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Three things to expect in Zion Williamson’s debut

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Finally.

At Summer League in Las Vegas, the Thomas and Mack was full but fans got just nine minutes of Zion Williamson, one half of basketball, before he was shut down following a knee-to-knee collision with another player. Zion was done for the summer as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Preseason saw Williamson get into four games and start to look like the force of nature that he was at Duke, the franchise-changing player who was the runaway consensus No. 1 pick, and he averaged 23.3 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting. Then Williamson tore his right lateral meniscus, needed surgery, and ultimately was out far longer than the original 6-8 week projections as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Wednesday night, Williamson finally makes his NBA debut, lacing up his Nikes against San Antonio at home in New Orleans.

What should we expect in Zion’s debut (with him likely on a minutes limit)? Here are three things to watch for.

1) Dunks. A lot of dunks.

Zion Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete but right now his game is not filled with subtlety and craft — the manchild attacks the rim and finishes. With authority.

Look at Williamson’s shot chart from the preseason: He took just four shots outside the paint.

This is not a knock on Williamson’s game — the dunk is the most efficient shot on the court, f you can get it, take it. Williamson has skills — a crossover he uses in transition, an inside-out dribble, and more — that he uses to get to the rim, and he wants to finish every play the same way.

Which is exactly what the Pelicans need.

New Orleans has good shot creators — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and they have shooters such as J.J. Redick. What New Orleans could use is a threat that goes to the rim and forces defenses to collapse a little, opening up space (Derrick Favors has provided some of that). The Pelicans could use a player who can draw fouls and attacks the rim. That’s Zion. He should fit in beautifully on offense.

One scout I talked to (and he wasn’t the only person to make this comparison) said Williamson’s early career could resemble Blake Griffin’s in this sense: When he entered the league, Griffin was a high-flying dunking sensation who got his points at the rim, but eventually he developed an outside shot and a passing game that made him a much more rounded, All-NBA level player. Williamson has work to do on his other skills, but the man is going to dunk the ball in his debut.

2) The start of a playoff push in New Orleans.

Williamson’s injury was not the only one that hit the Pelicans: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball have all missed significant chunks of time. Combine all of that with a newly formed roster, and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start.

However, the rest of the bottom half of the West was equally dreadful. The result is that while New Orleans is just 17-27, Williamson’s return finds the Pelicans only 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. What’s more, the Pelicans have hit a groove going 11-5 in their last 16 with Ingram playing at an All-Star level to lead the offense and Favors providing a defensive anchor. Ball is starting to find a comfort zone in Alvin Gentry’s offense, which is allowing Holiday to work more at his natural two-guard spot.

Now enter Williamson and the Pelicans are thinking playoff push — they have pulled back on trade talks to see how things shake out over the next couple of weeks.

One other thing in its favor: New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference (only Atlanta is easier overall). Only one team New Orleans faces in its final 15 has a winning record — that’s a schedule set up for a closing kick.

With Zion back in the fold, the Pelicans are going to make a run at it.

3) How well do Zion and Brandon Ingram mesh?

This is the $168 million question for the Pelicans.

(It’s less expectation than a question, one that could be a five-year $202 million question if Ingram can play his way onto an All-NBA team this season, which may not be likely but certainly is possible.)

Ingram has played his way into that size max contract this summer and if the Pelicans don’t give it to him another team will (the most another team could offer is four-years, $125 million). David Griffin has talked about keeping Ingram, the team is expected to back up the Brinks truck for him, but that doesn’t change the question:

Can Ingram and Zion coexist on the court?

Before the season — and still in a lot of minds — there are doubts about how well the games of the slashing, attacking Ingram and Williamson would fit together. Could this be another version of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid concerns in Philly, where two elite players want to operate in the same space and it clogs things up?

Ingram has developed a reliable jump shot this season — 39.9 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game — and that has opened up his game. It also means he should fit better next to Williamson. However, the Pelicans likely want to see how all this works before they pay Ingram all that money this summer.

Williamson and Ingram may become the cornerstones of an outstanding New Orleans team in the future, but the questions about fit will linger until the players answer them. Those are not questions that are going to be answered in Williamson’s debut, but it’s something to watch.

Lakers, 76ers reportedly interested in trade for Derrick Rose

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Derrick Rose‘s renaissance has come to the point this season he is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game (before Monday’s game against the Wizards).

The Pistons are in the mix for a playoff spot in the East — three games back of the eighth-seed Nets, who are finally getting healthy — but with Blake Griffin out for the season they are expected to be sellers at the deadline. That means Rose, a guy who could help a number of contending teams.

