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Can Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram thrive in New Orleans?

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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.

Donovan Mitchell scores 25, Rudy Gobert has 22 and key late block, Jazz rally past Mavs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert had 22 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to propel the surging Utah Jazz to a 112-107 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 23 for the Jazz, who have won 14 of their last 15 games.

Luka Doncic scored 25 points for the Mavericks, who have dropped two of three after winning four straight. Doncic managed only two points in the final quarter.

Seth Curry added 19 points for Dallas.

Gobert’s three-point play — a dunk and a free throw — gave the Jazz their first lead since the first half at 96-95. The Mavericks responded with a 3 by Curry and two free throws from Delon Wright.

Gobert broke a 104-all tie with a tip-in, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. and Royce O’Neale exchanged 3-pointers, Gobert blocked what looked like an easy layup for Wright.

Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and then Gobert rebounded Doncic’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made one of two free throws for the final margin.

The Mavericks raced to a 32-19 lead behind Doncic’s playmaking and shooting. The Jazz later scored 12 consecutive points and took a brief 37-36 lead on Georges Niang’s 3-pointer.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 15 points and Hardaway and Wright each chipped in 11 for Dallas.

Portland’s struggles do not have Damian Lillard pushing for trade, “I can weather the storm”

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Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere.

The Trail Blazers are 19-27, sitting as the unexpected 11 seed in the West, and there calls from some quarters of the Pacific Northwest for Portland to do something drastic to try and salvage the season. Too often, those calls are followed by “what if Lillard decides this isn’t working and pushes for a trade?”

It’s not going down that way. Not according to Lillard.

In a league where it’s become commonplace for superstars to use their leverage — either to get traded or to force the team to make bold moves they want — Lillard remains loyal and trusts the front office in Portland. He realizes what this season has become for the Trail Blazers and he wants the franchise to think about next season, not desperation moves to save this one. Here is what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic.

“That don’t have nothing to do with my commitment to the team,” Lillard said. “I mean, it’s not like we are going to do something that is going to take us to the championship at this point. I think it’s more important for us to protect the assets we have, the guys who are going to be here and who are going to help us going forward. I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice that just to make a desperate play.

“It’s been a tough season, but the season is not over. We can make something of this season as we are, but it’s not worth, you know, saying ‘OK, let’s force something and go do something that at the end of the day doesn’t make sense.’ But that has nothing to do with my commitment. I said it after last game (Golden State): I feel like I can find a way. I can weather the storm. I can go through hard times.”

He also has made clear he isn’t going to push GM Neil Olshay to make specific trades.

Lillard is averaging 28.3 points and 7.6 assists per game, he scored 108 points in his last two games, and he’s playing at an All-NBA level again. He remains one of the game’s top guards and a player the Trail Blazers can build a contender around. His five-year max contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

Portland’s challenge is this: Lillard is 29 and in his prime. If they are going to win a title with him that has to happen sooner rather than later. Portland should not make desperation moves to salvage this season — getting Jusuf Nurkic back in the next few weeks could turn things around without a trade — but even looking ahead: If they are fully healthy next season are they on the level of the Lakers or Clippers? To my eyes, no. Then the question becomes what needs to be done to get there? If it’s time for something bold, should they test the trade market for CJ McCollum?

The Trail Blazers have some big questions to answer after this season.

The thing they don’t need to worry about is Lillard.

 

 

Dion Waiters debuts, nearly keys Heat comeback vs. Clippers (video)

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Dion Waiters‘ season entering Friday:

  • Suspensions: Three
  • Instagram posts offensive to the Heat: Two
  • Games played: Zero

However, due to a rash of injuries on the Heat, Waiters finally escaped the doghouse and actually played against the Clippers last night.

He played a little in the first half then started the fourth quarter with Miami down 16. In the final minute, Waiters even twice blocked Lou Williams on the same possession then made a 3-pointer on the other end to cut L.A.’s lead to three.

But the Clippers held on for a 122-117 victory.

Waiters finished with 14 points, including 4-of-9 3-point shooting, in 18 minutes.

Kings demote Buddy Hield, start Bogdan Bogdanovic

Buddy Hield
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Even for a franchise accustomed to misery, the Kings hit this season’s rock bottom Wednesday. Sacramento lost by 22 to the Pistons, who were missing Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown. It was the Kings’ sixth straight loss.

So, Sacramento made a big change last night – starting Bogdan Bogdanovic over Buddy Hield at shooting guard.

The adjustment worked beautifully. The Kings beat the Bulls, 98-81. The starting lineup outscored Chicago by seven points. Hield scored 21 points, shooting 2-for-3 on 2-pointers and 5-for-9 on 3-pointers, and grabbed eight rebounds.

Not every game will be against the lowly Bulls. But it’s not as if Sacramento had been beating anyone.

Kings coach Luke Walton, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“There’s nothing permanent with it, it’s not a punishment to Buddy at all,” Walton added. “Buddy’s been great and we expect him to be great for us tonight. But we’ve got to keep looking for something that works for us.”

“He’ll be fine,” Walton said. “Buddy’s a professional and he knows how we feel about him. Again, this is not a punishment towards him, we’re just looking at trying to mix some things up, try to give ourselves a little juice and find a way to win a game in this stretch that we’re in right now.”

Hield, via Ham:

“You’ve got to come in, be ready and when coach call your number, go out there and hoop,” Hield told Grant Napear on the NBC Sports California telecast following the Kings’ 98-81 win.

“Today I was just locked in and more confident,” Hield said. “I’m just trying to be myself and do what I do best, which is score the basketball.”

Hield has underperformed this season, sometimes leading to tension. Good for him playing hard last night, and Walton was probably wise to downplay the move.

But a team benching a highly paid cornerstone is a big deal.

In order to balance lineups, teams don’t always start their five best players. But the best players usually start, because teams want to play their best players more. It’s generally better to spread that greater playing time over the full 48 minutes than a compressed period that begins several minutes into the game.

Last night, Sacramento treated Hield like a true reserve. He played just 23 minutes, down from 34 per game as a starter.

Maybe Hield will regain his confidence off the bench, return to the starting lineup and continue his momentum. That’d be great for the Kings, though it’d also maintain complications with Bogdanovic headed into restricted free agency this summer.

Sacramento has two talented shooting guards. That’s fine with Bogdanovic still on his first (though relatively high-paying) contract. It becomes more complicated when Bogdanovic receives his raise. The Kings might eventually have to choose between the two.

If nothing else, this lineup change shows not to take Hield’s once-exalted status in Sacramento for granted.