Victor Oladipo

NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Boston climbs up into top spot

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Three weeks and around 10 games into the season, we are starting to figure out what is real and what is not — and how injuries are going to blow all that up. A lot of key players around the league are out now, but go ahead and blame Kawhi Leonard for sitting out and trying to avoid getting injured.

Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (8-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of eight in a row, making the timing of Gordon Hayward’s fractured hand feels like a punch to the gut. He was looking close to his vintage, All-Star self again averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists. Hayward is in three of the Celtics’ four most-used lineups, and when paired with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown the Celtics are +27.2 points per 100 possessions. The silver lining is he is only out six weeks (at a point in the season it doesn’t crush them).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (8-2, LW 1). Did anyone really say LeBron James was washed? No doubt his game took a step back last season — his groin injury playing a big role in that — but washed? He was third-team All-NBA. LeBron apparently talked himself into using a straw man argument for motivation — and it worked. He is playing at an MVP level so far this season. He seems much more comfortable pushing the ball in transition this season and attacking the rim. When asked how he has held off Father Time, LeBron had a great answer: “Wine. It ages well.”

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (7-3, LW 4). He may not have taken a step forward this season as hoped, but Khris Middleton was playing like his All-Star self of a season ago — 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three, finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense was 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Now they are without him for 3-4 weeks with a thigh bruise. The Bucks have won 4-of-6 in a road heavy portion of the schedule, and after being at home against the Bulls on Thursday it’s back out on the road for three more.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (7-3, LW 3). When Kawhi Leonard is on the court this season, Los Angeles is +24.3 points per 100 possessions better. That is exactly why he is getting load management nights now — to prevent and avoid injuries down the line, so he can be on the court in the games that matter. Starting Thursday he will be joined by Paul George, who is expected to make his debut on the road in New Orleans. Then we get to witness the fire power of this fully armed and operational Death Star.

Heat small icon 5. Heat (7-3, LW 7). Rookie Kendrick Nunn has come back to earth a little after his hot start, defenses started focusing on him and blitzing him a lot more. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy happier with his situation: “Everything is good — Miami, the organization, the culture, where I live… It’s a lot warmer (than where he grew up in Chicago), I don’t like the cold.” Nunn, however, likely will be back in Chicago in February — All-Star weekend, for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with teams of rookies and second-year guys. “I’m looking forward to that for sure, just for a couple days though,” Nunn told NBC Sports.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (7-3, LW 8). Nick Nurse didn’t lean much on his bench until injuries to Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) forced him to, but he has been rewarded. Chris Boucher has been a defensive force, blocking shots by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was hitting critical shots against the Lakers. The Raptors have started 2-1 on a five-game road trip, with the only loss being on the second night of a back-to-back against the Clippers (who had a rested Kawhi Leonard).

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (8-3, LW 9). Utah’s offense has looked better the past couple of weeks (up 2.1 points per 100 possessions over their season average, via Cleaning the Glass), but it is still the Utah defense that has them winning games. Last week they won two big ones, at home against the best of the East in Philadelphia and them Milwaukee. Bojan Bogdanovic’s game-winner against the Bucks that will be one of the big shots of the season for the Jazz.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (7-3, LW 2). The Sixers are all about the close games. Four of Philadelphia’s seven wins have been by eight points or less. The Sixers struggled on a recent road trip going 1-3 — with all three losses by a combined 10 points — but came home and fattened up on Charlotte and Cleveland, before going back out on the road for three more. Those three losses, particularly the one in Denver, brought up the question we asked heading into the season: Who is the closer on this team? Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for one bucket in the fourth quarter against Denver. They have to do better.

Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (7-3, LW 14). The Rockets have used the combination of a soft schedule (second easiest in the league so far this season) and a historically-hot James Harden to jump out to a fast start. While the Rockets defense has struggled, that has come from the bench, their preferred starting five — Russell Westbrook, Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela — is allowing less than a point per possession when on the court together. Caplet’s off-season shoulder injury (suffered while playing for the Swiss national team) has slowed his offense.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (7-3, LW 11). Mike Malone is leaning on his starters — the combination of Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and in Jamal Murray has played the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA so far this young season. Denver’s record looks better than their advanced stats because Jokic has quietly become as good a clutch shooter as we have in the league right now, and he hit two game-winners over the weekend to save the Nuggets.

