With such a busy NBA offseason and basketball to watch during the Olympics, it sort of feels crazy that preseason games have already started and the 2016-17 campaign is weeks away. Beyond the reported $3.58 billion in guaranteed contracts that were doled out this summer or the Kevin Durant decision that resulted in bit of a ripple effect taking place around the league as teams scrambled to adjust, there were also organizations that decided to essentially press the proverbial “reset” button in order to take things in entirely new directions. The Lakers, Spurs and Timberwolves each saw longtime franchise legends walk away and are now adjusting to life with shifting responsibilities or new players stepping into roles of leadership – especially with San Antonio and L.A. Teams like the HEAT, Bulls, Hawks and Rockets each return with significant shifts to their core groups, not to mention the 12 teams with new head coaches since the start of last season. Needless to say, there are a ton of great storylines to pay attention to throughout the league, but here are a few to specifically keep an eye on as we head into the season:
The eventual fit in Oakland
Although much of the focus was on the fact that a team coming off a 73-9 season essentially swapped a role player (Harrison Barnes) for perhaps one of the game’s all-time scorers, we should probably take a moment to also acknowledge that a definite transition period should be expected after the Warriors also lost Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa. Pairing Durant alongside Draymond Green is about as versatile a forward combo as we’ve seen since the 1980s Celtics, and they are about to put forth one of the most potent offensive units we’ve ever seen; the Stephen Curry/Durant/Klay Thompson trio might actually approach 1,000 threes between them. But they could also have to undergo adjustments to their defensive approach.
Can Zaza Pachulia replace what Bogut brought this team on the defensive end? Pachulia may look more productive on paper, but the Warriors will need him to be the rim-protecting presence Bogut was when healthy over the last four seasons. Guys like David West, James McAdoo and perhaps Kevon Looney can replace whatever was lost with Speights leaving town, but Bogut has been the team’s main source of rim protection for some time now, so Pachulia’s effectiveness on the defensive end could be a bigger deal than some may be considering.
Which Eastern Conference team emerges as Cleveland’s greatest competition?
The Toronto Raptors have held that position over the past couple seasons, but could face steep competition from the Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and a few other dark horses. Teams like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets have each undergone significant changes and remain as “wild cards” depending upon how well the parts wind up fitting and relative team health along the way.
Paul George looked phenomenal during his time with Team USA and should hit the ground running, equipped with an improved Pacers roster that has a nice blend of talented youth alongside veterans who can also still contribute. The Celtics added Al Horford, retained some key guys in Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko and drafted another athletic (yet raw) swingman in Jaylen Brown who appears to fit the mold of type of physical player Boston prefers.
The Knicks added a ton of vets to play alongside Carmelo Anthony, but the actual story for the present and future in New York will be the continued development of Kristaps Porzingis. Early predictions and expectations of a return to the Conference Finals discussion have since tempered, but it will at least be fun to see the Knicks playing some competitive ball as Porzingis’ game continues to unfold.
The Hawks are another team that underwent significant roster turnover and enter the year with a bit of an unknown feeling that is strangely refreshing. Will Dwight Howard jell with newly promoted Dennis Schröder, as the 23-year-old adjusts to the added responsibility of leading the team? Time will tell whether the new desire to shoot more jumpers will pan out for Howard, but the hope would be returning to a familiar hometown market will be just what the 30-year-old center needs to be at his best.
The Raptors still feature the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but also return with a bit of depth with rookie big man Jakob Poeltl, free agent Jared Sullinger and perhaps even an energy guy in Pascal Siakam to keep an eye on. The rate at which the young guys develop could determine the depth of roster options, but a real key to Toronto’s chances this year could be whether Sullinger is finally able to put it all together on the court. He looks a bit better than he did at times in Boston from a physical standpoint, but the Raptors could really be in business if the 24-year-old Ohio State product can remain locked in this season.
Will the Clippers take the next step?
This could be the year the Clippers finally take the next step in the playoffs. The roster is as balanced as it’s ever been in Doc Rivers’ tenure as head coach and de facto front office head, and the clock is ticking on the contracts of multiple core pieces – namely Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Whether Coach Rivers actually believes there is “no gap” between the Clippers and the top teams in the league, this could be his best chance to prove that notion.
