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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.

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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 veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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