Suns small icon 11. Suns (6-4, LW 5). It’s the question a lot of people keep asking: Are the Suns for real? It sure feels like they are (they played the Lakers tough until the end Tuesday night). For one thing, this is a top 10 offense and the defense is respectable (middle of the pack). Then there are games like Sunday, coming off a loss to Miami, where the Suns bounced back and trounced the Nets. Or, when Devin Booker scored 11 in a row in the fourth quarter recently to help beat Philly. The combination of Monty Williams as coach and Ricky Rubio at the point has Phoenix playing smart ball, the kind that is sustainable.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (7-4, LW 18). Malcolm Brogdon has the Pacers off to a quality start to the season, but they should be racking up wins now — all 11 of their games have been against teams currently below .500. That’s about to change with the Rockets and Bucks the next two teams up on the schedule. The Pacers sent Victor Oladipo down to the G-League for a day to get in practice, he’s still a ways away but it’s a good sign he’s getting in the work.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (6-4, LW 10). The boos are about to rain down on Kristaps Porzingis as he returns to Madison Square Garden Thursday to take on the Knicks (even though, when you look at the Knicks right now, do you blame him for wanting out?). Dallas lost to the New York at home last week despite another Luka Doncic triple-double. Porzingis has not played up to the level of his pre-injury self yet, but after nearly 20 months away from an NBA court that is to be expected. This was always going to take time.

14. Timberwolves (6-4, LW 13). It’s time to acknowledge this: Andrew Wiggins is playing the best basketball of his career. It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows — he’s not defending all that well, he’s certainly not living up to his contract — but it’s better than we have seen him play. It remains a tail of halves: In the first half he shoots 30.3% from three and doesn’t really impact the game on either end; then in the second half he shoots 37.9% from three (50% in the fourth), he’s more engaged and attacks the rim, and he impacts games late. We’ll see if it keeps up, but so far his 21.1 PER is lightyears ahead of any other season he’s had and a sign of just how well he is going.

Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (5-5, LW 12). The San Antonio Spurs are averaging 25.2 free throw attempts per game, 11th most in the NBA. That doesn’t seem remarkable until you compare it to their history, the Spurs are not a team that draws fouls — they have been in the bottom 10 in the league in free throw attempts four of the past five years (and never were above 22 a game). San Antonio is attacking a little more, and just finding ways to win.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (4-6, LW 17). When Jarrett Allen is on the court, Brooklyn outscores opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. When DeAndre Jordan is on the court, the Nets get outscored by 12.8. Allen is averaging 25.5 points per game, Jordan 22.4. Jordan is making $9.9 million a season in the first-year of a four-year contract. The lesson here? It’s good to have Kyrie and KD as your friends.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 19). Tuesday night’s loss sloppy loss to a Sacramento team without D’Aaron Fox set off even more alarm bells in Portland — this team is not right. The defense is struggling and the offense isn’t bailing them out Damian Lillard is carrying this team — he dropped 60 on Brooklyn and Portland still lost the game. CJ McCollum is struggling with his shot, Hassan Whiteside is Hassan Whiteside, and guys that might help such as Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic are out injured. It all just puts more pressure on GM Neil Olshay to make a trade at the deadline.

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (4-7, LW 15). While the record isn’t what OKC had hoped, this is a very competitive team that has four losses by five points or less. Filter out garbage time (as Ben Falk does at Cleaning the Glass) and the Thunder have a net rating of -0.7 — just a little under a .500 team. Catch a couple of bounces and this team has another win or two. That said, it’s going to be tough to rack up wins in the next four games against the 76ers, Clippers, and a home-and-home against the Lakers.

Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (4-7, LW 24). There are still a lot of things wrong in Chicago, but for a night rookie Coby White was able to cover them up by making seven three pointers in the fourth quarter to lead a win over the Knicks. Pulling away in the fourth is a nice change of pace for Bulls’ fans, who have had to watch their team blow four double-digit leads that became losses already this season.

Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (4-6, LW 25). Ten games into the season, we can now say: The Cleveland Cavaliers are not that bad. Which is a whole lot better than most of us expected (including Cavs fans). Take garbage time out of the equation (as stats at Cleaning the Glass do) and their net rating is -0.2, which is basically a .500 team. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are showing some chemistry, veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are playing well (and upping their trade value), and the Cleveland offense has looked pretty good the past couple of weeks.

Hawks small icon 21. Hawks (4-6, LW 16). Trae Young has made the leap in his second season — he is playing like an All-Star. Young is making history right now — he is the first Hawks player ever to have three straight games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. Tuesday night he had 42 points, shot 8-of-11 from three (with some Stephen Curry-ranged makes), dished out 11 assists, and willed the Hawks to an impressive 125-121 win on the road in Denver.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (4-6, LW 20). Statistically, the Hornets may be 4-6 but they are playing over their head, with a -7.3 net rating that would suggest another loss or two. Or, look at it this way: Charlotte has trailed by at lest 10 points in every one of its games. The one bright spot has been Devonte' Graham, who is averaging 17.9 points per game and absolutely should be starting in place of Terry Rozier right now.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (3-7, LW 23). The rumors that Orlando is interested in DeMar DeRozan make sense: Orlando’s problem is on offense where they average less than a point per possession this season (second worst in the league), and DeRozan is a “just add water and instant offense” kind of player. Orlando has dropped 5-of-6 and on Wednesday night the 76ers come to town for what could be the Markelle Fultz revenge game.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (4-6, LW 27). The Kings feel snakebit. First Marvin Bagley III goes down injured. Then on Monday, De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense. Look for more Cory Joseph and Yogi Farrell.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (4-8, LW 22). Blake Griffin has returned to the lineup and looked pretty good in his debut with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Derrick Rose could return to the lineup this week as well from his strained hamstring, and the Pistons could use his playmaking skills off the bench as they are on the road for 3-of-4.

Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (2-6, LW 21). The good news is that with Bradley Beal and impressive rookie Rui Hachimura the Wizards have been getting buckets — they have the 11th ranked offense in the league. The bad news is with those two on the floor the Wizards give up more than 122 points per 100 possessions — Washington’s defense is a mess. Thomas Bryant is not a rim-protecting backstop, and the insertion of Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup is not a boost on that end of the court. Thomas is averaging 10 points a game with a dreadful 47.1 true shooting percentage as a starter.

Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (2-8, LW 28). Brandon Ingram is averaging a career high 25.9 points per game. but how he’s getting those buckets has evolved since previous seasons. Ingram is getting to the rim less (just 21% of his shots, down fro 34% a season ago) but he’s not taking 30% of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and is hitting 46.9% of them. That shooting percentage is going to come down to earth some, but Ingram’s improved jumper speaks to the overall improvement in his game.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (3-7, LW 29). Ja Morant continues to put up numbers and look like a Rookie of the Year candidate, but what the Grizzlies really need is him and Jaren Jackson Jr. to find some chemistry, and that has yet to happen. When those two are on the court this season the Grizzlies score less than a point per possession and have a net rating of -11.8. Morant has 47 assists this season but only four have been to Jackson. It’s early, but the Grizzlies need this pairing to grow and work better.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (2-9, LW 26). Golden State rookie Eric Paschall is getting just about all he can eat in terms of touches on the shorthanded Warriors, and the result is him scoring 15.6 points per game. What’s most impressive is he is getting to the rim, with 43.5% of his shots coming in the restricted area, and he’s finishing a very good 66% of them. He’s one ray of hope for Warriors fans this season.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (2-9, LW 30). The Knicks signed Julius Randle this summer to bring his bully ball style in the paint to Madison Square Garden this season, but with other teams able to clog the paint because of a lack of shooting, Randle is shooting just 42.4% this season. His three-point percentage also is way off, down to 21.1% (he hit 34.4% a season ago). Things are so bad with the Knicks team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry were forced to address the media (you know James Dolan demanded it), and it feels like David Fizdale may be the scapegoat. He’s no blameless, but you can resurrect John Wooden from the dead and he couldn’t get this roster to win, it’s unbalanced and never was going to fit well.

