Raptors’ bench Jonas Valanciunas for play vs. Los Angeles Lakers

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After seeing him bulked up at Summer League and looking like a man among boys, after seeing him play well for his native Lithuania over the summer, a lot of people picked Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas to have a breakout season.

Not so much. He’s scoring a little more per game but that’s just because he’s shooting more, his shooting percentage dropped from 55.7 percent last season to 49.5 percent this season. He’s grabbing a slightly higher percentage of rebounds, but overall he’s not taken the expected step forward.

Sunday Pau Gasol was having his way with Valanciunas and Raptors coach Dwane Casey went with his other options, as he told the Toronto Sun.

“He needed to do a better job on Pau Gasol and I thought Chuck (Hayes) and Amir (Johnson) did a better job on him and we went for the defensive matchup,” Casey explained…

Valanciunas struggled Wednesday in Boston as well, but on that night all the bigs were having a tough time. With Hayes playing Gasol tough, Casey chose to go with him over his sophomore centre.

Amir Johnson is having his second solid season in a row up in Toronto, and Chuck Hayes is the definition of a solid veteran who can be relied upon.

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Valanciunas gets 31.9 percent of his shot attempts out of post-ups and shoots 48.5 percent on those, which is fairly pedestrian (via Synergy Sports). He’s far more effective when moving off the ball, and he can be a force on the offensive glass at times, but he’s not as big a force as the roll man as the Raptors would hope with Kyle Lowry.

Valanciunas still is a good second-year player, and maybe the third season is the year he makes the leap. You could see him as part of what is being built by Masai Ujiri in Toronto, but how big a part will depend on if he can consistently find his game.

Report: NBA executives believe 76ers more likely to trade Joel Embiid than Ben Simmons

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
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The 76ers have spent years building around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Supporting players come and go. Embiid and Simmons remain, even amid a sometimes-awkward fit.

But chatter has increased about Philadelphia trading one of its top two stars.

So, would Embiid or Simmons be the one to go?

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

There is no consensus, but league execs think that if the Sixers do explore a trade, Embiid is more likely to be moved — health being the determining factor in building around Simmons.

When a team is looking to trade one of two players, people frequently predict the less-valuable player will get dealt. It’s not logical. Other teams also know about Embiid’s health concerns. That’ll lower Philadelphia’s return.

I wonder whether these executives know something or are just conveying how they’d handle the situation.

The latter doesn’t mean much. The 76ers have their own view and, less than a year ago, owner Josh Harris called Embiid “our most important player. He’s clearly our future.”

Perhaps, Philadelphia’s stance has changed. Trying to line up trade trade proposals, the 76ers might have tipped their hand.

The mere possibility of that scenario makes this worth watching.

Former John Beilein-coached Michigan player in NBA: Cavaliers players don’t value winning

Former Cavaliers coach John Beilein
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The Cavaliers tuned out John Beilein then tuned their music to songs about thugs.

Beilein lasted less than a season as Cleveland’s coach.

But one of his former players at Michigan is sticking up for him.

Sam Amico of Sports Illustrated:

Even under the cloak of anonymity, that’s a harsh way for an NBA player to talk about fellow NBA players.

Who said it? There are nine suspects:

Whoever he is, that player lacks full context.

None of those players were on a clear NBA track when arriving in Ann Arbor. They all developed under Beilein’s tutelage. Beilein’s message lands differently when you’re already in the NBA – especially when you’re a proven player like Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson. As I said when Beilein was hired, there was going to be a race between Beilein convincing his players he could help them and them believing they could walk all over him. He lost the race. In Ann Arbor, in part because of his power over his less-heralded players, Beilein repeatedly earned buy-in first.

None of those players were on Beilein’s first Michigan team, which went 10-22. Beilein has typically come into a new job preaching fundamentals. That sets a foundation for future winning. But in the short term, the lack of focus on games can lead to plenty of losing. Beilein’s first season with the Wolverines was exhausting, and the end was a welcome respite. Everyone returned for year two better prepared, and Michigan took off. But the NBA season is far longer. The Cavs already endured 54 games under Beilein’s first-year approach. Another 28 was asking a lot.

