The Inbounds: A Hive In Construction; How to Protect Anthony Davis With Robin Lopez

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Hang on to your monitors, I’m going to get through the rest of this column without mentioning the busted CP3-to-the-Lakers trade. You ready? Break!

When the Hornets agreed to terms with the Suns and Wolves in a three-way trade Sunday night, it wasn’t anything that was going to be bust over Ichiro Hamel’s new deal A-Rod breaking his hand. It was a minor deal. But it was yet another example of what has become the modus operandi of Dell Demps this offseason. It’s an understated move with positional variability which sacrifices neither cap space or crucial assets.

Here’s how quickly these things shift. Had the Suns just recommitted the money to Robin Lopez, who has never established himself as the center Phoenix needs, but has consistently scraped the ceiling of legitimacy enough to keep people interested, it probably would have been panned. Now, the Hornets reached good value on Lopez at three-years, $15 million according to Yahoo Sports, but part of that value is inherently due to what a legit center means for New Orleans, versus what it means for Phoenix.

The Suns, with Marcin Gortat, didn’t need to overpay for Lopez. (After all, they’d already overpaid for Michael Beasley, badum-ching.) They needed a little extra money going forward and to dump Hakim Warrick’s deal. It would have been a better move had they not already gone on a spending spree to try and remake the team immediately after Steve Nash’s departure and been more patient, but moving dead money long-term for short-term dead money (Brad Miller’s retired contract) isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

But the Hornets? They needed Lopez. They needed a center, and they needed to not overpay for a center. Lopez gives them everything they need. He’s a fill-in, a decent starter for a lottery team, a player who could surprise everyone and make the leap but if he doesn’t, you’re not drowning at that position. Long-term, there have to be upgrades at every spot but shooting guard and power forward for the Hornets. And that’s fine. They’ve got time. But the biggest key to next season for the Hornets is cohesiveness and the development of Anthony Davis.

Since the Hornets liquidated Emeka Okafor along with Trevor Ariza in the deal to clear cap space in a move for buyout-able Rashard Lewis, there has been talk about what it means for Davis’ positional future. Even in an NBA that is hurtling towards positional liquidity like the big-boned kid off the diving board, you can’t simply expect any player to be any position. They still have to have the ability to succeed at any given position’s set of requirements. In the case of center, Davis fails several smell tests. He’s incredibly long, but razor thin, it’s going to take years for his frame to catch up with his length, and there’s no guarantee that will happen at all, though muscle training will only make him more versatile and dangerous. I like to put this in perspective by saying that Michael Kidd Gilchrist has a substantial weight advantage on Davis. Think about that.

This isn’t to question Davis’ ability to succeed, far from it. We’re on the verge of seeing one of the truly most unique and impactful defensive players of the past ten years make his debut, I believe, and Davis’ talents can make up fora great many physical mass issues. But it’s crucial that the Hornets put him in a position to succeed right away, and depending on him to handle guys with considerably more muscle weight. It’s fine to speak to the lack of talent at the center position, but if you give a big guy the ball in the post with someone he can slam his shoulder into and create separation, there’s going to be scoring. More importantly, though, there’s going to be damage to the smaller player as the impact alone will wear on and injure a player like Davis having to play down in position to that degree.

It’s best put this way. The Lopez move, along with re-signing Jason Smith, adding Ryan Anderson and throwing in Hakim Warrick means that Davis won’t be slotted at the five, and will be best placed in a position to use his singular talents, as I always felt were best expressed here:

 

With Davis as unstoppable pterodactyl, there are a great many things Monty Williams can employ with Lopez along. While the rest of the league is gearing small-ball line-ups, the Hornets can throw out a big lineup with Ryan Anderson, Davis, and Lopez that doesn’t surrender much in the way of pick-and-roll containment or perimeter length. Anderson’s defense needs help defenders behind him, and Lopez will require double-team help if faced against a post player who can dribble and chew gum at the same time, and absolutely, there will be times when Davis is just a rookie getting schooled.

But it puts Davis in the best position to succeed.

It’s not that Davis can’t spend time at the five. He should. It’ll be good for him to learn about post position in the NBA, challenging guys on-ball with frame advantages that prevent him from being able to block it, and will allow him to give weak-side help off that previously-mentioned weak center class, where he should be electric. But it’s important that Davis not be faced with covering for the roster issues of a team in a rebuild. The Hornets will have positional weakness, but they have to protect Davis from those. Some tough love is good for him. Breaking his spirit and body with a set of positional demands that put too much physical and emotional strain on him is not a good plan for development.

The Hornets will still run plenty of small-ball lineups. Anderson and Davis should see substantial time on the floor together, and should a center come available wherever the Hornets draft next year, you have to imagine they’ll be examining that player, along with the best available point guard (Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon on the same team is a whole other boondoggle). You can expect to see Davis and Warrick, Davis and Smith, Anderson and Smith, and a more traditional Anderson and Lopez, which gives them an opening night rotation down low if Davis isn’t ready yet. But Lopez is going to get the job done next to Davis, and on the list of players who you look at and think they may be able to take a leap in production, he’s on there. He could wind up being a steal for the Hornets. A hidden element in the NBA as of late has been the development timelines at different positions. Point guards blossom early, wings sometime around 24 to 25, and bigs closer to 27. Lopez will be 26 in the last year of his deal, and may be giving the team an idea of what he can do. He fits both as a place-holder and a possible long-term investment.

Like I said, subtle, quiet, and important, the Dell Demps offseason.

Now about where the Hornets would be if Stern hadn’t blocked that trade…

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.