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Enriched and entrusted, Malcolm Brogdon proving his worth with Pacers

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DETROIT – Pistons guard Tim Frazier is older than Malcolm Brogdon. Frazier has more years of NBA experience than Brogdon. Frazier has played more NBA games than Brogdon.

Yet, Frazier – Brogdon’s teammate on the Bucks last season – still speaks of Brogdon with an incredible reverence.

“He’s just somebody that I even kind of look up to,” Frazier said, “to try to follow his footsteps.”

“He’s a great person. He does everything by the book, tries to do everything the right things, man. Cares for others. It’s huge.”

Brogdon – nicknamed “The President” – has earned a sterling reputation thanks to his stellar play, strong work ethic and powerful voice. Now with the Pacers, Brogdon is spreading his influence even further.

Last offseason, Brogdon was part of one of the league’s most controversial moves. Holding matching rights on Brogdon, Milwaukee signed-and-traded him to Indiana for a first-rounder and two-second rounders. The Bucks cleared playing time that might have appealed to newly signed Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver and, perhaps more importantly, stayed under the luxury-tax line. We’ll see how Milwaukee uses those picks, but that was quite the choice with Giannis Antetokounmpo headed toward his super-max decision.

Brogdon says he’s not dwelling on the Bucks’ decision. His four-year, $85 million contract certainly helps.

“It’s just surreal,” said Brogdon, the No. 36 pick in the 2016 draft. “To get paid that much, that’s what everybody dreams about.”

Most of his draft classmates must keep dreaming. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies four-year contracts for first-round picks. But second rounders can negotiate shorter deals. Brogdon signed a three-year contract with Milwaukee. Though he looked like a huge bargain while winning Rookie of the Year and starting deep in the playoffs, Brogdon hit free agency a year earlier than his peers.

Brogdon’s $20 million salary this season is the second-highest ever for someone in his first four seasons. Only Nikola Jokic, who earned a max salary last season, got more.

Here are the highest salaries by players in their first four seasons:

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“There’s pressure whenever somebody gets paid,” Brogdon said. “A team pays you, because they are giving you more responsibility. They’re showing you that they like you and that they think you should play at a certain level.”

Brogdon is answering that call.

Shifted to shooting guard in Milwaukee to accommodate Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon filled his role dutifully. But he wanted to be a point guard, and the Pacers have made him their starting point guard.

“It’s been amazing,” Brogdon said. “It’s definitely a lot of responsibility, but it’s something I’m ready for and something I welcome gladly.”

He’s averaging 20.8 points and 8.9 assists per game – third in the NBA, behind LeBron James (11.0 assists per game) and Luka Doncic (9.1 assists per game).

Brogdon was once viewed as having a limited ceiling. He entered the NBA after four years at Virginia, had long-term health concerns and played a complementary style. He focused on defending, spotting up for 3-pointers and attacking closeouts

Now, Brogdon drives Indiana’s above-average offense. The ball runs through him, and he creates for himself and teammates. His increased role shows throughout his numbers (last season → this season):

  • Usage percentage: 20.7 → 27.1
  • Assist percentage: 16.2 → 39.7
  • Free-throw rate: .203 → .294
  • Plays per game finished as pick-and-roll ball-handler: 2.7 → 8.9
  • 3-pointers per game off multiple dribbles: 0.8 →2.6

Even while doing so much more, Brogdon has kept his turnovers low (though up slightly from his Milwaukee days). His true shooting percentage also remains above league average, because he’s showing nice burst to the basket and drawing fouls. An all-time great from the line, Brogdon has made 46-of-47 free throws this season (98%).

Brogdon must eventually adjust once Victor Oladipo returns. Though he’ll remain starting point guard, Brogdon will share ball-handling duties with the talented Oladipo.

That’s an issue for another day. For now, Brogdon just seems happy.

“Having the opportunity to have the ball in my hands, to make decisions, to lead a team,” Brogdon said, “this is what I wanted.”

NBA Power Rankings: Philadelphia’s length, defense, has it looking down at league

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It’s early in the NBA season and that means not only means the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings are back, but there will be huge swings the first few weeks. We’re learning who is better than we thought, who is worse, and then there are the teams just on a hot (or cold) streak. Here are the rankings after a week of the NBA season, but expect big shifts the first few weeks.

