Bismack Biyombo, after losing starting job and nearly half his minutes, happily helping Hornets

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BOSTON – If you want to get Bismack Biyombo to light up, talk to him about going from a starter in 2012-13 to a reserve with his playing time nearly halved in 2013-14.

“It’s actually one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Biyombo said.

Biyombo watched the game from a different perspective. He learned to appreciate just being in the NBA. And he read more.

One of the books he picked up, on a recommendation from Ronny Turiaf, was “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.” Biyombo said a key theme was exposing a cycle of passive learning.

“Kids growing up the way they grow up, it’s just the same thing over and over. There’s no changes,” Biyombo said. “They don’t let you make mistakes in life, to find out yourself what life is about. They tell you to listen to old people, because they know better than you, but you don’t know any better. You never learn to know better.

“As we grow up, we go to school. They tell us this is a pen, and you know it’s a pen. But nobody lets you find out that it is a pen. Nobody lets you find out that a cell phone is a cell phone. They’ve got to tell you this is a cell phone. So, it’s over and over, generation after generation.”

After generations of basketball thinkers viewing the game similarly, we’re in a new era of analysis with advanced stats and easily accessible video. The NBA is more curious than ever.

Biyombo could benefit more than most.

At face value, Biyombo – the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft – is a bust. A good indicator is the amount of faith his own team has in him, and Charlotte gave Biyombo just 13.9 minutes per game last season and 16.3 so far this season, his fourth. Most players drafted so high get every opportunity to succeed and develop, but Biyombo has not engendered more playing time.

Since the NBA instituted rookie-scale contracts, the only players drafted so highly to play fewer than 20 minutes per game in both their third and fourth seasons (or what would have been if not dropped sooner) of their rookie deals were: Jan Vesely, Ekpe Udoh, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Greg Oden, Adam Morrison, Shelden Williams, Jay Williams, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner, DerMarr Johnson, Chris Mihm and Robert Traylor. Whether due to poor play, injury or both, players in this situation rarely go onto lengthy NBA careers.

Can Biyombo buck the trend?

This is where the NBA’s evolving methods of analysis come in.

Biyombo leads the Hornets – a 15-24 team that has been outscored by 115 points this season – with a plus-minus of +52.

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Before Charlotte beat the Knicks by 28 in its last game – pushing its win streak to five games, all with Biyombo starting for an injured Al Jefferson – Biyombo was the team’s only rotation player with a positive plus-minus.

“He’s very bright,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “The reason why his plus-minus is so good is he does what we do. He knows what’s supposed to happen, and he actually helps other guys play, too.”

Biyombo strengths and weaknesses each fall on extreme ends of the spectrum. Of the 251 players who have played as much as him this season, Biyombo ranks:

  • 2nd in block percentage (behind Rudy Gobert)
  • 7th in rebounding percentage (behind Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Omer Asik, DeMarcus Cousins and Zach Randolph)
  • 11th in field-goal percentage (behind Brandan Wright, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Rudy Gobert, Ed Davis, James Johnson, Tyler Zeller, Mason Plumlee, Dwight Howard and Amir Johnson)
  • 240th in free-throw percentage (ahead of Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Andre Roberson, Elfrid Payton, Nerlens Noel, Mason Plumlee, Dwight Howard, Miles Plumlee and Larry Sanders)
  • 246th in usage percentage (ahead of Andre Roberson,Miles Plumlee,DeAndre Jordan,Joe Ingles andJason Thompson)
  • 236th in turnover percentage (ahead of Kendrick Perkins, Shabazz Napier, Rajon Rondo, Samuel Dalembert, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Zach LaVine, Elfrid Payton, Steve Blake,  Joe Ingles, Michael Carter-Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni and Evan Turner)
  • 251st in assist percentage

Essentially, Biyombo makes the most of his 7-foot-6 wingspan and impressive athleticism where he can. Anything that involves him skillfully using hands becomes more troublesome.

He does little things – setting good screens and rotating properly defensively are two Clifford pointed out – that don’t show up in the box score. When I watched him play, I noticed him frequently moving back and forth from one side of the paint to the other to avoid clogging any driving lanes. That energy helps, considering Biyombo – who has never made a shot beyond 17 feet in his career – can’t space the floor traditionally. I’m not saying Biyombo’s plus-minus makes him Charlotte’s best player or even good, but it’s a number that should encourage closer inspection of his game.

Perhaps, Biyombo is bound to fill a limited role the rest of his career. The right team could certainly put him in position to succeed with these skills.

But don’t completely discount the possibility of Biyombo developing into a more well-rounded player.

He’s still just 22, the second-youngest player in his draft class (behind only No. 46 pick Davis Bertans, who has yet to play in the NBA and whose rights are held by the Spurs). In fact, Biyombo is younger than a third of the players selected in the most recent draft, including first rounders Doug McDermott, Adreian Payne, Mitch McGary, Shabazz Napier, Bogdan Bogdanovic, C.J. Wilcox and Josh Huestis.

Heck, it’s even possible Biyombo tries to make that next step in Charlotte. But it seems unlikely with Jefferson around. Neither shoot well enough to space the floor, and they’ve yet to share the court since Jefferson joined the team.

The Hornets can extend Biyombo a qualifying offer this summer to make him a free agent. That’ll cost them $4,045,894 – or, if Biyombo somehow plays 2,000 minutes or starts 41 times this season, $5,194,227. Really, Biyombo continuing to play such a limited role – he’ll surely return to the bench once Jefferson gets healthy – might help him next offseason. The qualifying offer, which Charlotte is more likely to extend if it’s lower, wouldn’t be a bad salary for the big man.

Until then, he seems happy in his current situation.

Another book Biyombo read last season was “La Buena Suerte.” A theme of that one, written in Spanish (Biyombo speaks five languages), as described by Biyombo:

“Make your own luck,” Biyombo said. “Go after what you want. Know what you want, and do what you really want. And obviously, when you’re finished, whatever you’ve done, don’t have any regrets.”

Biyombo said he wants to play basketball as long as he can and win an NBA title. How long will he last in the league? Will he help a contender?

It really depends what teams see for themselves when they look at Biyombo.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.