Allow us to welcome you back into The ‘Shop for another week of entertaining (and maybe a bit enlightening) NBA talk. Our Jabari Davis and Lang Greene will be joined by Justin Rowan (Fear The Sword, Hoops Habit and Press Basketball) for this week’s conversation.
Jabari: Great to have you with us this week, Justin. We certainly appreciate you taking the time to stop in for a few Reggie Miller lines and a Dwight Howard faux-hawk. We’ll kick things off in your neck of the woods with the Cavs and start by asking for your gut reaction to the Kyle Korver deal? Was it enough to make you believe the Cavs are the clear-cut team to beat or were you already comfortable with stating that given the way their last four meetings have gone?
Justin: Thanks for having me. My gut reaction to the Korver deal is that it’s another steal for David Griffin. Everybody knows what Korver can do and how seamless the fit should be, but it also gives the team the ability to address other issues via trade, free agency, or on the buyout market.
I still think the Warriors are the favorite heading into the Finals. They’re still figuring things out, but they’re likely the most talented team ever assembled. However, unlike last season I think the Cavs have a much better chance at winning. Last season took a tremendous amount of luck with injuries and a suspension to win, whereas this season these teams appear to be on much more even footing.
Lang: Welcome to the mix. Appreciate the time, bro. I’ll simply say this. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. Salute to Ric Flair. The Cleveland Cavaliers absolutely walked through the fire last season to get their hands raised in victory versus the Golden State Warriors. And since then there has been no shortage of folks talking about Draymond’s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury and whether or not Stephen Curry was at full strength.
But I’ll say this, when the Warriors dispatched Cleveland back in 2015, I didn’t hear any of this stuff last season when the Warriors were on their way to 73 wins. I didn’t hear about Kevin Love being injured. Crickets about Kyrie Irving being hurt in game one of the Finals. Heck, Matthew Dellavedova was hospitalized for dehydration during the series. No one put an asterisk on Golden State’s win. But Cleveland’s epic 3-1 come-from-behind series win has all types of asterisks placed on it – at every turn.
Right now, I still favor Cleveland. I tend to lean toward teams that have won together. Teams that have been through that fire and persevered through the stormy weather. Golden State’s original core has too … but they also have a new member in the fold in Kevin Durant. When (or if) the chips are down, how will everyone react? I am looking forward to Part III. Hopefully neither side will have an excuse come the end of June.
Justin: Oh I definitely get that. In my opinion the Finals should be 1-1, just in the opposite order they happened. The Cavs have the pieces to disrupt the Warriors and come away with their second title. Now that the season series is over, it’ll be interesting to see what chess moves are made by each team before the seemingly inevitable June showdown.
Jabari: After the way the Dubs beat the brakes off the Cavs last night, I definitely understand you being hesitant to say Cleveland is the clear-cut favorite, Justin. That said, can we all acknowledge LeBron’s “this isn’t a rivalry” talk is total nonsense? I know we are skipping all types of steps and presuming general team health in ways we really shouldn’t when it comes to professional sports, but barring anything crazy happening, we are headed for a third consecutive matchup in the Finals. The players can “act” like it doesn’t matter whether they square off once again, but we can all tell they want Round 3, can’t we? Also, Justin, is there an EC team you see that can really challenge the Cavs along the way? Are we going to pretend the Raptors finally have enough?
Justin: Hahaha. For the record, I was saying for about a week that the Warriors would win by at least twenty. I think what LeBron is doing with the rivalry talk is playing mind games with his own team. He’s constantly trying to enforce a mindset that the Warriors are the better team and that they must keep pushing to get to that level. He understands the dangers of becoming complacent or overconfident. Hell, that was a big part of why the Warriors lost last year.
I’m still out on the Raptors as a legitimate threat to the Cavs. They simply don’t have the defensive personnel to combat the Cavs. If you look at the player tracking data, Jonas Valanciunas is worse defensively than Enes Kanter in many key areas. The issue is they don’t have many alternatives. They also don’t have a secondary playmaker, meaning if you put length on Lowry they’ll fall apart. Which is a big part of why they’re 1-8 against the Cavs, Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers this season.
If anybody is going to give the Cavs a hard time, it would be Milwaukee, assuming Middleton returns. They have the length to bother the Cavs and force a tough series like round one against Detroit. While that series was a sweep, it was a much closer series on a game to game basis than the six-game series against the Raptors. Milwaukee has the ability to turn a series into a slugfest
Lang: Justin makes a very good point. Like I said last week, no one is beating the Golden State Warriors in a track meet. It just isn’t happening. And no one is beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in a series out East unless they turn it into a flat out, pier six brawl (slugfest). From what I can see, there isn’t a team out in the East that has the mental toughness and grit to do it in a seven game series.