The Spurs will likely be just as formidable even in transition, but the Clippers will also have teams like the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and Jazz each trying to take steps forward in competition for a top seed. Both OKC and Houston could be considered wild cards. Russell Westbrook will undoubtedly play out of his mind in the new role as unquestioned leader and the pairing alongside Victor Oladipo should be absolutely electric. There also seems to be a renewed sense of confidence with the roster shift and the hiring of head coach Mike D’Antoni in Houston. We saw what type of success a happy James Harden could have just a couple seasons back when he wound up second in the MVP race to Steph Curry. Plus, Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (health permitting) et al. are about to make a ton of threes in that D’Antoni offense this season.
Shifting back to Los Angeles, the main guys are still going to do what’s expected from them, although Griffin could have even more motivation to prove himself in his return. Where taking chances on guys like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson led to issues last season, the front office went out and added some quality pieces to help balance out some of the workload throughout the season. Whether it ultimately winds up being a “now or never” situation or owner Steve Ballmer makes good on his reported vow to do whatever it takes to keep Griffin and Paul in Los Angeles, while there will be some serious competition, the Clippers appear to be in the prime position to finally live up to the “dark horse” title some have been so eager to give them over the past few years.
How will the rookies and youth movements around the league fare?
Aside from the terrible news Sixers fans recently received on the summer’s #1 pick Ben Simmons, this is also the best time of the year to remind yourselves of where each rookie wound up landing. Individual expectations aside, Minnesota leads what could be as many as a dozen current youth movements throughout the league that should each be fun to watch develop. Karl-Anthony Towns had a historically good rookie season and appears to already have a trajectory of some of the better bigs of late. Having seen Coach Tom Thibodeau take over and help galvanize a young group in Chicago within the last decade, the growing sense of optimism surrounding this team makes sense when you consider this group could wind up proving to have a considerable amount of talent.
The Lakers and Suns each have really interesting cores as well, as each organization heads into the year with multiple young pieces to be excited about. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker could wind up being one of the more exciting backcourts in the conference and Phoenix also brought in two promising bigs in Dragan Bender (versatile, can shoot and defend) and Marquese Chriss (one of the more athletic bigs in the draft) to develop alongside them. Tyler Ulis may have a bunch of players ahead of him on the depth chart heading in, but don’t be shocked to see him work himself into the rotation as well.
The Lakers are in one of the more unique positions of any team as they not only said goodbye to a franchise legend and the team’s leader last spring, but they also changed the head coach and overall basketball philosophy with the hire of Luke Walton and staff and now find themselves in a process of essentially rebranding with a bevy of talented, young players with no discernible leader for the first time in 20 years. They did a solid job of adding veteran presences both in the locker room and on Walton’s bench in order to assist with the transition, but it actually appears as though the franchise is fully prepared to allow this core group to learn and grow together in the same organic nature as they did following Magic Johnson’s initial departure from the game about 25 years ago. For longtime fans, while the uncertainty isn’t something they are accustomed to, there also has to be a certain level of excitement based directly upon the expectation and splendor of the unknown.
Still just 23 years old, Anthony Davis is also the leader of an intriguing team conversion in year two under Coach Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. The Pelicans have some veterans on that roster, but the principle characters are still relatively young. Could this be the roster that Lance Stephenson finally recaptures what worked so well for him for a time in Indiana? Adding a scorer like Buddy Hield into the mix will certainly help, but once again Stephenson is in a position where he could be a real difference maker if he winds up making the roster.
Don’t forget about those young groups in Denver, Orlando and Milwaukee as well, as each squad should give fans plenty to be excited over as we head into the season.
Again, these are just a few of the storylines to look for as there are literally dozens of great roster battles, teams attempting to transition from being “pretenders” to actual “contenders” and promising youth movements across the league. Regardless of whether the ultimate outcome is yet another epic (rubber match) showdown between the Cavs and Warriors, 2016-17 is already shaping up to be another one for the ages.
NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors
Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.
The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.
Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.
Steph Curry edges out Bradley Beal to win the 2020-21 scoring title. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/GmiTD26aJK
— theScore (@theScore) May 17, 2021
With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.
After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.
Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.
The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.
Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.
After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.
One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.
While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.
Andrew Wiggins is gonna end the regular season averaging ~19 & 5 on 48/38/72 shooting.
Missed only 1 game, and that was for rest. Was tremendous defensively, night in and night out.
He’s had a great year.
— Brian Witt (@Wittnessed) May 16, 2021
As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.
Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.
As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.
Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.
Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.
Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.
Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.
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.
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.
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.
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.