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The Six Things We’re Watching – Part 2

Shane Rhodes on more things we’re watching right now… including football.

Shane Rhodes

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Now more than one month since the shutdown, every day without the NBA has felt longer and longer. That said, we’ve done our best at Basketball Insiders to help sate your yearning for sport.

Spencer Davies already brought you Six Things we’ve been watching to help fill that basketball-sized hole in our hearts, and today we’re going to bring you six more, as it would only be a pleasure were we to help further distract you from the doom-and-gloom that has settled in amid the coronavirus pandemic.

So, without further ado, here are another Six Things We’re Watching.

The Last Dance

It’s here. In this desert devoid of sports, the NBA has provided every fan with an oasis in the long-awaited docu-series, The Last Dance, set to premiere tonight.

From ESPN:

“The 10-part documentary series takes an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of the final championship season in 1997-98. The Bulls allowed an NBA Entertainment crew to follow the team around for that entire season, and some of that never-before-seen footage will be featured in the documentary.”

So, a 10-hour chronicle of a team that defined a generation, Jordan’s last hurrah en-route to his sixth title, second three-peat and the dynasty’s swan song. And there’s NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN footage?

Every sports fan should be excited (and thankful for the real-world reprieve). But this, in short, is a basketball fan’s ultimate dream.

We know the gist: Jordan led Chicago, as he always did, into battle, earned his sixth ring in as many tries and promptly retired (again) as the rest of the team was stripped down and sold for parts. But there’s so much that fans don’t know, so much that was left unsaid.

An exclusive look into the locker room of any NBA team is special, let alone that of a dynasty near its end. But there’s so much that could come to light: how heavy was the atmosphere behind closed doors? Was there much truth to the disconnect between Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading into the season, and if so how much? What crazy Dennis Rodman stories do we not know about? The list could go on and on and on.

Whether reliving it or experiencing it for the first time, The Last Dance should prove a treat for everyone. And, stuck inside, it’s not like any of us have anything much better to do than watch greatness unfold.

It’s Time to Play: Who Wants to be Head Coach of the New York Knicks!

Only the New York Knicks could maintain the status quo amidst a global catastrophe. It’s not exactly a good thing for Knicks fans, but it’s status quo nonetheless.

During what has amounted to our in-season interim, the Knicks have already begun the search for their next head coach. David Fizdale was dropped after a 4-18 start, while Mike Miller’s pre-shutdown record of 17-27 doesn’t inspire much confidence in his candidacy beyond the 2019-20 season, should it resume. So, who does that leave them with?

Mark Jackson, a New York native, has been a name oft-floated when vacancies have opened up in recent years. Kenny Smith, like Jackson, is from New York and has made his desire to someday coach in the NBA clear. The Knicks could look to poach someone from the college ranks, a la Jay Wright, John Calipari or former Knick Patrick Ewing.

Or, Knicks president Leon Rose could turn to a familiar face: Tom Thibodeau.

Over the last few weeks, Knicks-Thibodeau rumors have started to churn. Ian Begley of SNY.tv has reported that “several coaches and people” expect Thibodeau to be named the next head coach, while ESPN’s Frank Isola reported that he would be “among the favorites.”

Not only does Thibodeau have a history with the team, having served as an assistant from 1996-2004, but he and Rose have a history of their own from Rose’s time as an agent with the Creative Arts Agency (CAA). And, despite an unceremonious exit from Minnesota, Thibodeau has proven a capable head coach, if not a controversial one.

Whether you agree or disagree with his process, Thibodeau has proven himself a winner; the former Coach of the Year has a career record of 352-246, good for a .589 win percentage that would rank sixth among current NBA coaches trailing only Nick Nurse (.712), Steve Kerr (.702), Gregg Popovich (.676), Billy Donovan (.610) and Erik Spoelstra (.593). With that in mind, Thibodeau would seem like a good fit to finally help the team right the ship.

Adam Silver’s Next Move

There may be “optimism abound” regarding an eventual NBA resumption, but it’s hard to imagine anything returning to normal in the United States any time soon. With that in mind, what could Adam Silver’s next course of action be?

