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Why the NBA overlooked Rudy Gobert – and how much hardware it will take to make amends

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BOSTON – The 2013 NBA draft combine explains a lot about why teams doubted Rudy Gobert – and why that wound up a mistake.

Gobert had massive measurements – 7-foot-2 in shoes and a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan. His 9-foot-7 standing reach is tied for the third biggest in the DraftExpress database.

But the French big man posted underwhelming numbers in the athletic testing, including a max vertical of just 29 inches.

It’s one thing to be big. It’s quite another to be big and athletic, and Gobert appeared to be only the former.

So, he fell to the No. 27 pick in the draft, the Jazz trading up to get him.

And they couldn’t be happier now with that decision.

Gobert is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In 11 starts since Utah traded Enes Kanter, Gobert’s averages have jumped to 10.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. The Jazz are 9-2 in that span, including wins over the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, Spurs, Bucks, Grizzlies and Rockets

If the 2013 draft were re-done – with consideration to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee and everyone else – Gobert makes a compelling case to go No. 1 overall.

He’s just so dominant, in so small part due to his impressive athleticism.

So why didn’t it show at the combine?

Gobert participated while battling a pre-existing knee injury.

Despite the risk of faring poorly and seeing his draft stock fall – which ultimately happened – Gobert insisted on competing because he believed teams hadn’t seen enough of him playing in France.

“I had to prove to everybody else what I could do,” Gobert said

Gobert hasn’t stopped working to prove himself since.

Being 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach helps. But Gobert is clearly committed to being the best 7-foot-2 player with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach he can be.

He didn’t become a center until age 18, playing small forward growing up before a growth spurt. It didn’t take him long to realize what his size advantage could offer – an advantage many players have tried to rest on.

Instead, Gobert is progressing nicely toward maximizing the potential offered by his natural ability.

He doesn’t float toward the perimeter offensively. He works hard to position himself for as many high-percentage shots at the rim as possible.

He doesn’t just stand under the basket and swat shots. He’s learning the finer points of defensive positioning.

Now, in his breakout season, Gobert is a legitimate contender for three awards – Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.

He might not win any, and two would be tough. Three would be unprecedented.

Just six players have won two of the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player – in the same season:

  • Darrell Armstrong, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999
  • Hakeem Olajuwon, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1994
  • Michael Jordan, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988
  • Alvin Robertson, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1986
  • Wes Unseld, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1969
  • Wilt Chamberlain, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1960

Can Gobert join that group?

Defensive Player of the Year

This is the award Gobert said he covets most of the three.

But he’s not holding his breath.

“To be honest and to be realistic, I think they’re going to put somebody who’s more exposed to TV,” Gobert said.

That might be true, though the seemingly popular leader for Defensive Player of the Year – Draymond Green – is an unconventional candidate who thrives because of his defensive versatility. If voters want a convention rim-protecting big man, Gobert makes a strong case.

The Jazz allow 100.0 points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays (equivalent of fifth in NBA) and 106.8 when he sits (28th).

He also leads the league in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim when he’s defending it (at least three shots defended at rim per game):

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Serge Ibaka is another player who fits the Defensive Player of the Year archetype, and his name has been tied to the award for years. That familiarity is a disadvantage to Gobert.

More fairly, some of Gobert’s defensive success can be credited to playing with Derrick Favors. Favors, a more advanced defender, guards extremely well on the perimeter for a big man, allowing Gobert free reign in the paint. However, in the same sense, Gobert boosts Favors. Just because they work well in tandem – allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions (equivalent of first in the league) when they share the court – doesn’t mean Gobert should be docked.

If these numbers aren’t your bag, just watch a Jazz game. Gobert’s defensive impact is easy to see.

This happens when he’s in the lane (hat tip: Mike Prada of SB Nation):

And this happens when he’s not:

 

 

Want proof Gobert is correct about the lack of attention he receives? There wasn’t more outrage at Jazz coach Quin Snyder not using Gobert to defend the rim in that situation.