 
Sixers small icon 1. 76ers (3-0, Last week No. 3). Size and defense are winning out for Philadelphia early on. Their size wore down Boston on opening night, and the combination of Josh Richardson and impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle ground down and smothered Trae Young. Questions about where the shooting will come from on this team still exist — they take an average number of threes but are hitting just 32 percent so far — but a defense allowing less than a point per game is getting them wins.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (2-1, LW 7). Kawhi Leonard is dishing the ball like never before — he is averaging 7.5 assists per game, when he had never been above 3.5 per game before. Or, look at it this way: He is assisting on (an estimated) 47.6% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor, when he has never been above 19% in any previous season. The Clippers have impressed to start the season with an insanely efficient offense, but their defense has not been good (25th in the league on Cleaning The Glass, which eliminates garbage time). If that doesn’t improve it will catch up with them.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (2-1, LW 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo fouling out of his first two games was a surprise, but the Greek Freak is still putting up monster numbers — 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 9 assists per game — and he’s still making game-saving plays like against Miami. The Bucks defense has been pedestrian so far this young season, but expect that to turn around.

 
4. Timberwolves (3-0, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns is locked in, seems to have taken another leap forward this season, and has put up monster numbers — 32 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks per game so far. He’s been incredibly efficient and much more active on defense. Andrew Wiggins has looked much better… in the fourth quarter. Only. He’s shooting 33 percent in the first half, but has averaged 7.7 points per game on 57.1% shooting (inlacing 57% from three) in the fourth quarter. The NBA doesn’t really have a closer out of the bullpen role, but Wiggins is trying.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (3-1, LW 4). Their offense has been clunky this season, not always getting open looks and guys missing open shots when they do come. Only one game has seen Utah score more than a point per possession (Sacramento) but thanks to an elite defense keeping opponents at below a point per possession also they are 3-1. Internally, they expect the offense to turn around as guys just get more familiar and comfortable with each other. Mike Conley isn’t going to shoot 20% overall and 15% from three all season.

 
Lakers small icon 6. Lakers (3-1, LW 6). So far this season Anthony Davis has spent three quarters (74% officially) of his time at the power forward spot and one quarter (26%) of the time at center. AD at the five worked well against Utah, which drops Rudy Gobert back in the paint and the Lakers needed to draw him out. Wherever he plays he’s putting up numbers, including a historic 40 points and 20 rebounds in just three quarters against Memphis.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (3-0, LW 13). Before an injury robbed him of last season, the Spurs were quietly preaching the improvement in DeJonte Murray’s jump shot. The jumper is a work in progress but Murray is scoring — he is shooting 54.5% from the floor this season (up from 44.3 the last time he played), and his True Shooting Percentage is at an impressive 60.2 percent. Mostly, he’s getting to the rim more and finishing there at a high rate (84.2%, that will come back to earth). The Spurs are undefeated, and while the wins over the Knicks and Wizards are not going to turn heads, beating the Trail Blazers in Portland is impressive.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (3-1, LW 15). Kendrick Nunn for Rookie of the Year? Don’t laugh. The undrafted, unheralded two guard is averaging 21 points a game, shooting 44 percent from three, and has played his way into the starting lineup in front of Goran Dragic. It’s a long season, but the undrafted rookie has impressed early and may be another steal for the Heat scouting staff. They went 2-1 in three games without Jimmy Butler (out for the birth of his child) and one of those wins was in overtime against Milwaukee. Butler returned and the Heat knocked off the Hawks.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (2-1, LW 8). The Celtics have two interesting big man prospects — “Time Lord” Robert Williams and Tacko Fall — and both have gotten a little NBA run. The Celtics offense takes a big leap forward when Williams is in the game, but he just makes too many mistakes, particularly on defense (chasing blocks he shouldn’t, for example). Both just need time on the court and should probably get it with the Maine Red Claws. As for the rest of the roster, after looking overmatched on opening night in Philly, the Celtics picked up a good win in Toronto and an expected one against New York. Wednesday night is a good test against Milwaukee.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (3-1, LW 14). Luka Doncic is putting up numbers — 25 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a game — and Kristaps Porzingis is right with him, scoring 22.3 a night with 7.8 boards. However, when they have been on the court together this season the Mavericks have been outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions, with the offense being the weak link. Don’t expect that to last. Rick Carlise is clearly still toying with lineups, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (3-1, LW 2). Two of their wins came despite them trailing by double digits, and they gutted out a win in Phoenix despite Michael Beasley’s horrible foul of Ricky Rubio on a half court heave. They came back to earth a little against Dallas Tuesday, but Denver seems on track for a high seed again (despite the slip in these rankings). Denver has really missed Jamal Murray when he sits, the offense has scored less than a point per possession and the team gets outscored by 2.4 per 100.

