Kurt Helin

Trey Burke, Tony Parker

Trey Burke knows this is key year for Utah, his career

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Utah has become nearly everybody’s trendy pick to climb up into the bottom of the Western Conference playoffs, passing falling Portland (I’m included in that group). The way the Jazz played after the All-Star break — 19-10 record while holding opponents to 94.8 points per 100 possessions (89 points per game) with a great defense that turned heads around the league. After Enes Kanter was shipped to Oklahoma City and Rudy Gobert started at center, Utah was a defensive force.

Another change that mattered for that team — Dante Exum was made the starting point guard. He was a better defender and used less of the offense than Trey Burke, which meant more offensive touches for Gordon Hayward and the better playmakers on the team.

Now Exum is out for next season with an ACL injury, and Burke is being thrust back into the starter’s role. Entering his third NBA season after staring at Michigan, Burke knows this is a key season for him to prove he is a starting NBA point guard who can run a playoff team, something he talked about with the Salt Lake Tribune’s Aaron Falk.

“I haven’t hit the goals that I have for myself,” Burke said between fulfilling autograph requests and posing for pictures at a community fair. “But I feel like they’ve been two solid years. I’ve been learning a lot, especially over this summer and last summer. But I know I have a lot of room to improve and I’m willing to work on those areas….

“It’s always unfortunate to see that,” he said of Exum’s injury. “You don’t want to see that for nobody. But it’s a part of the game and unfortunately it happened to Dante. It’s something that I really felt like [this year] was a opportunity either way. But I guess people see it more as an opportunity now because obviously we play the same position. I have to be ready to step up again and just make plays for the team. I think the biggest thing for the team is just winning. I could sit here and talk about a lot of personal things, but as long as we’re winning everything else will take care of itself.”

Burke is eligible for a contract extension after this coming season. How he plays this season will determine if the Jazz are even interested in that or in moving him so Exum can have a clear path.

There are two personal things Burke needs take care of to get to the winning, at least at the rate the Jazz expect.

First is defense, he did get beat plenty out on the perimeter. That said, playing with Gobert to protect the rim and clean up his mistakes did help — when Burke and Gobert were paired last season the Jazz allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions (with Exum and Gobert it was 98 per 100). Burke can be better on this end of the court, but he’ll be in a better position to do so this season.

Second, and more important, is taking fewer bad shots. For Burke, less is more. Burke is confident in his abilities as a playmaker and shooter, but he makes poor choices too often (ones he got away with in college). Last season he took 38.8 percent of his shot attempts from three, and hit just 31.8 percent of them. He doesn’t get to the rim enough, his assist numbers are not great. The Jazz’s offense dipped a very slight 0.9 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break last season, but the ball was not in the hands of Exum to create plays as much as Hayward. And you saw the potential there. If Burke is going to be the guy with the ball in his hands, he needs to both make better decisions when he has it (make better shot choices) and cede some of that control to Hayward to make plays, or guys like Alec Burks to get their shots. Burke cannot be the offensive fulcrum.

Utah is going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch next season in the NBA — and it’s been a long time since we got to say that.

DeMar DeRozan working on three-point shot this summer

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets
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Last season, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan made his living in the midrange.

Only 8.9 percent of his shots came from three (and he shot just 28.9 percent on them, although that jumped to 34 percent after the All-Star break). Instead, 56.6 percent of DeRozan’s shots came between 10 feet out and the arc, and he shot just below 38 percent on those. While the league-wide pushback on midrange jumpers can get taken too far, if you’re going to take them you better make them. Nobody complains about Dirk Nowitzki’s midrange shots — more than 60 percent of his shots are from 10 feet to the three-point line, but he hits nearly 48 percent of them. DeRozan is dynamic when he can attack the rim, but if there are obstacles in his way he too easily settles for a midrange jumper he does not hit.

This year, DeRozan going to try to become a more reliable threat from three to open things up. New Raptor DeMarre Carroll has been watching DeRozan and talked about stretching out his shot to the Toronto Sun.

“(NBA three-point leader) Kyle Korver told me the three-point shot is just more repetition. The more you shoot it, the better you’ll get at it. I feel like if DeMar will keep working on it, it will eventually come,” Carroll said…

“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of other things he worked on in his game and he’s a dominant offensive player (already),” Carroll said. “So I think if he adds that three-point to his game it’ll take us over the top.”

