The Extra Pass: Gumbo and The Brow, and Tuesday night’s recap

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The New Orleans Pelicans roster was assembled with all the care of an inebriated person making gumbo. Three ball-dominant guards in addition to the ball-dominant guard we just drafted? Sure, that will work. A stretch 4 and a stretch 5? Toss ‘em in.

The individual pieces in New Orleans are talented, to be certain, but they don’t seem to complement each other all that well. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where the Pelicans would look great individually, but a disaster collectively.

But what do we know about gumbo? It’s all about the roux – it’s all about the base. The Pelicans’ roux is Anthony Davis.

Monty Williams has yet to find a lineup with Davis that hasn’t worked. Over the season, any combination with Davis on the floor that has played more than five total minutes together has yielded a positive net rating. So long as Davis is on the floor, the Pelicans are in business.

Problem is, the rest of the roster hasn’t completely caught on to that fact yet. Davis has the biggest catch radius in the league with his mobility and arms that go on forever, but you’ll see the Pelicans’ guards ignore him on rolls to the rim, or worse yet, not even put Davis in situations where he can roll to the rim.

A good example came in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s loss to the Golden State Warriors. Nemanja Nedovic, a 6-foot-4 guard, was switched on to Davis. No Pelicans player even looked Davis’ way, and the possession resulted in a traveling violation out on the perimeter.

Play-by-play man Joel Meyers summed up the sequence perfectly with one word: “Unbelievable.”

This sort of thing happens far too often. Part of that falls on Williams, who should be on the hot seat after New Orleans’ 6-8 start. Does that seem premature?

Maybe it is, but Williams has yet to live up to his side of the bargain and improve the defense, as the Pelicans have the 19th ranked defense in terms of efficiency and the 29th worst opponent field goal percentage so far this season.

The offense has been more reliable (8th in efficiency) but it typically comes and goes in relation to when Davis is featured. Perhaps predictably, Davis is just fourth on the team in usage percentage, behind Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday.

Of course, the return of Ryan Anderson just means that there are, to further beat the food analogy into the ground, more cooks in the kitchen. This is an issue, and it’s hard to see it going away without changes.

So what’s the solution? Williams has at least allowed this athletic group to get out and run more often, ending the slow crawl he usually prefers. The Pelicans are up to 14th in pace, compared to 29th last year and 30th the season before.

Maybe you’d like to see the Pelicans embrace an even quicker style to better leverage their athleticism on the perimeter.

New Orleans is the second best defensive rebounding team in the league, so perhaps there’s room to leak out a little more and get out in transition. Davis already runs the floor like a gazelle, Evans is a nightmare to stop in transition, and the thought of Ryan Anderson or Jason Smith trailing the play and spotting up around the perimeter is plenty enticing.

Davis has been flexible overall, but there’s a danger in letting the other players on the roster take advantage of that. According to the SportVU player tracking system, Davis is receiving less frontcourt touches per game than guys like Andrea Bargnani and Zaza Pachulia. That can’t happen.

Still, Davis has legitimately been one of the best players in the league this season. The only limit on his potential will come from outside forces, and New Orleans would do well to figure out exactly what those are.

Stats from NBA.com were used in this post. I was also very hungry.

—D.J. Foster

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Nets 102, Raptors 100: The Nets snapped a five-game losing streak to improve to 4-10 on the season, and it was a big win for the team considering it came without several key players. Deron Williams, Jason Terry and Brook Lopez all missed the game due to injury, and the third quarter woes which have plagued Brooklyn all season long were overcome in this one by the Nets actually winning the period, if only by a single point. The victory certainly wasn’t easy for the Nets, who led by 15 points with just over five minutes to play before surrendering a 14-0 run that made things sketchy over the game’s final few possessions. —Brett Pollakoff

Wizards 116, Lakers 111: The Lakers got a typically balanced effort with seven players finishing in double figures, but defense was the issue as they allowed John Wall and Nene to combine for 61 points. L.A. fought back from a nine-point deficit late to have a chance, and took the lead with under two minutes to play on a three-pointer from Pau Gasol. But Wall had seven points in the final 1:34 to seal it, sending the Lakers to a record of 7-8 on the season. —BP

Magic 109, Hawks 92: Orlando isn’t going to compete for a playoff spot this season, even in the woeful Eastern Conference. But take them lightly and they will jump up to bite you on any given game day, and that’s what happened to the Hawks in this one. The Magic shot 50.6 percent from the field, crushed Atlanta in the paint by a 20-point margin, and outscored the Hawks 36-20 in the third quarter to put enough separation in place to cruise to the team’s fifth win of the season. —BP

Warriors 102, Pelicans 101: Without Andre Iguodala due to injury and with Andrew Bogut sidelined due to serving a suspension, this game was a lot closer than it should have been for the Warriors. But coming off of three straight losses, they needed the win and held on in the closing moments to secure it. Jermaine O’Neal filled in admirably in the starting center spot, and finished with 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds in just 26 minutes of action. —BP

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.