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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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