 
Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (3-1, LW 9). When Pascal Siakam got a max extension, there were those questioning if he really would grow into that contract and be worth it. So far, yes. Through four games he’s averaging 27.5 points per game, shooting 42.9% from three, and has a team best PER because he’s so efficient. The other guy standing out in Toronto: Fred Van Vleet, who is scoring 18 points a game and shooing 40.7% from three. He’s going to be one of the biggest name free agents next July and he’s going to see a lot of zeros after the first number on his check.

 
Rockets small icon 13. Rockets (2-1, LW 5). Russell Westbrook and James Harden have found a balance on offense already, and the Rockets have an impressive 109.3 offensive rating so far. However, Houston is simply not consistent defensively and that is going to catch up with them at some point, likely in the postseason (and against elite teams in the league). During the regular season, the combination of Harden and Westbrook should be able to cover up the D with energy and scoring. That theory will be put to a better test as they head out on a four game road trip.

 
Suns small icon 14. Suns (2-2, LW 25). The fourth best net rating in the NBA? A defense that gives up less than a point per possession? Devin Booker hustling and making plays on defense? The Phoenix Suns are arguably the biggest surprise in the NBA to start the season and Monte Williams deserves a lot of credit for coaching this team up. They’ve had a tough schedule to start the season, and they have had to do most of this without the suspended Deandre Ayton, which makes it all seem sustainable. The Suns look legitimate.

 
Hawks small icon 15. Hawks (2-2, LW 24). Trae Young is out for at least a couple of weeks, and that is bad news for Atlanta — the Hawks are 22.5 points per 100 possessions better this season when Young is on the court. Or, put in raw numbers, Atlanta is +28 when Young has been on the court this season and -24 when he has sat. Atlanta’s backup point guard was supposed to be Evan Turner but he is out injured (left Achilles pain), which means just-claimed-off-waiver Tyrone Wallace has a lot on his shoulders.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (2-2, LW 11). This ranking may be a little low because no team has a tougher schedule to start the season than Portland — six of their first eight on the road, and the two home games are the Nuggets and Sixers. Going against those good teams has had Portland taking fewer threes than a season ago and making fewer (33.3% so far this season), something that’s going to need to improve if they want to climb back up the standings.

 
Thunder small icon 17. Thunder (1-3, LW 23). Oklahoma City has kept games close because of an impressive defense holding teams down to less than a point per possession this young season. The offense showed up against Golden State in that beatdown, and they put up points against Houston, but buckets have not come easily to OKC. The standout has been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 23.8 points per game, both getting to the rim and knocking down his threes. Danilo Gallinari is playing well enough to make other teams covet him in a trade.

 
Wizards small icon 18. Wizards (1-2, LW 26). Isaiah Thomas is back and getting his chance, playing almost 20 minutes against the Spurs and scoring 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-10 from three. The biggest positive for Washington’s future may be a solid start to the season buy rookie Rui Hachimura, who is averaging 16.3 points a night on 46.9% shooting. He’s not hitting threes yet, he doesn’t get to the line enough, but the rookie has potential.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (1-2, LW 12). Whatever the Nets think of Kyrie Irving’s mood swings and attitude, the guy is carrying their offense — 37.7 points per game with a ridiculous 61.6 true shooting percentage. The Nets know what they have — that’s why they gave away mock Irving jerseys to fans the night the Nets took on the Knicks. That’s some quality trolling of Knicks fans (who, of course, showed up at the Barclay’s Centre to boo Irving for not wanting to play for James Dolan).

