The Portland Trail Blazers last won a division title during the 1998-99 season, as a part of the Pacific Division. Since the forging of the Northwest Division to start the 2004-05 season, the Blazers have been unable to reach a similar level of success. But now with the four-time reigning divisional champion Oklahoma City Thunder starting slowly, Portland must take advantage promptly to gain control of its division once more.
You have to feel for the Thunder.
Rip City is no stranger to having its star players injured, so there’s a certain level of sympathy that can be extended to its divisional rival. OKC was forced to apply for a hardship exception to sign an additional player in guard Ish Smith, with as many as eight players unable to contribute due to injury.
From their All-Stars in Kevin Durant (foot) and Russell Westbrook (hand), to their newcomers in Anthony Morrow (MCL) and rookie Mitch McGary (foot), the Thunder face dark times over the next few weeks and months.
Oklahoma City currently holds a 2-6 record, sandwiched between two other Northwest teams in the Minnesota Timberwolves (2-4) and the Denver Nuggets (1-5). The Utah Jazz, the fifth and final team of the group, is just a sliver above Minnesota at 3-5. These teams currently make up four of the bottom five teams in the Western Conference.
It almost goes without saying that the Blazers have it a little easy if snatching the division is in their sights. Portland had the best division record last season at 13-3, which could increase this year.
Durant is anticipated to be out for a further two to four weeks, with Westbrook expected to miss about a month. A plethora of the Thunder’s supporting cast remain sidelined for assorted times depending on the injury, though Durant and Westbrook will be the driving force behind OKC getting a playoff berth.
The time is now for Portland to create some space between itself and Oklahoma City.
Not only will the Thunder be missing their two best players, but the Blazers have a relatively easy schedule lined up to close out the 2014 calendar year.
Between now and New Year’s Eve, just eight games will be played against teams that are currently ranked as playoff seeds in either conference. The Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs will see Portland twice, while the Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors will each get one chance.
Respect is due to the remaining teams on the Blazers’ schedule until the end of December, as all of them are attempting to compete and improve. But in retrospect, they do not match up with Portland in terms of talent or synergy.
Teams such as the Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers don’t have the same drive as the Blazers at this point. These teams are either in a rebuilding process or are trying to compete while their sights are set on the future.
The Pacers await the return of injured star Paul George, while the Knicks are banking on the free-agency class of 2015 to return to prominence.
That isn’t to say these teams won’t compete with everything they can muster, but there’s no questioning the separation between a playoff-bound squad like Portland and a lottery-bound group like the 76ers.
The Blazers will see each of the aforesaid teams twice before the end of December.
As such, the Blazers must reap the benefits of an early schedule that is rife with less-than-stellar competition. The Thunder would normally have a laid-back schedule also. But with their best talent shelved until further notice, clashes with even the Milwaukee Bucks or Detroit Pistons can carry some importance in having a winning record.
You can only be respectful for so long, but let’s face it, the Nuggets, Jazz or Timberwolves aren’t going to top the Northwest this year, and it won’t even be close.
The division will be a two-team race between OKC and Portland, though the latter has the inside track right now. It is at full health and has a relaxed schedule to end the year.
The Blazers just have to take advantage as soon as possible and in turn they will have the best chance to win the division for the first time in 16 years.
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Tis the season for five-time champions to pursue what may be one final shot at title glory.
Yet there are significant differences between Tim Duncan’s quest for a very plausible repeat in San Antonio and Kobe Bryant‘s far less certain future with the Los Angeles Lakers. New head coach Byron Scott has no silver bullets given the roster he’s been dealt.
In turn, the Lakers have stumbled to their worst start (0-5) since moving to Los Angeles. Iconic point guard Steve Nash is finished for the season—and likely forever—on account of nerve damage. Prized rookie forward Julius Randle will likely miss the season while recovering from a broken leg.
Big wow…We’ve got to win these games. Games that we have that are close, that could go either way, we need to figure a way to get these done. It’s a learning process but it’s very, very frustrating. It’s upsetting, but we have to be determined. I have to stay determined. Guys have to stay determined and try to turn things around.
If we’re being realistic, however, things probably won’t turn around anytime soon. Not without some help.
