Can Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram thrive in New Orleans?

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
1 Comment

This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

New Orleans is buzzing.

New Orleans is usually buzzing in one definition or another, but when it comes to sports it is a Saints town through and through. Other teams, including the NBA’s Pelicans, were more of an afterthought.

Zion Williamson has changed that.

Alvin Gentry, now about to enter his fifth season as coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, said he has never seen the city buzzing about basketball and the NBA like this before. Williamson has that kind of magnetism — he was even on NBC’s Football Night in America before the Saints game Sunday talking about the city. Zion has the Big Easy excited about fast-paced, high-flying Pelicans team that will be League Pass darlings this season.

It’s the perfect platform for Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, a clean slate to turn around their underachieving reputations.

Can they seize the opportunity?

Ball and Ingram were at the heart of a trade package that brought Anthony Davis to the Lakers, giving the Pelicans two recent No. 2 picks to go alongside Williamson and veterans such as Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick. Ball and Ingram both were up and down in Los Angeles, showing stretches of potential but also struggling to adapt to the NBA then to playing with LeBron James (something a lot of players have struggled with).

New Orleans gives Ball and Ingram a chance, outside the glare of the Lakers’ spotlight, to prove they were worthy of those lofty picks and expectations. That also comes with pressure because they are playing for their next contracts — Ingram will be a restricted free agent next summer, and Ball will be extension eligible.

The pair will get plenty of opportunities — Ball likely starts at point guard, next to the veteran Holiday at the two, and they will share shot creation duties. Ingram probably will start at the three, next to Williamson at the four. The question isn’t will they get minutes.

The big question is can they stay on the court?

Ball has played in just 99 games over two seasons, or 60.4 percent of the Lakers’ games, due to injuries. His season ended last March due to an ankle injury he was not recovering from as expected, and he has battled a host of injuries over his couple of NBA seasons.

Ingram has missed 53 games over the past two years due to injury, including playing in just 52 games last season, and his season was shut down in March also for the potentially more serious blood clotting issue called deep venous thrombosis. That diagnosis has teams cautious about him; if it is chronic it could cost him his NBA career. He’s also just thin (officially listed as 190 pounds at 6’9”) and the physicality of the NBA wears him down and leads to injuries.

If one or both have their season again shortened by injury, it will be a red flag to teams (including the Pelicans, which just upgraded its training staff considerably this summer).

There are reasons to believe Ball and Ingram can breakthrough.

They will also be in an up-tempo style that suits them — the Pelicans played in the second-fastest pace in the NBA last season and coach Alvin Gentry wants to speed things up, not slow them down.

That should be great news for Ball, who does his best work when playing on instinct in open space, more of a playground style. That’s when his look-ahead passes find targets, where his creation is at its best (he’s improved at thinking the game in the halfcourt, but that is still a work in progress). Ball, however, needs to be a bigger threat to score in transition to open up those passing lanes, he scored less than a point per possession on shots in transition last season. He improved as a finisher at the rim, although he’s pretty average there still, and force him into the midrange or a pull-up three and the defense wins. Ball has to change that.

Ingram got 18.8 percent of his shots in transition last season and score an impressive 1.22 points per possession that way.

Ingram played his best ball in the middle of his sophomore season, when the Lakers put the ball in his hands and made him their primary scorer. In February 2018, he was aggressive and attacked the rim, averaging 18.6 points per game shooting 54 percent overall and better than 50 percent from three for the Lakers through 10 games. He seemed to be breaking out, then ankle and knee issues essentially shut him down. The next season the ball was in LeBron’s hands more, and Ingram was slow to adjust.

Ingram can put up numbers — he averaged 18.3 points and 5.1 rebounds a game while shooting a career-high 49.7 percent overall last season — and nobody questions his athleticism, he just tends not to be efficient, shooting just 33 percent from three last season (after 39 percent the season before). When he’s aggressive and attacks the rim he gets to the line, but shot just 67.5 percent of free throws. He simply does not get easy buckets

Ball has skills that teams like — the court vision and passing, plus he is an excellent defensive point guard. Around the league, Ball still has fans in front offices watching as he cleans up some fundamentals (funky shot, taking off on the wrong foot on shots at the rim, etc.). He just needs to become more of a scoring threat. Right now defenses tend to treat him like Rajon Rondo and back off, he needs to develop a floater, and a more consistent three-point shot (he hit 32.9 percent last season, but let him set his feet and have space and he can hit it).

The trade gives Ball and Ingram a chance, an opportunity. That’s all they can ask for. Now it’s on them to grab it.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
Harry How/Getty Images
0 Comments

In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

0 Comments

In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves
Getty Images
0 Comments

Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

0 Comments

Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.