Sixth Man of the Year

Gobert is entrenched as a starter now – and likely for years to come.

But he already came off the bench in enough games, 45, to clinch his eligibility for this award.

No player currently eligible has produced more win shares than Gobert:

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Most Improved Player

Many voters gripe about this award, complaining about a lack of clear criteria.

Do they honor a player who saw his role – and therefore numbers – increase or someone who actually got better?

Gobert checks both boxes.

The second-year center has progressed on both sides of the ball, but his growth offensively is especially impressive.

He has flashed a passing ability that was completely non-existent last season. He’s shooting 65.7 percent in the restricted area, up from 53.0 percent last season.

He runs the floor hard (ranking 18th of 400 eligible players in points per transition play finished) and finds space in the pick-and-roll (ranking 31st of 198 eligible players in points per roll play finished).

Joe Ingles has assisted Gobert more than anyone else, because Ingles has seemingly figured out he can throw the ball anywhere near Gobert’s general vicinity and Gobert will grab it. Even low passes have a way of finding their way into Gobert’s hands.

“He’s just kind of easy to play with, really,” Ingles said. “He’s so tall and stuff that when you play pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, it’s easy to find him. He gets to the right spot.”

All in all, no player has increased their win shares from last season more than Gobert (0.4 to 6.5)

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Gobert’s improvement can be defined not just by how much he’s already done, but by how much untapped potential remains.

As much as Gobert helps the Jazz’s defense, their offense falls by about the same amount when plays. A key issue: Neither he nor Favors shoots well from outside.

How do you make that pairing work offensively?

“You just asked one of the hardest questions in coaching,” Snyder said, “and It’s how to space bigs in pick-and-roll. It’s why the league, over a period of time, is going to stretch bigs. It just makes the floor open. It’s easier. What you lack maybe in shooting range, you have to make up for with movement, screening, passing, different types of skill to occupy defenders. It’s just not easy. It’s not easy.”

That’s a frank answer, and there’s no disguising the challenge Utah faces. Favors has three seasons after this one remaining on his contract, and Gobert has two before he can become a restricted free agent.

So, no, this is hardly a perfect situation.

But as long as Gobert remains so committed to proving himself, bet on him figuring out how to make it work.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.

Magic GM John Hammond: ‘We have no idea’ when Markelle Fultz will play

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Markelle Fultz has played just 33 games, the most recent one in November, since the 76ers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. Philadelphia traded him to the Magic in February, and he didn’t play at all for Orlando last season.

When will Fultz return?

Magic general manager John Hammond on 96.9 The Game:

He will not play in summer league with us. We didn’t think there was any way that he was going to do that. We didn’t plan on him doing that. So, probably not the place for him right now.

But overall, I can just say that he’s doing well.

He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. His overall body-fat percentage is very good. So, if you look at him, you say, “Wow, he looks great.” So, it’s just a matter of him just continuing to get more comfortable, continuing for him to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.

And look, we have no idea when that’s going to be. We’re hoping much, much sooner than later. But once again, we’re trying to do this the best we can, and that’s have that word of patience.

We want to have patience with him and get him ready and put him on the court when he can be most productive.

Patience is probably the right approach, because I don’t know an alternative. But I’m also not sure where patience gets anyone.

Fultz’s issues run so deep. It doesn’t appear time is solving anything. Does Fultz have a long-term injury that’s actually healing? Does he have a mental block that’s actually being addressed? It’d be nice to see some signs of progress.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in summer league. The next opportunity for Fultz to publicly display his ability will likely be training camp.

But the way this has gone, I have no expectations of Fultz being ready for that, either.

Bradley Beal: Wizards told me they won’t trade me

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The Wizards don’t have a long-term general manager.

They do have a plan for Bradley Beal.

Washington coach Scott Brooks, acting general manager Tommy Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis have each conveyed it to the star guard.

Ben Golliver of The Washington Post:

Beal said that Leonsis, Sheppard and Coach Scott Brooks have each independently told him in recent weeks that he would not be moved.