The Lakers and 76ers are among those interested, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and multiple teams with championship aspirations have expressed interest in trading for Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

The Lakers and Sixers are in search of point guard assistance for the stretch run, sources said.

The Lakers need a second playmaker as their offense falls by 9.8 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James is off the court. To make the deal work, the Lakers would have to dangle Kyle Kuzma plus someone to fill the salary (Avery Bradley would work but that would cost Los Angeles another starter; DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook works, too, but why would the Pistons want them?). The Lakers are limited in picks they can send out after the haul they sent to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis deal.

The 76ers need a playmaking point guard to go next to Ben Simmons at points, ideally one who can stretch the floor (Rose is shooting just 31.8 percent from three). The Sixers would likely dangle Zhaire Smith and maybe Mike Scott to make the salaries work.

Expect the Pistons to listen to offers up to the deadline, playing teams off each other to get the best possible deal. But Rose may well be on the move before Feb. 6.

PBT mid-season awards: MVP and All-NBA

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The 2019-20 NBA season will reach its midpoint by games played tonight. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Tomorrow, we’ll pick Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year.

Most Valuable Player

Kurt Helin: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

This is how wide-open this race remains to me: a couple of weeks ago I would have said LeBron James led this chase, and a few days ago it was James Harden (and Luka Doncic could still be the one holding the trophy at the end of the season). Harden’s case is his 37.2 points per game scoring average, which the fourth-highest average in NBA history (trailing only three Wilt Chamberlain seasons) — and he’s scoring even more efficiently than he did a season ago. However, those numbers have slipped slightly in recent weeks, although that’s because defenses have adjusted and are throwing crazy double-teams at him. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30 points and 12 rebounds a game, added a three-point shot to his game, and has led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA. As it was last season, it’s the defense that separates Antetokounmpo — and this year LeBron, too — from Harden in my book.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

James Harden is averaging an astounding 37.2 points per game. That’s the start of his MVP case. But per 100 team possessions, Harden’s scoring lead over Antetokounmpo is a mere 46.4 to 44.9. Consider Antetokounmpo’s all-around advantages – especially defensively – and he deserves this honor.

Harden gets additional credit for playing more than Antetokounmpo. Those are minutes Harden is providing value to his team. But Antetokounmpo plays fewer minutes because he and Milwaukee are putting away teams early. Like Harden, Antetokounmpo is playing as much as necessary for his team to win.

LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Anthony Davis are also in the mix.

All-NBA

Kurt Helin:

First team

G: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: LeBron James (Lakers)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Kemba Walker (Celtics)

F: Anthony Davis (Lakers)

F: Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)

C: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)

Third team

G: Paul George (Clippers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

F: Jimmy Butler (Heat)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Every year I find All-NBA third team the most difficult part of the ballot — there are usually several players for each position very close in my mind, and those decisions by voters can have financial implications for the players. (Why players salary levels should not be based on media player votes is a rant for another day — but I have that rant ready.)

That’s the case again this season. I feel comfortable with the first two teams (although, obviously, things can shift) but the third team is challenging, and there are players not listed above who could make my end-of-year ballot. Karl-Anthony Towns is my fourth center but only because he has missed so much time and he likely gets back on the court soon (he has been phenomenal offensively when he plays). Bradley Beal could climb into a guard spot, as could Devin Booker or Trae Young (their defense still holds them back in my mind). Khris Middleton and others are hanging around as well.

Dan Feldman:

First team

G: James Harden (Rockets)

G: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: LeBron James (Lakers)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Second team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Chris Paul (Thunder

F: Anthony Davis (Lakers)

F: Jimmy Butler (Heat)

C: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)

Third team

G: Ben Simmons (76ers)

G: Kemba Walker (Celtics)

F: Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)

F: Jaylen Brown (Celtics)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Gobert and Jokic could go in either order at center. Because he has played less, Embiid had to edge out Bam Adebayo.

The final guard spot was extremely close between Walker, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker and Trae Young. It’s splitting hairs.

Same for the final forward spot. Brown narrowly topped Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Domantas Sabonis

Pascal Siakam might have taken it if he stayed healthy, and he’ll have a chance to seize it the rest of the season. Paul George could also get in the race at either forward or guard if he’s healthier the rest of the season.

Alex Caruso jumps Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry in All-Star voting

Alex Caruso
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Alex Caruso‘s All-Star votes caused waves when the Lakers backup ranked sixth among Western Conference guards.

Now, he’s fourth, passing Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.

Fourth!