So it’s only natural to begin asking whom general manager Mitch Kupchak might target in 2015, when his Lakers get another shot at the free-agent market after whiffing on recent pursuits of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
SI.com’s Chris Mannix recently reported that, “There is one player who makes sense in LA next season: Rajon Rondo. Several rival executives believe the Lakers will make a strong run at Rondo next summer, and it’s easy to see why.”
It is easy, especially when accounting for an otherwise underwhelming crop of available talent. It won’t be easy to pry restricted free agents like Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler away from their respective clubs. Odds are LaMarcus Aldridge will stay with the Portland Trail Blazers, so the cream of the unrestricted free-agent crop includes a select few including Marc Gasol and Greg Monroe.
The Lakers could certainly use another big man, but the point guard position has remained a source of instability since the departure of Derek Fisher. Jeremy Lin becomes a free agent at season’s end, and there’s no telling whether he’ll have endeared himself to the front office by then.
Given the Lakers’ imminent financial flexibility and that the NBA‘s salary cap is poised to increase significantly, landing Rondo and potentially others would be economically feasible.
Rondo is a proven commodity almost single-handedly capable of keeping an offense humming. While his scoring efficiency took a hit during the 30 games in which he played a season ago, there’s no doubting his elite floor vision and playmaking ability. Just four games into the young 2014-15 season, the 28-year-old is averaging an unsurprisingly gaudy 12.5 assists per contest.
The Lakers can score points, playing at a pace that ranks sixth league-wide (per Hollinger Stats), but they need a facilitator who can improve the looks Bryant and others are getting. Los Angeles’ 101.7 points per 100 possessions ranks 17th league-wide, so the offense isn’t especially efficient.
Rondo’s ability to defend certainly wouldn’t hurt.
It won’t turn around a defense giving up a league-worst 117.4 points per 100 possessions through five games, but it would make this team’s perimeter defense more respectable at the very least.
The Kentucky product has become one of the league’s premier two-way floor generals, and opportunities to land stars of his caliber are rare.
Rondo isn’t a perfect player. He doesn’t have a perimeter game to speak of, and that limits his ability to be an explosive scorer. But in a world where Rondo has guys like Bryant and Nick Young on the wing, he probably doesn’t need to be that kind of scorer.
In short, this seems like a good fit. And it may not be the first time Kupchak and Co. decided as much.
Back in Feb. 2013, CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger reported that “preliminary trade discussions” between the Lakers and Boston Celtics were focused on the potential exchange of Rondo and center Dwight Howard. Berger noted that the deal hadn’t “gained any traction,” but it’s an indication that the Lakers brass has at least contemplated what Rondo might look like in purple and gold.
Now that Los Angeles wouldn’t have to forfeit any assets (other than cap space) in order to land Rondo, acquiring the point guard at this point becomes more of a recruitment issue.
The biggest question about Rondo’s fit in Los Angeles may be whether he wants to be there in the first place.
While the organization appears to be caught up in some kind of quasi-rebuild, this is still the Lakers we’re talking about. As CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore put it, “They could sell Rondo on being a huge part of the franchise going forward, and the LA lifestyle is always a draw for players.”
Rondo will have to weigh that allure against the comfort of remaining in Boston—or perhaps more credible chances of winning a title elsewhere. He seems reasonably content to finish his career with the Celtics.
And the Lakers may again be lottery bound. There’s no guarantee Rondo will have any interest in trying to fix that, not with would-be cohort Bryant turning 37 next summer.
But Kupchak has to try.
ESPN Insider’s Chris Broussard (subscription required) reported in January that Rondo was “not looking to get out of Boston,” but was still, “looking forward to becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career in the summer of 2015.”
So yes, this could happen.
If the opportunity for Los Angeles to sign Rondo presents itself, it may be as close to a no-brainer as one gets in the free-agent business, especially if the bottom line is restoring the franchise to title contention while Kobe’s still kicking. Bryant has one year remaining on his contract after this season. From there, there’s no telling exactly how much longer he’ll play.
As long as he does, Rondo would make for a capable sidekick.
Who else is going to run this offense? Who’s better-suited to serving as a bridge to the post-Bryant era, assuring the franchise a cornerstone who could recruit future talent and build another generation of contenders?
Word of L.A.’s interest in Rondo comes at an appropriate time.