Milwaukee is going to be a live dog against anyone come playoff time, make no mistake, but the problem with Milwaukee right now is nobody knows how Khris Middleton will return to action. Will he return ready to play 28-32 minutes a night and give 17-19 points per contest? Or will his comeback from injury mirror Chandler Parsons’ long road to recovery down in Memphis – slow and plodding. Still getting back into game shape versus the Cavaliers during “money” time isn’t an island you want to be on. The other issue I have with Milwaukee is their lack of offensive firepower outside of Giannis and Jabari Parker.
The Raptors don’t have enough defense and Boston is too – sorry, I didn’t do this on purpose – green. What I am looking forward to is hopefully a series between Toronto and Boston. I’ve heard it various times how ticked off some of the Raptors were that people automatically had Boston leapfrog them this past summer by adding Al Horford. The battle for #2 in the East is like a right of passage. Remember when Indiana and New York would have absolute wars just to get served up to the Chicago Bulls in the next round? Ha.
Justin: Boston still freaks me out with their lack of rebounding. When you get to the playoffs and each possession matters more, that’s the type of thing that can kill you. Isaiah Thomas has hit some huge shots in the fourth quarter this season, but those shots would feel a lot greater to me if it was coming from behind, rather than stopping the bleeding as they blow another lead. A Raptors-Celtics series would be fantastic, but if I had to make a bold prediction I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance one of those teams collapses in the first round. Toronto almost lost in game seven to Indiana last season, while this Boston roster can’t seem to make it past the opening round.
Jabari: Milwaukee was my sleeper team in the EC heading into the season, but that Middleton injury killed that noise. Whether he comes back for the final playoff push (or not), I agree that isn’t the ideal time to attempt to make a run at dethroning the defending champs and I wouldn’t anticipate them putting everything together on the spot. I feel like we all wanted to continue proclaiming just how much of a “genius” Brad Stevens is, so we ‘hoped’ the addition of Horford would have even more of an impact. The truth is, Isaiah Thomas is their best player and while I want to see him on the All-Star team, his exploits (tremendous as they’ve been) won’t likely be enough to knock off one of the top teams.
Before we transition out West for a bit, what’s going on with Brooklyn and why can’t they seem to turn things around? I know we laugh at the Sixers and other perennial losers, but it feels like we give Brooklyn a pass because they “act” like they are trying to win each offseason by bringing in free agents. Let me get each of you to put on your GM hats on for a few moments and tell me how you would turn things around with the Nets. Blow it up, entirely? Make another run at putting together the cap space to lure a couple free agents the way they attempted to about five years ago? You tell me.
Justin: I think they get a pass now because they just brought in Sean Marks. I loved what they did this summer of trying to snag restricted free agents with big offer sheets. While those deals were matched, it was a smart strategy I expect them to use next summer. As for what I would do, I’d try to shop Brook Lopez in an effort to get some young talent. I’d want at least one legitimate building block in return, otherwise I’d probably stay put. But their options are incredibly limited due to the situation the previous regime put them in. They need young talent desperately.
Lang: I believe Brooklyn is getting a pass for the moment because there aren’t many signs of dysfunction. Toward the end of the old regime, you were dealing with the remnants of acquiring Joe Johnson’s contract and the sudden decline of Deron Williams as an elite player (after paying him tons). If you also factor in the “all-in” trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (and please don’t forget the Jason Kidd power grab drama), you have all of the necessary ingredients for the soup the New York media loves – drama and noodle.
So out goes the old GM and old coaching staff. For all of the mistakes Brooklyn made in recent years, the new GM and coach were well received by the media. Then the team swings for the fences in restricted free agency to get immediately better. But Miami and Portland matched. If you have the media praising the hires just a few months ago, I wouldn’t expect too many hit pieces right now – especially devoid of DRAMA.
Jabari: You guys make some good points about the Nets, and I suppose we have to give the current regime some time to get things together, but I just wonder why we never hear much about them when the discussion about rebuilding franchises take place. So, in an effort to completely alienate that market, let me shift the focus to the Knicks for a moment. Justin, let me get you to speak to what they should do with Carmelo Anthony. I realize he has the no-trade clause, but it certainly appears like those conversations are taking place behind the scenes … and quite publicly. Lang, feel free to respond to that, but let me also get you to comment on the best possible options for ‘Melo if they elect to move him.
Justin: I think Melo believes he will outlast Phil in New York. It doesn’t sound like he is going to be waiving his no-trade clause. While he shoulders some blame, I think the organization has failed him more than he’s failed them. If it wasn’t for the Noah contract, they wouldn’t be in such a bad spot.
