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The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads

Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.

A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.

  • They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
  • They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
  • They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.

Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.

The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.

He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.

There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?

To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.

It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.

Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.

And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…

And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.

For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.

Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.

An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.

So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.

At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.

Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.

So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.

Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.

At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.

That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.

But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.

Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.

And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.

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NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect

Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.

Drew Maresca

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Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.

Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.

But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.

Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.

But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.

“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”

High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.

Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.  

But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.

Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).

So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.

Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.

Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols

Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.

Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.

Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.

“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”

So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.

Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.

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