Bryant is coming off a game in which he scored 39 points and still lost. A game in which it took him 37 shots to get there. It’s a symptom of this team’s woeful lack of playmakers and its sluggish transition to a new system under Scott. Bryant can create his own shots, so it’s only natural he take some of them.
Someone like Rondo could help change that, easing the load Bryant bears and making more of a supporting cast that needs a little help getting started.
It’s far too soon to say whether such an arrangement would translate into a championship, but this much is certain: The Lakers probably aren’t going far without a significant upgrade at the point guard spot.
It might not happen. And it might carry some risks.
As NBCSports.com’s Kurt Helin speculates, “Kobe and Rondo? What could go wrong with those egos in the same room?”
On the other hand, Rondo may be precisely the kind of hard-nosed competitor who can take up Bryant’s tradition. Maybe they’d understand one another. Maybe they could build a culture that outlasts Bryant himself.
Maybes, yes—but a chance Los Angeles has to take.
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The best opportunities don’t always arise from the best circumstances.
It all comes down to the health of perimeter stopper Jimmy Butler, an All-Defensive second-team selection in 2013-14. The 25-year-old suffered a sprained left thumb during Chicago’s preseason tilt with the Charlotte Hornets on October 19, casting a cloud of uncertainty over his availability out of the gate.
While initially thought to be a game-time decision for Chicago’s season opener Wednesday night, Butler has since has been ruled out of the contest, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. As for how long he’ll be out of the action, well, that remains a mystery.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Butler would be out two-to-four weeks, per ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell:
Butler, however, chimed in that he’s hoping to return as soon as Friday, per Johnson:
No one seems to know just how long this might last, Thibodeau included.
“Two-to-four (weeks), one-to-three, I don’t know what it is,” the coach told reporters Wednesday. “He’s not comfortable going yet, so when he is, he will.”
Even amid the mass of question marks, one thing seems fairly certain: The window is now open for McDermott to make his mark. Whether it’s open a crack or something larger than that is moot.
Regardless of the size of this opportunity, the point is that it absolutely exists.
Now, that might not sound surprising to some given the way McDermott paved his NBA path.
He left Creighton University sitting fifth on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list with 3,150 career points. He was a three-time All-American, a three-time conference player of the year and a four-time All-Conference first-teamer.
He turned enough heads at the collegiate level for the Bulls to part with two first-round selections to bring him on board. Considering Chicago’s investment in his talent and his level of success prior to hitting the Windy City, he may have seemed primed for a substantial role.
Before Butler went down, though, McDermott actually appeared more likely to have nothing more than a part-time spot in Thibodeau‘s rotation.
“There are several players in place who have the time in Thibs‘ system that McDermott lacks, and once again, [Tony] Snell could have something to say about the minutes the rookie gets,” Blog A Bull’s Jason Patt wrote in September. “… I’m thinking McDermott plays around 15-20 minutes per game this season.”
Butler’s injury changes everything.
The swingman logged a team-high 38.7 minutes per game last season, a year in which he struggled to fully shake off the effects of a turf-toe injury he suffered in November. He may have rushed that return and has said he will not make the same mistake again.
“This time I’m going to make sure I’m back and ready to go without limitations,” he said, per Bulls.com’s Sam Smith. “(Last year) I had that turf toe. I probably came back a little too early and I was still a little ragged in some parts. This time, I’m going to make sure I’m back 100 percent.”
The championship-hopeful Bulls need Butler at his best, so they won’t force the issue. But they’ll need someone to fill his shoes in the interim. And of all the players up for the position, none carries a deeper bag of scoring tricks than McDermott.
His perimeter prowess may have punched his NBA ticket, but McDermott has the ability to be much more than a gunner, as Bleacher Report’s Daniel O’Brien explained:
McDermott can do more than hit triples, as he’s got a great feel for scoring from any spot on the floor.
He can get defenders to bite on pump-fakes, and then he’s capable of one or two dribbles for a bucket off the glass. In the mid-range, he’s extremely dangerous with an assortment of step-backs and Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaways.
And scary as this sounds, McDermott could be an even more effective offensive player now with all the help he’ll have around him.
