player that they should take a chance on. And their gamble has paid huge dividends as, at the moment, Neto has given Washington a reliable piece to play next to All-Star Bradley Beal.

“[Neto] does a tremendous job of running the team, running the offense,” Beal said after a Wizards’ preseason game. “He gets after it, he’s a real pest. I always make fun of him because he has a strong build…he’s very strong.”

Traits that likely stood out to Washington were Neto’s calm demeanor and his ability to run the offense, something that a few of his younger teammates could learn from and, hopefully, pick up themselves. Players like Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura have shown much promise as scorers and playmakers and should continue to benefit from players like Neto that are able to get them the ball accurately and consistently.

“Deni [Avdija]’s very talented, he’s very very talented,” Neto said. “He’s young so he’s got a lot to learn and get better. He’s a very good player, he’s been playing professionally overseas for a while…Rui [Hachimura] is also a very good player. Strong, plays hard and very good defense. Probably going to be our guy, like today he was guarding [Kevin Durant], he can go against guys in this league that are tall and can score.”

While the Wizards are in the midst of a disappointing season, something that may prove worthwhile in the long run may be to give Neto, who’s averaged just under 17 minutes per game, a larger role, perhaps as the team’s sixth man. When Neto is on the floor, Washington’s already potent offense gets even better — multiple lineups that feature Neto have posted an offensive rating of at least 130 points per 100 possessions — and, while it isn’t that cut-and-dry, it would behoove the Wizards to experiment and see what he can do in a larger role.

“I just try to play my game,” Neto said. “With my new team, I’m trying to understand my teammates and play the game the way Scott [Brooks] wants us to play and just move the ball and be a player out there that tries to help the team and do whatever I have to do. If I have to shoot, if I have to score depending on who I am on the court…”

“I think, number-wise, I did great,” Neto said after the Wizards’ preseason opener. “I think there’s always room for improvement and I think I’m going to work on that and take advantage of my opportunities.”

“[Neto] has heart, he has grit, he has everything we need,” Beal said. “He can shoot the leather off the ball which is what I love about him too.”

Neto isn’t the solution to all of Washington’s problems — of which, there are many — but there’s no denying the impact he’s had, even in his short time with the team. With the turnaround he’s seen, Neto has not only proven that he belongs in the NBA, but that he can serve as a solid veteran spot-starter or bench piece. Not just for a Washington team that can use just about anyone right now, either, but for any team looking for a consistent shooter and leader on the court.

“It’s easy when you have teammates like we do,” Neto said following a preseason game. “I’m just trying to work hard and play the right way. I think we have improved…we’re still going to get better.”

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Point-Counter Point: Where Should The NBA Expand?

For the first time since 2004 when the NBA allowed Charlotte to have a second go at a franchise, the NBA is seriously entertaining the idea of expansion. The NBA, like many businesses, has seen its revenue ravaged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could look to monetize new markets as a means to recover some of those losses, the burning question remains, where to expand?

Basketball Insiders

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From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the topic of NBA expansion, which for the first time since 2004 when the NBA allowed Charlotte to have a second go at a franchise, the NBA is seriously entertaining the idea of expansion,

The NBA, like many businesses, has seen its revenue ravaged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could look to monetize new markets as a means to recover some of those losses, the burning question remains, where to expand?

The most popular candidate among cities that haven’t been home to an NBA franchise previously is Las Vegas, whihc makes a ton of sense and has to be a heavy favorite if the NBA does expand.

The market and potential for revenue have long made sense from a financial perspective, but the stigma around ‘Sin City’ was an issue. Things have changed quickly, though, and professional sports and the public, in general, are much more accepting of sports gambling than in previous years.

The NHL was the first professional league to enter the market with the Las Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. The team won the Stanley Cup in their first year as an expansion team and have quickly become a popular team in the league.

The WNBA and NFL have since joined the NHL in Las Vegas with the Aces (WNBA) and LAs Vegas Raiders (NFL). The NBA could soon be joining them. Vegas is the 28th most populous city in the U.S. and generates a ton of traffic from all over the world. It just makes too much sense.

Another reason it’s only a matter of time is the NBA’s already established in the city as a league. For years the NBA Summer League has been held in the area and it has become quite a popular event. Many from the industry attend, from media to players.

Finally, Vegas has a home stadium ready to go in T-Mobile Arena.