Maybe Cavaliers players would have been better off in the long run if they accepted Beilein’s teaching. But it’s on Beilein to earn their trust, and he never did.

The case for Luka Doncic as Most Improved Player

Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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Luka Doncic checked his phone at halftime Sunday. Someone sent him a picture of 17-year-old Doncic and Russell Westbrook in an exhibition game between Real Madrid and the Thunder in 2016. Now, Doncic was playing with Westbrook in the NBA All-Star game.

“It was kind of amazing,” Doncic said.

Doncic has been playing professionally since he was 16. He came to the NBA as EuroLeague MVP. Now, he’s an NBA MVP candidate. It feels like he has been on this level a long time.

But Doncic’s Most Valuable Player campaign has obscured a bid for an award that fits him even better: Most Improved Player.

Voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Doncic, who was the No. 3 pick in 2018. There’s a notion those players are “supposed to” improve.

But we don’t do this for any other award. Imagine not voting a No. 1 pick for Rookie of the Year because he’s supposed to be good. Nobody will refuse to vote Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP this season because, as reigning MVP, he’s supposed to be good. It’s a silly argument.

Besides, this far more than typical second-year improvement.

Doncic has increased his box plus-minus from +4.1 last season to +11.4 this season. That’s the biggest jump ever for a Rookie of the Year into his second season. Only LeBron James is even in the ballpark.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus by Rookie of the Year winners into their second season. Players are listed by their rookie year:

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

LeBron finished sixth in 2005 Most Improved Player voting. Bobby Simmons, who increased his box plus-minus by just 2.5 (-0.8 to +1.7) won the award.

Again, it’s hard for second-year players.

But again, this is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time.

Here are the largest-ever increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (minimum: 500 minutes each season)

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

Again, LeBron is Doncic’s only peer on that leaderboard. They’re the only two to start with a positive box plus-minus.

But Doncic’s rookie-year plus-minus was even higher than LeBron’s.

It’s harder to go from good to great, and that’s what Doncic has done – unlike anyone else ever.

Doncic has taken total control of the Mavericks’ offense. He creates for himself, for others. And he even improved his efficiency while shouldering the extra burden.

Among players who had a prior high of at least +3.0, Doncic has increased his box plus-minus FAR more than anyone else (minimum: 500 minutes each season):

Box plus-minus probably tends to overrate players who contribute across the box score, like Doncic. That stat is just one of many considerations.

I’m not totally convinced Doncic should win Most Improved Player, though he was my midseason choice. Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham has gone from out of the rotation to quality starter. Brandon Ingram blossomed just in time to get paid. Trae Young, another highly drafted sophomore, is having a breakout year. There are plenty of other candidates, too.

But Doncic – regardless of his experience and draft position – absolutely belongs prominently in the discussion.

Damian Lillard: Trail Blazers last team anyone wants to face in playoffs

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard
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The Western Conference could have its first playoff team with a losing record since expanding to 15 teams. The Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Spurs are in the race for the No. 8 seed.

What if Portland reaches the postseason?

Trail Blazers:

Damian Lillard:

I’m pretty sure we’re the last team that anybody want to see.

This is probably true – relatively. Lillard is great and clutch. C.J. McCollum stepped up last postseason. Carmelo Anthony is widely respected by his peers. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins could return from injury by the playoffs and make Portland more dangerous than its record.

But the Trail Blazers would still be a No. 8 seed, likely with a losing record.

I’d rather see Portland as a playoff opponent than the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Jazz and Nuggets. Depending how everyone finishes, probably the Mavericks and Thunder, too.

There’s variance given the star power, players returning from injury and – going the other direction – underwhelming play throughout the season. But in the middle of outcomes, Portland looks like a fairly typical No. 8 seed. That’s not so imposing.

And that’s if the Trail Blazers even reach the postseason. With Lillard injured, it’ll be difficult to pass Memphis and fend off New Orleans and San Antonio.