“I’d go on record and say I feel like at the end of the day, if somehow Doug McDermott can be a starter, I think he’s going to get better shots with that starting unit being out there with Pau Gasol and with Derrick Rose,” former Bulls coach and current ESPN analyst Doug Collins told reporters recently.
The Bulls can look at other options for shooters, but they won’t find any who can match McDermott’s offensive arsenal.
At this point in his career, Mike Dunleavy is more of a specialist than anything. Nearly 42 percent of his field-goal attempts came from long range last season, and almost all of his makes were created by someone else: Over 78 percent of his two-point field goals and almost 96 percent of his triples came off assists.
Kirk Hinrich had more success calling his own number—just 38.6 percent of his two-point baskets were assisted—but the 33-year-old has converted his field goals at less than a 40 percent clip during each of the past two seasons.
Sophomore swingman Tony Snell packs an intriguing combination of athleticism and three-point touch. But he only played 16.0 minutes a night as a rookie, and, as Bleacher Report’s Sean Highkin observed, he has yet to prove he has Thibodeau‘s trust:
With so many minutes to fill, all four players should factor into Thibodeau‘s early season rotation. But this is McDermott’s chance to entrench himself into the Bulls’ blueprint going forward.
Thibodeau isn’t the biggest fan of growing pains. During his four seasons at the helm, Snell is the only Bulls rookie to have averaged more than 13 minutes a night.
That said, those growing pains are easier to deal with in October and November than they would be in April and May. If McDermott can play Thibodeau-approved defense, an area in which the rookie will be helped by the likes of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and rim protector Taj Gibson, McDermott can use this early exposure to secure a larger permanent role than anyone could have imagined would be available to him.
It’s probably not the opportunity McDermott pictured himself receiving. It’s definitely not the way the Bulls wanted to find minutes for the first-year forward.
But it’s a silver lining nonetheless. It’s his chance to turn the franchise’s setback into a step forward for the organization.
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Fordham was picked to finish last in the Atlantic 10 in a preseason poll released earlier this week, part of the conference’s media day festivities at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
There are plenty of reasons why A-10 coaches and media members would have their doubts about the Rams. Still, the poll results were a bit shocking, especially for anyone who’s witnessed what’s gone on at Fordham since last season ended in March.
This seems like a classic example of not being able to get out of the way of the reputation you’ve created for yourself.
“We’ve got them right where we want them,” Fordham head coach Tom Pecora said at media day according to the Daily News’ Roger Rubin reported.
More than anything, the lack of respect coaches and the media have for Fordham is largely the result of the Rams’ struggles over their 19 seasons in the Atlantic 10. Fordham hasn’t had a winning season since 2006-07. In the seven seasons since, it’s 16-96 against Atlantic 10 opponents.
Since becoming a member of the A-10 prior to the 1995 season, the Rams are 72-232 against conference opponents. Only twice have they finished .500 or better in conference play. In the past six seasons, they’ve won 39 games, and just 10 of those wins came against A-10 schools.
Believe it or not, this year the schedule will be even more challenging since teams will play 18 games against conference schools for the first time since the 1990-91 season. It will be a grueling two-month stretch for Fordham.
Hence the need to pick up wins in nonconference games. At media day on Tuesday, Pecora didn’t hide from the fact that the Rams will have to win a majority of their nonconference games before the A-10 schedule begins in January.
“I think when you look at Jan. 1, you need to be 7-4, 8-3, 9-2 if you’re going to have a chance to go play in the postseason,” Pecora said according to the New York Post‘s John DeMarzo. “You’re not going to, in a league like this, go and win 12 games.”
Make no mistake about it: The nonconference schedule will be challenging as well. Back-to-back games on the road against Big Ten opponents Penn State and Maryland will be early tests. A big game at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s will be followed by a battle at Barclays against Manhattan.
While history—the one Fordham is trying to get past—has taught us that it won’t be easy, this is Fordham’s chance to change the narrative.
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After making a very difficult transition from the Southern Conference to the Atlantic-10 this summer, Davidson tops our list of 2013-14 regular-season conference champions in men’s college basketball with no chance of hanging another banner this year.
No one wants to believe that their team will do worse than the previous year, but repeating as conference champions is a tough thing for everyone other than Gonzaga to do.
Two years ago, Georgetown, Indiana, Marquette and Miami each earned at least a share of their major conference titles before proceeding to miss the NCAA tournament altogether this past season. Niagara won the MAAC in 2012-13 and lost 17 conference games in 2013-14.