London could be a huge move for the league and sports in general, but the timing isn’t right. Given the current circumstances in the world, London doesn’t seem as likely as other cities. That’s unfortunate, as it makes a ton of sense from the league’s perspective. Not only would it be the first NBA franchise to be based in Europe, but it would also beat the other major U.S. sports leagues in getting there.

The timing would be great too, as the league has a number of up-and-coming players from Europe. That’s caused an increase in popularity worldwide, so surely fans would be excited to get a team of their own.

Given the things that would have to be worked out to have a team playing so far from most of the league, it’s hard to imagine the NBA going through those obstacles on top of the global situation as of today. Patience will be key for London, but it’s one of the best options if things were different right now.

The last two cities that come to mind in terms of contending cities are Mexico City and Louisville. While the NBA would be wise to wait to expand overseas, Mexico City could be a great option. There’s an untapped market south of the U.S. border and it would be much easier to add to the league in short order than somewhere in Europe.

Louisville makes sense as well as a city that offers a market not being maximized by the league. It’s a great basketball city for college hoops, as is the state of Kentucky in general. Residents would buy in right away and it may offer the most loyal fanbase the NBA can establish in little time.

– Garrett Brook


The city that immediately comes to mind when thinking of expansion in the NBA Is Seattle. Home to the SuperSonics from 1967-2008, the team was a staple of the city before being bought in 2006 and subsequently moved to Oklahoma City two years later.

The SuperSonics had a lot of success in Seattle during their 41-year stint, making the playoffs 22 times, the NBA Finals three times and taking home one NBA Championship in 1979. The SuperSonics have maintained national relevance since their departure.

In a poll done by the Herald Net at the beginning of the year, 48 percent of responders said it was “very important” to bring the SuperSonics back to Seattle. In a Twitter poll done by a journalist at the same newspaper, 77 percent of respondents said that it was “very important” to bring the SuperSonics back. And, because the NHL is expanding to Seattle, the city is currently building a brand new $930 million stadium.

One of the primary reasons the team pulled out of Seattle in the first place was because the team wanted a new stadium, and the city refused to invest the money necessary to build one. All of this packaged together with Seattle’s rapid growth as a city, over 400,000 people have moved to the Seattle metro area since the SuperSonics left, which means if the NBA decides to expand, don’t be surprised if Seattle is the immediate favorite.

Another city that comes to mind when speaking of expansion is Vancouver, the former home of the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Vancouver Grizzlies didn’t have much success in their six seasons, thanks mainly to poor management in the front office. If given a more successful team, Vancouver could play host to an NBA team yet again.

Attendance started in the middle part of the league in the Grizzlies opening couple of seasons in the NBA, showing that there is interest in basketball in the area, but as the team continued to struggle year after year, they slipped to the back half of the league.

Another reason cited for the Grizzlies’ departure from Vancouver was the value of the Canadian dollar at the time compared to American dollars; that is less of an issue now as the Canadian dollar has become much closer in value to the American dollar over the last 20 years. It stands to reason that a good team would draw more interest than it did in their first run in the city, especially with the sport of basketball growing in Canada as a whole.

If the NBA wants a team further east, Pittsburgh is a city with a passionate group of sports fans that would almost certainly rally around a team were they to have success early on. Pittsburgh features successful franchises in the NHL, NFL and MLB, so it stands to reason an NBA franchise would succeed in the city as well. There would also be no worries over having to build a stadium in Pittsburgh since the Penguins stadium, PPG Paints Arena, has a capacity of 19,758, which is more than the average capacity for an NBA arena.

Kansas City is another place that has a lot of basketball history, even if it was over 35 years ago. The Sacramento Kings were initially located in Kansas City from 1972-1985 and even made the Western Conference Finals in the 1980-81 season with a team that featured former Wizards’ general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Kansas City did struggle with attendance during that period, but since 1985 the city of Kansas City has grown quite a lot, with the city’s population going from 1.15 million in 1985 to nearly 1.7 million at the start of 2021. Plus, the success of the Chiefs and Royals have both had in the city in recent years – both have won championships in the last 10 years – indicates that an NBA franchise would have the ability to succeed there as well.

– Zach Dupont

EDITORIAL NOTE: While the NBA is exploring the viability of expansion, there is no timeline currently being discussed. Obviously, with the current state of the pandemic, NBA expansion is not going to happen soon, but as the world normalizes in a post-vaccine world, expansion seems more likely in the NBA than it has in almost two decades, so expect to hear more about this topic.

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