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.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.