Even if he were to waive his NTC, a fair return for Melo would prevent you from picking in the top 7 or 8. The only way this team is going to truly improve is via free agency. I’d like to see them move Kristaps to the five and Melo to the four. But it seems anytime the organization makes some progress they get in their own way. Don’t forget, Toronto traded Lowry to the Knicks for pennies on the dollar only to have Dolan veto the deal at the last minute.
Lang: The best thing for both parties would have been not agreeing to that five-year deal to begin with. Melo had other options on the table that made better “basketball” sense. But he dedicated himself to the New york Knicks rebuild and also secured another 20-25 million for his trouble with the fifth year in the deal. Without Melo, Phil Jackson could have started a ground up rebuild in New York from a fresh canvas. I don’t always suggest hitting rock bottom, but the Knicks would be an exception. But Phil decided to play it safe. Now they’re both stuck with each other through the good and mostly bad. They both have had exit hatches and didn’t use them.
Jabari: You’re probably right about ‘Melo outlasting PJ in New York, Justin. Lang can tell you, I actually thought Phil would be out of there after a couple years, but that was before I remembered this was an ownership group that would probably still have Zeke in the front office in some capacity if it weren’t for all the legal issues from about a decade ago (let Google be your friend). I also agree the difficulty in getting a fair return is what might cause him to stick around.
Taking it out West for a bit, what is the answer with the Clippers at this point? I asked if they should seriously consider blowing things up prior to the year, but I think we all settled on the idea of making one last run with this group as currently constituted. Now, with Chris Paul out for the next 6-8 weeks and with Blake Griffin still “a week or two” away from returning, is it time to reconsider the idea before the trade deadline?
Justin: I’m all for the Clippers making one last run, but at this point they may need to find the gypsy that cursed them. They’re such a snake-bitten franchise that it just seems like they can never get a real chance to show what they can do.
If they were to blow it up, one interesting destination for Griffin would be Toronto. It would change the feel of the Eastern Conference and could present the Cavaliers with a legitimate threat. Beyond having tons of depth, the Raptors also possess the Clippers first-round pick this season. Something that would be very desirable should they detonate their roster.
Lang: The Clippers’ core ceiling was probably reached when they blew that big lead in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Houston Rockets a few years back. Playing Tuesday afternoon point guard, it’s easy to look back in hindsight and see all of the early warning signs. DeAndre Jordan attempted to bounce in free agency (which resulted in the Clippers’ whole contingent commandeering his house) and Blake Griffin has spent the past two seasons battling injuries — so has the normally durable Chris Paul. The team desperately needs a small forward and Doc Rivers has failed year in and year out, as an executive, to lure one into town. Nothing against Paul Pierce (too old) and Wesley Johnson (not skilled enough) but they aren’t capable of handling 30+ minutes. Doc Rivers trying to use his son, Austin, as a small forward was another warning sign.
But even after all of that, I still don’t think any of the top seeds would want to face them in first-round of the playoffs. That would be a potential No. 2 seed dropping to say sixth, seventh or eighth. Paul and Griffin fully healthy are live dogs versus any team in the league
Jabari: I think you hit it on the head, Lang. They’ve been a very exciting brand of basketball for the past five years, but are simply too top-heavy, which causes them to be worn down and oft-injured by the time we get to the playoffs. That idea of moving Blake to the Raptors is really intriguing, but leaves me feeling like Ricky Watters…”for WHO, for WHAT??” Keeping it with a somewhat related topic, give me your choice(s) for the top centers in the conference. Always a matter of preference, but I still have Boogie as my top center even though DeAndre Jordan is a player I’ve come to REALLY appreciate as he’s continued rounding out his game.
Justin: Boogie is definitely the center with the most dominant resume, but the well-rounded game of Gasol still makes me lean his direction. I wouldn’t put Gasol in my list of top 10 players and would likely put cousins there, yet I’d still pick him over any center right now if I was heading into a playoff series.
Jabari: You know something, the Gasol mention is great and a strong point. Boogie as an individual player is probably the most talented of that group, but Gasol’s overall impact is significantly more noticeable. Obviously, being able to play for a strong organization helps, but we have seen multiple playoff runs where Gasol was clearly the “straw that stirred the drink” when it came to Memphis. And that’s no slight or disrespect to Mike Conley or even ZBo (back in the day). We’ll let Lang chime in as the voice of reason on the topic as he wraps things up for us this week, but allow me to thank you for joining us again this week, Justin!
Lang: Bee-oh-oh-Gee-Eye-EEEE. No question. From a talent standpoint, the man is insane. Wears his heart on his sleeve a bit too much to this day even though he has matured greatly. But if I’m talking best center … DMC is my guy … for now. LG Out.
As always, we appreciate all of your feedback about these discussions and encourage you to either leave it in the comment section directly below or via Twitter: @JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
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.
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.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.