The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

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We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using NBA.com stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

• Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

Medically risky prospects bring intrigue to 2017 NBA draft

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla dubbed Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby, who was slipping through the first round, a “sexy blogger pick.”

While I appreciate the compliment, Fraschilla was also right about another point: Those analyzing the draft for websites clearly valued Anunoby more than NBA teams. Fraschilla cited Anunoby’s limited offense, but it’s hard to get past Anunoby’s knee injury as a primary reason he fell to the Raptors at No. 23.

The 76ers adjusted us to the idea of picking an injured player high in the draft, with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent years. Even though Ben Simmons was healthy when picked, a later injury that cost him his entire rookie year conditioned us to the idea that sometimes top rookies don’t begin their pro careers ready to play.

But the 2017 NBA draft pushed back against that as a new norm. Most of the biggest tumblers on my board had injury concerns, from where I ranked them to where the went:

  • 12. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana – No. 23, Raptors
  • 13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke – No. 20, Kings
  • 18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris – No. 43, Rockets
  • 19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA – No. 47, Pacers

Anunoby had the aforementioned knee injury that even he, trying to paint himself in the most favorable light, said would cause him to miss some of the upcoming season. The strength of his game is a defensive versatility that would be undermined by a decline in athleticism.

Giles looked like a potential No. 1 pick in high school until three knee surgeries in three years derailed him. He was limited at Duke as a freshman, though reportedly acquitted himself in pre-draft workouts.

Hartenstein’s and Anigbogu’s medical issues were less widely know, but teams were apparently concerned.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878094857037676544

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878099339012210688

The 7-foot-1 Hartenstein is big enough to put a heavy load on his back. Just 19, he has nice vision as a passer and a developing outside shot that could allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and better take advantage of his passing.

Anigbogu was the youngest player drafted. He’s big and strong and mobile and throws his body around like a wrecking ball. He must develop better awareness and maybe even some ball skills, but there’s a path toward productivity.

Will these players blossom as hoped?

As I wrote when ranking Anunoby and Giles 12th and 13th before the draft, “I’m somewhat shooting in the dark” and “I’m mostly guessing here.”

This is the disconnect between the public perception of these players’ draft stocks and where they’re actually selected. We don’t have access to their medical records like teams do. We’re operating with far less information.

Still, it’s not as if teams always know how to interpret medical testing. Even with more information, this is hard.

I’m confident Anunoby, Giles, Hartenstein and Anigbogu would have gotten drafted higher with clean bills of health. So, this is an opportunity for the teams that drafted them. If the players stay healthy, they provide excellent value.

It’s obviously also a risk. If the player can’t get healthy, his value could quickly approach nil.

There are no certainties in the draft, but these four players present especially wide ranges of outcomes, which makes them among the more exciting picks to track in the years ahead.

Vlade Divac: Kings would have drafted De’Aaron Fox No. 1

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I sense a pattern.

Like Celtics president Danny Ainge saying Boston would’ve drafted No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum No. 1 if it kept the top pick, Kings president Vlade Divac said Sacramento would’ve taken No. 5 pick De'Aaron Fox No. 1 if it had the top pick.

Divac, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Screaming,” Divac said about the reaction in the room to Fox falling in their lap. “It was a guy that we all loved and in some way, if we had the number 1 pick, he would’ve been our guy.”
“De’Aaron is our future,” Divac added.

The Kings are getting a lot of credit for drafting well. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t get the No. 1 pick, because it would have been foolish to pass on Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (and others) for Fox. (The real punchline: Sacramento couldn’t have won the lottery due to Divac’s dumb salary dump with the 76ers giving Philadelphia the ability to swap picks.)

I don’t believe the Kings would’ve actually taken Fox No. 1. This sounds like Divac embellishing, which can be no big deal. It also puts outsized expectations on Fox, for better or worse.

Danny Ainge: Celtics would have drafted Jayson Tatum No. 1

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After trading down from No. 1 to No. 3 in the draft, Celtics president Danny Ainge said Boston would probably still get the player it would’ve picked No. 1.

The Celtics selected Jayson Tatum No. 3. Would they have taken him if they held the No. 1 pick?

Ainge, via CSN New England:

Yes, we would have picked him with the first pick. But the draft was very even, we felt, at the top all the way through maybe five or six. And it was very difficult. There was a lot of players we liked in this draft.

I believe that the Celtics saw the top several picks as similar. I also believe, but don’t know, that they would’ve drafted Markelle Fultz if they kept the top pick.

I’m also curious, considering how the process unfolded, whether Ainge had Tatum or Josh Jackson in mind when making his initial statement. Regardless of whether he was thinking Jackson, Tatum or both, Ainge couldn’t reasonably back out of his claim now.

For what it’s worth, I would have seen Jackson (No. 3 on my board) as a reach at No. 1. I see Taytum (No. 9 on my board) as a reach at No. 3, let alone No. 1.

Warriors break record by paying $3.5 million for draft rights to Jordan Bell

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The Thunder paid the Hawks $3 million for the draft rights to No. 31 pick Tibor Pleiss in 2010. Last year, the Nets paid $3 million just to move up 13 spots in the second round to get Isaiah Whitehead.

The Warriors surpassed that amount, previously the record for spending on a draft pick, to buy the No. 38 pick from the Bulls and get Jordan Bell last night.

Marcus Thompson of The Mercury News:

Golden State also bought the No. 38 pick last year to get a player I rated as first-round caliber, Patrick McCaw, whose rights cost “just” $2.4 million. McCaw had a promising rookie year and even contributed in the NBA Finals.

Bell – whose draft rights drew the maximum-allowable $3.5 million – could achieve similar success. I rated him No. 31 but in the same tier as other first-round-caliber prospects. He’s a versatile defender, capable of protecting the rim and switching onto guards. He’s obviously not nearly the same level, but Bell is in the Draymond Green mold defensively. Bell’s offense doesn’t come close to Green’s, though. Bell could fill a role sooner than later when Golden State needs a defensive-minded sub.

The Warriors have generated massive revenue during their dominant run the last few years. Now, they’re putting some of that money back into the on-court product. Success breeds success – especially when the owners don’t just pocket the profits.