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (0-0, LW 20). Considering Blake Griffin remains sidelined to start the season, the fact the Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack offense is a positive sign. Andre Drummond has been in “pay me my money mode” heading into free agency averaging 21 points and 16.3 rebounds a game, but the surprise is an efficient Derrick Rose giving them 21.5 points a game off the bench.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (1-3, LW 22). Chicago has struggled with the three-ball this season, attempting almost 36 a game but hitting just 27.5 percent of them. Thaddeus Young has been good from deep (43.8%) and Zach LaVine respectable (34.8%) but Otto Porter (21.1%) and especially Lauri Markkanen (18.2% on 6.8 attempts a game) have to get those shots to fall. Or stop taking them. Games against Cleveland, Detroit, and Indiana give the Bulls a chance to right the ship this week

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (1-2, LW 19). Markelle Fultz is playing well in his sixth man role, averaging 12.3 points a game and not shying away from the three ball when it’s open (4.3 attempts per game, hitting 23.1%). Paired with Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Bamba, the trio has given Orlando a solid bench that Steve Clifford can trust.

 
Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (1-2, LW 29). He may just be playing his way into a trade, but Tristan Thompson has started the season strongly averaging 19.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game this season while shooting 60% overall. He even drained a three. Collin Sexton has looked improved and solid this season, but the Sexton/Darius Garland backcourt has a ways to go (the Cavs have a net rating of -11 when those two have share the floor this season, with the offense in particular sputtering.

 
Warriors small icon 24. Warriors (1-2, LW 10). Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Warriors’ offense has been good enough, actually, top 10 in the league so far. The defense is dead last — that is where games are lost. Some of that is bad luck (teams are shooting 43.2 percent from three against them, that will come back to earth a little) but it’s mostly not having a real defensive rim protector or good wing defenders. Draymond Green’s value as a switching defender onto bigs is only effective if you’re trying to get away from the original defender, teams aren’t really intimidated by the Warriors’ defensively.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (1-3, LW 27). After stumbling through Summer League, RJ Barrett has come out and found a groove to start the season averaging 20.5 points per game, shooting 50% from the floor (and 46.7% from three), and pulling down 7.5 rebounds a game. He’s one of the guys (along with Ja Morant and Kendrick Nunn) stepping forward early and showing that Zion Williamson cannot just return and waltz to the Rookie of the Year award.

 
Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (0-4, LW 21). It was a good week for Brandon Ingram. First, other potential free agent targets next summer signed extensions with their teams (Jaylen Brown, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, etc.) making him one of the biggest names in the class. Then he has gone out and looked like a guy who deserves to get paid, averaging 27.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a night. A few teams — the Knicks, Hawks, Hornets and others — will have cap space to spend next summer and may see Ingram as the kind of versatile scorer on the wing they could use.

 
Pacers small icon 27. Pacers (0-3, LW 16). Without Victor Oladipo it was right to expect some stumbles out of the gate in Indiana, but this has been ugly — a bottom 10 offense and defense with losses to Detroit and Cleveland. Against the Pistons, Drummond pushed around Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, which was concerning. What should really be concerning is this is the soft part of the Pacers schedule, it gets much tougher in a little over a week. Indiana needs to stockpile a few wins before things get harder.

 
Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 28). This team is fun to watch, an early League Pass favorite, and that starts with rookie Ja Morant. He is averaging 17.5 points a game, dishing out five assists, shooting 42% from three and even blocking Kyrie Irving’s shot with the game on the line. His athletic and skill are on display and are must watch. Even if they aren’t going to win a lot (and are likely to trade away some veterans once we get closer to the trade deadline).

 
Hornets small icon 29. Hornets (1-3, LW 30). Terry Rozier came to Charlotte because he wanted the ball in his hands and a chance to show what he can do and… meh. So far i.e. is averaging 13.5 points per game, 5.5 assists a night, with a PER of 12.2. If you’re looking for a bright side, coach James Borego is getting young stars PJ Washington, Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham good run, and each of them is showing some thing in flashes.

 
Kings small icon 30. Kings (0-4, LW 17). The “what happened to these guys?” surprise to start the season. Everyone’s League-Pass favorite last season is playing at a bottom 10 pace, in part because they have to keep taking the ball out from under the basket because of their league-worst defense (once you remove garbage time, like at Cleaning The Glass… leave in garbage time and they’re second worst). Sacramento has lost its games by an average of 19.5 points per game. Fans in Sactown want to see Richaun Holmes start over Dewayne Dedmon, and he’s probably earned that.