It isn’t perfect, but Silver could look to mirror Major League Baseball’s current proposal: the supposed ‘Arizona plan.’

As currently suggested, the MLB would move their operation exclusively to Arizona and their many spring training ballparks. There, the season would commence, sans fans, while teams would exist in a mini-isolation bubble, confined to a hotel and away from their families. Players, meanwhile, would be social distancing throughout, sitting at least six feet apart in the stands rather than together in the dugout.

Again, it isn’t perfect; no player, in any league, would want to be separated from their family for weeks on end. But the idea could, at the very least, serve as the prototype or a potential roadmap that many thought would come via the CBA. Silver has already made it clear that “everything is on the table.” Meanwhile, the idea of a Las Vegas-bound postseason tournament, without fans in attendance, is already under consideration, while David Aldridge has reported that “the hope” is that immediate family would be able to accompany players.

While Las Vegas is an obvious destination, but where else could Silver look to reinstate the season? Why not Disney World? Regardless of the venue, any basketball — or sport, at this point — would be much anticipated and appreciated.

You Should Probably Watch the NFL Draft

You may not care very much about the NFL. You may even go out of your way to avoid it.

But, come Thursday, your eyes should be glued to the feed coming from Roger Goodell’s basement. If not for the draft, then you — and anyone involved in sports — should watch to see the process in action.

With COVID-19 cases seemingly rising every day, it would have been impossible for any draft to proceed as normal. But the show must go on, and so, much like the WNBA, the NFL has gone digital. With the entire league set to convene via conference call, Thursday’s success — or failure — could go a long way in determining how others, the NBA included, proceed through the continued coronavirus pandemic.

While there’s optimism that the season may resume in some capacity, the NBA may have no other choice but to seek alternative draft protocol should that pandemic continue to threaten into the summer. They, and you, should and can only hope the NFL’s process goes as smoothly as possible.

If not, it may be a long while before we see any sort of return, even if momentarily, to sports-normalcy.

#SendMeBackSunday: The Hornet-Warriors Trade that Never Was

If, amidst your quarantine (or even once the world is back to normal), you’re looking for a quality sports respite outside of The Last Dance, I’d suggest you (safely) pick up a copy of Ethan Strauss’ The Victory Machine.

Aside from the behind-the-scenes gossip you never knew from the last half-decade that was the Warriors’ dynasty — because, let’s be honest, we’re all interested in some juicy gossip right about now — you get to read about stories like this:

“… the Warriors attempted to trade Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for Chris Paul in 2011. It was far from the only time Curry was shopped, but in this instance, the deal was very close to completion. (Bob) Myers made the offer and Hornets GM Dell Demps was receptive. The catch was Chris Paul, who wanted out of New Orleans but had no intention of playing for the woebegone Warriors.”

Not sure about you, but the thought of Curry and Thompson sporting the now New Orleans Pelicans’ colors over the Warriors’ blue and gold is enough to tide me over for a while. And, I’m sure, make anyone a bit sick one way or the other.

The Chinese Basketball Association’s Further Delayed Restart

With their season set to resume Apr. 15, the larger sporting world looked on as the Chinese Basketball Association moved to restart operations. Their effort would serve as a guide to others on how to approach such a task amid the coronavirus pandemic, their success something other leagues could build toward or strive for.

Instead, with the CBA on hold until at least July, their failure should only serve as a bad omen should any other league look to re-open relatively soon.

Now, every league is headed into uncharted waters. The fact that China, which has been on lockdown since January, isn’t comfortable with the idea of organized sport at this point should only further dampen any hope of sports returning any time soon in any country that has struggled in their COVID-19 response, including the U.S.

While their optimism may be well placed, Silver and Co. face a long road back to return to play, perhaps one more lengthy and more arduous than any could have predicted back in March.

We don’t know when, or even if, the NBA season would resume. But, until then, we here at Basketball Insiders hope we’ve helped everyone cope — not only with their sports layoffs, but with the larger stresses of life that we’ve all endured in recent weeks.

And, until we’ve managed to escape the bizarro world that has been 2020, we hope that everyone can stay safe and healthy!

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ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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