“They’ve been very transparent and that’s been great,” Beal said. “They’re not keeping me in the dark about anything, even about the trade rumors. . . . It’s great having that peace of mind.”

Leonsis is the most important deliverer of that news. He’s the only one guaranteed to last into a new front-office regime.

But Leonsis also said last January the Wizards wouldn’t trade Otto Porter. They dealt him to the Bulls a week later.

These declarations are obviously non-binding, and Leonsis doesn’t have a great track record of sticking by his word. The owner might say John Wall aggravating his injury changed Washington’s outlook. But that’s the point. Situations change.

What happens if the Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst teams next season? That’s quite possible given their roster/cap outlook entering free agency. Would they keep Beal through a year of his prime even if playoff-bound teams are making lucrative trade offers?

And what if Beal reaches the final season of his contract? Would Washington keep him and just hope for the best in unrestricted free agency?

How long does this no-trade pledge last?

The Wizards reportedly plan to offer Beal the largest extension possible this summer. That’d be worth $111,786,897 over three years.

That’s also way less than he could get by playing out the final two years of his contract and hitting 2021 free agency. Especially if he makes an All-NBA team in 2020-21, which would make him super-max eligible. Or he could make an All-NBA team next season that would make him eligible for a super-max extension, which would be worth the same as a new super-max contract as a free agent.

Beal’s projected max contracts:

  • Extension in 2019: $111,786,897 over three years ($35,134,668 per year)
  • Super-max extension in 2020: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Re-sign regular-max in 2021: $214 million over five years ($43 million per year)
  • Re-sign super-max in 2021: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Leave in 2021: $159 million over four years ($40 million per year)

So, Beal will likely reject an extension this summer and wait until he makes an All-NBA team or his contract expires, whichever comes first. That’d at least be the financially prudent path.

In the meantime, he can know the Wizards say they won’t trade him – however far that assurance goes.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard meeting with Clippers set for July 2

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Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power this summer.

Whatever the Finals MVP decides with his free agency — stay with the Raptors, come to the Clippers, something else entirely — will change the landscape of the NBA. Wherever he goes that team will be an instant contender, with the Raptors and Clippers long having been the frontrunners and everyone else trying to get their foot in the door.

His decision likely will not drag out, but it’s not going to be LeBron James last summer “let’s do this so I can go on vacation” instant, either, if we believe this report from Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Of course, this report would be unofficial/off the record because teams cannot yet officially reach out to players or agents, and we know there is no tampering in the NBA. (Read that last sentence again in your best sarcastic voice to get the full impact.)

In Los Angeles, the Clipper hype has led to billboards.

If the Clipper meeting is July 2, in Los Angeles we presume, the question becomes when is the Toronto meeting? June 30/July 1 in Toronto, giving the Clippers the last shot? Or, are the first couple of days meetings with other teams that are longshots — Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, etc. — just to get them out of the way.

It has long been rumored to be a two-team race for Leonard’s services. On the one hand is the chance to return home and become the leader of a 48-win Clippers team poised to be a threat for years to come if they land a superstar. (The Lakers have never been a serious consideration for Leonard, according to sources, for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say he’s not a superteam kind of guy.)

On the other hand is a Raptors team where he was given room to recover and be himself, and where he just won a ring. A city where he was fully embraced by the fans.

Also remember Leonard is at eight seasons of NBA service, meaning the max of this next contract is for 30 percent of the cap (a starting salary around $33 million next season). After two more seasons, he will have 10 years of service and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap (a starting salary of $38 million right now, and with the cap expected to go up the next couple of years it will be higher than that in reality). Despite the injury history, is Leonard willing to bet on himself and sign a two-year contract to get to the larger max, then re-sign?

The leading theory floating around the league now is Leonard signs a short deal in Toronto, then re-enters the market in a year or two. But it’s just a theory. Nobody really knows because Leonard does not tip his hand. About the only thing we seem to know his he will meet with the Clippers on July 2.