Pacers, Domantas Sabonis agree to four-year, $77 million extension

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Indiana is going all-in on the idea of Domantas Sabonis playing the four next to Myles Turner at the five this season. The Pacers have put up the money, now we’re going to see if it can actually work.

After initial struggles to find common ground on a contract extension — leading to reports of the Pacers testing the trade waters for Sabonis — the two sides have come to terms on a four-year contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Pacers.

The exact figures here are still in flux.

How likely those bonuses are remains to be seen.

This is a pretty fair contract number, a little more than $19 million a year average for the man who came in second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting last season seems about right. Plus, if it doesn’t work out with Sabonis starting next to Turner, this is a very tradable contract and there would be interest in his services (he was harder to trade at his $3.5 million current salary and get anything of value to match that smaller number).

The Pacers hope it doesn’t come to that and Sabonis becomes part of one of the better, younger frontcourts in the league.

Sabonis is skilled and versatile on offense, a fantastic pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off guy who sets good screens then he rolls into open space. He’s strong around the basket and plays a crafty, high IQ game.

The concerns with Sabonis, and why some teams are not convinced he’s a starter, are twofold. First, he is not good defensively and is not a rim protector.

The second concern is that he does not space the floor (76.4 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket last season, and he doesn’t make many beyond that range).

Indiana is betting on this core. They have inked big contracts with Turner (four-years, $72 million) and Malcolm Brogdon (four years, $85 million). Victor Oladipo will be coming up for an extension in a couple of years and, if he returns to pre-injury form, is a lock max player. Throw in this Sabonis contract and that is a lot of guaranteed money. Are these guys worth it?

We’ll find out soon enough, the Pacers have gone all-in with them

Pacers reportedly testing trade market for Domantas Sabonis

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Two factors are in play here.

First, the Pacers and Domantas Sabonis‘ representatives are reportedly nowhere near an agreement on a contract extension.

Second, there are real questions about how Sabonis and Pacers’ center Myles Turner can play together. If they can’t, then the question becomes how much do the Pacers want to pay Sabonis to be a backup five (because Turner is the better player and a guy they can build their defense around).

That has led to the Pacers exploring possible Sabonis trades, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

…sources say the Pacers have engaged in active trade talks with several teams this week about the fourth-year forward. Sabonis, the 23-year-old who arrived with Victor Oladipo in late June 2017 in the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City, is clearly on the market.

There is no lack of interest in Sabonis, who averaged 14.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season as the Pacers — who lost Oladipo to a season-ending ruptured quad injury in a game against Toronto on Jan. 23 — pulled off such a surprising campaign (48-34; lost in the first round to Boston). Thus far, sources say the Pacers’ asking price in talks with several teams has been too high.

Sabonis is a skilled offensive big man who is versatile. That makes him a fantastic pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off guy who can help create space for the ball handler to find a lane, then he rolls into open space. He’s strong around the basket and plays a crafty, high IQ game. He can help a lot of teams. However, two things limit Sabonis: He is not good defensively and he does not space the floor (76.4 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket last season, and he doesn’t make many beyond that range).

Sabonis is in the final year of his rookie contract and has a healthy pay raise coming next season, up from the $3.5 million he will make this time around. The Pacers, however, just forked out big cash for Myles Turner (four-years, $72 million) and Malcolm Brogdon (four years, $85 million). They may be a little gun shy about doing that now for Sabonis, and there are other teams interested. That doesn’t even count Victor Oladipo’s payday. All this for a team not likely to venture into the luxury tax.

How much the Pacers can get for Sabonis remains to be seen, but the Pacers may want picks because not much salary needs to be exchanged. Of course right now the Pacers are asking for everything but the GM’s firstborn son from other teams, and of course the other teams are lowballing the Pacers with their first offers. That’s how negotiations work. When things start to evolve to a middle ground, the Pacers may well find a deal because, as much as they like him, it’s hard to make everything fit with Sabonis on the team.