The Raptors have overhauled their roster to become more defensive minded — that’s why Carroll was their top free agent target. They wanted a quality wing defender, and they got one of the best.

With this new roster look for even more threes — the Raptors were ninth in the NBA in three-pointers attempted last season and made a respectable 35.2 percent of them (12th in the NBA). If, as expected, Toronto starts Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, and Patrick Patterson around Jonas Valanciunas, that’s potentially four three-point shooters on the floor around a big who demands a double in the post. Throw in a quicker pace (the Raptors were bottom 10) and the chance to get a few more threes in transition, and the Raptors could be bombs away from deep this season. Which will be a good thing, especially if DeRozan knocks them down.

The Raptors needed to make changes, their unimpressive first-round playoff exit (and the second half of last season) made that clear. But transitions are rarely smooth, and there are going to be some bumps early on for the Raptors as their focus shifts. Especially if those threes don’t fall for a stretch.

 

Happy Birthday Kobe Bryant, here are top 10 plays of his career

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
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Happy Birthday to Kobe Bryant, who turns 37 today.

He’ll likely celebrate by only working out for five hours.

There are few rabbit holes deeper than the Kobe Bryant highlights list on YouTube, but to celebrate the Black Mamba’s 37th birthday we went down that hole and settled on NBA.com’s Top 10 plays from Kobe’s career. (While the video is a couple of years old, it still works very well.)

Kobe is nearing the end of his career, but he’s going to leave it on his terms. Or at least he’s going to try. He will be back on the court this season leading what fans and management hope are the next generation of Lakers’ stars — D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle — by showing them tough love and how to play the game with a high IQ. He will show them how to put in the work. He will show them what it means to be a Laker.

And he will still make some plays that just drop your jaw. Because that’s part of what Kobe does.

Timberwolves still trying to shop Anthony Bennett, still finding no takers

Milwaukee Bucks v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Back right before the draft, we told you the Minnesota Timberwolves were shopping Anthony Bennett.

It’s heading toward the end of August and Bennett is still with the Timberwolves.

They would still like to move him, but there are no takers, reports Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

This should not be a surprise. The former No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers has not developed like a top pick is expected to — last season he got in 57 games for the Timberwolves, scored 5.2 points a game when he did, he had a well below average 45.8 percent true shooting percentage and a PER of 11.4. If he were the 14th pick in the draft, we’d be thinking maybe he can evolve into a solid bench player in a couple of years in the right development system.

The problem is he is getting paid like a No 1 pick — $5.8 million this season, with a team option for $7.3 million for 2016-17 that must be exercised by the end of this October. No team would pick up that option. So essentially a team has to want to trade for him as a rental at the price of the mid-level exception, even though he at best can give them limited minutes off the bench.

Which is to say, good luck moving him Flip Saunders without throwing in some sweeteners (future picks). Maybe you’ll have better luck near the trade deadline. Maybe. But probably not.

Cavaliers look to reduce Kyrie Irving’s minutes next season

2015 NBA Finals - Game One
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Last season, only Jimmy Butler and James Harden played more minutes per game than Kyrie Irving at 36.4. Irving logged a total of 2,730 minutes last season, 10th in the NBA total. He had a heavy workload.

Now, he is coming off fractured kneecap surgery, an injury sustained in the playoffs.

Which leads to the obvious — coach David Blatt and the Cavaliers want to cut back Irving’s minutes next season. From Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The Cavs also want to cut Irving’s minutes. Mo Williams was signed to help out at point guard. Irving is coming off surgery for a fractured knee cap, so it makes sense to keep his workload light in the regular season.

 

As Pluto notes, this is exactly why the Cavaliers wanted Mo Williams.

With the veteran Williams and the scrappy fan favorite Matthew Dellavedova, the Cavaliers can easily trim six or more minutes off a night for Irving, getting him down to 30 minutes a night or just below. Plus, they can give him nights off. Considering the injury and what we know about guys who are rested playing better, all of this should be expected.

What helps is the Cavaliers will not pay a real price for this. The added Cavaliers’ depth, plus the fact they are in the East and have an easier path to the top seed, means they can lighten the load on Irving and still get have home court throughout the playoffs (or at least until the Finals). Then come the playoffs, the minutes will crank up again.