Ultimately, this won’t matter. Caruso won’t be an All-Star. Starters are determined by a formula that combines the votes of fans, players (who’ll barely choose Caruso) and media (who won’t at all choose Caruso). Reserves are picked by coaches (who won’t at all choose Caruso). Caruso getting so many fan votes is funny and nothing more.

Really, if his climb produces any more outrage, that’d further expose the absurdity of this whole process. He passed Westbrook (who has slipped and is no longer playing like a Western Conference All-Star) and Curry (who has missed nearly the entire season due to injury). It’s a popularity contest that only somewhat overlaps with on-court production. Caruso is among the bigger absurdities in All-Star voting, but there’s no sanctity to uphold here.

The latest update in All-Star voting provides minimal meaningful change from the previous returns.

Carmelo Anthony moved from eighth to sixth among Western Conference frontcourt players, passing Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns. It still seems likely LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard will snag the three Western Conference frontcourt starting spots. But Anthony – who’s highly popular among fellow players – has an outside chance if media votes (which won’t include him) are concentrated enough.

LeBron James still leads the overall voting. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Eastern Conference players, though he trails Luka Doncic. Let me restate my objection: If he has more votes than Antetokounmpo, Doncic should be an All-Star captain. Dividing by conference at the captain-picking stage – when the whole point is no longer dividing the All-Star game by conference – is a bad method.

Likewise, players shouldn’t be divided by conference when selected at all (though I understand Eastern Conference teams want to protect spots for their lesser players).

Maybe we can start by eliminating positional designations. Make the best 26 – yes, 26 – players All-Stars, and let them sort it out on the court.

Here’s the All-Star full leaderboard:

Eastern Conference

Guards

1. Trae Young (ATL) 2,066,924

2. Kyrie Irving (BRK) 1,814,618

3. Kemba Walker (BOS) 1,797,633

4. Derrick Rose (DET) 1,381,934

5. Kyle Lowry (TOR) 848,293

6. Zach LaVine (CHI) 847,632

7. Jaylen Brown (BOS) 718,355

8. Ben Simmons (PHI) 629,199

9. Bradley Beal (WAS) 609,899

10. Fred VanVleet (TOR) 546,471

Frontcourt

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 4,474,107

2. Pascal Siakam (TOR) 2,433,411

3. Joel Embiid (PHI) 2,398,743

4. Jimmy Butler (MIA) 2,046,257

5. Jayson Tatum (BOS) 1,622,635

6. Tacko Fall (BOS) 757,375

7. Bam Adebayo (MIA) 529,244

8. Gordon Hayward (BOS) 398,213

9. Domantas Sabonis (IND) 381,390

10. Andre Drummond (DET) 325,178

Western Conference

Guards

1. Luka Doncic (DAL) 4,598,323

2. James Harden (HOU) 2,934,614

3. Damian Lillard (POR) 984,140

4. Alex Caruso (LAL) 894,827

5. Russell Westbrook (HOU) 837,187

6. Stephen Curry (GSW) 819,352

7. Donovan Mitchell (UTA) 673,917

8. Devin Booker (PHO) 577,035

9. D’Angelo Russell (GSW) 491,047

10. Ja Morant (MEM) 399,703

Frontcourt

1. LeBron James (LAL) 4,747,887

2. Anthony Davis (LAL) 4,412,619

3. Kawhi Leonard (LAC) 2,973,076

4. Paul George (LAC) 1,171,616

5. Nikola Jokic (DEN) 889,387

6. Carmelo Anthony (POR) 784,038

7. Kristaps Porzingis (DAL) 774,056

8. Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 746,013

9. Brandon Ingram (NOP) 672,666

10. Dwight Howard (LAL) 670,643

Back home, Philadelphia wins again, beats Brooklyn behind 34 from Tobias Harris

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Tobias Harris scored 34 points, including two big baskets in the final two minutes that proved to be the difference, as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Brooklyn Nets 117-106 on Wednesday night.

Ben Simmons had 20 points and 11 assists for the 76ers, who improved to 19-2 at home.

On the road, the 76ers are 7-14 and have lost six straight games – a slide that has caused them to fall to the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has lost nine of its last 11 overall and six straight away from home. The Nets were led by Spencer Dinwiddie‘s 26 points and eight assists. Jarret Allen had 17 points

Neither side was able to gain complete control of the game, with the largest lead being a seven-point Brooklyn advantage late in the first half.

Harris, however, gave the Sixers offensive life in the second half, scoring 24 points. With the score 106-104 with two minutes to play, Harris hit a leaning 3-pointer that rattled in just as the shot clock ran out.

Josh Richardson had 15 points and Furkan Korkmaz added 15 off the bench. Al Horford had 14 points and eight rebounds for the Sixers.