In total, only 11 conferences had the same champion in each of the past two seasons, meaning 20 conferences (excluding the newly formed AAC) had new regular-season champs last year.
Thanks to a number of ties atop last year’s standings, there were a total of 38 teams that won at least a share of a regular-season title. From those 38 teams, we’ve ranked the 10 that are least likely to do it again this season.
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The Phoenix Suns will enter the new season with possibly the deepest roster they have had in several years.
Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green will all anchor the backcourt.
P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Anthony Tolliver and Miles Plumlee are the big names in the frontcourt.
But in addition to those aforementioned starters and role players who are guaranteed playing time, there are also plenty of prospects just beginning their NBA careers. The Suns have five rookies and sophomores on the roster, and while all are packed with potential, there may not be enough playing time to go around.
Those five players are Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, Tyler Ennis, T.J. Warren and Zoran Dragic. And unless there is a major injury sustained by one of the team’s key players, those five will be fighting for any minutes they can get all season long.
In order to see which prospect has the best chance of winning that battle, here’s an in-depth breakdown of each player.
The Backcourt Prospects
Archie Goodwin, Tyler Ennis and Zoran Dragic will all be members of the backcourt this season, and those three may have the toughest time finding minutes in the rotation.
Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas and Green are all established players. Dragic and Bledsoe will likely play at least 30 minutes per game each, and Thomas and Green will both receive upwards of 20-25 minutes as the team’s sixth and seventh men.
So where does that leave the prospects? They will be third-string players, searching for any remaining minutes to be found in blowout games.
Though, there will always be injuries. Even if they are minor ones, at some point at least one of those prospects will have to step into a bigger role. Who will that be?
Zoran Dragic, who just signed a two-year deal with Phoenix yesterday, is a candidate.
Unlike Ennis and Goodwin, Zoran Dragic already has several years of experience playing professional basketball in Europe. He spent his last two seasons playing for Unicaja Malaga of the Spanish League. Last season he averaged 18.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 43 percent from the field.
He was even more phenomenal for the Slovenian national team in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where his jump shot looked better than ever before and his efficiency skyrocketed. There, he averaged 12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game (26 minutes per game) while shooting 50 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point range.
But in Phoenix, Zoran’s main contribution won’t be his jump shot. He is not a fantastic offensive player but is instead known for pesky, persistent perimeter defense. Many of his points are generated from steals or defensive rebounds that become transition opportunities on offense.
And that’s a perfect fit for the Suns’ style of play. In a best-case scenario, Zoran would become the team’s SG equivalent to P.J. Tucker on defense. As it stands, a three-man combo of Bledsoe, Zoran and Tucker looks like it could slow down just about any elite offensive guard or wing.
But perhaps Zoran truly isn’t ready to face NBA competition and won’t impress in training camp, preseason or practice in general.
In that case, Archie Goodwin is looking to build on his rookie campaign with Phoenix.
We all saw what Goodwin could do last year. Though the 20-year-old shooting guard only played in 52 games, he was able to make a contribution, driving to the rim on offense and racking up steals on the defensive end.
On the other hand, his jump shot was poor, and Goodwin made just 5-of-36 three-point attempts last season.
Now, he will have another chance to gain coach Jeff Hornacek’s trust and earn a spot in the rotation. Even if Goodwin does not earn a great amount of playing time, he is still only 20 and has plenty of time to develop his skill set. He does not have the same advantage Zoran Dragic has when it comes to experience and maturity.
And finally, 20-year-old Tyler Ennis is the most inexperienced of them all. The rookie from Syracuse was drafted 18th overall by the Suns in June, and he is yet another guard that could be used as insurance in case of a major injury to one of the team’s stars.
He fits the mold of a “Phoenix Suns point guard” pretty well. He’s 6’2″ and 180 pounds, and has great passing instincts. Ennis is perhaps one of the most adept facilitators in his class, as he averaged 5.5 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game in college. That is a terrific assist-to-turnover ratio.
Don’t underestimate the rookie’s scoring ability either. He only averaged 12.9 points per game with Syracuse, but Ennis has a reliable arsenal of runners, floaters and pull-up jump shots. He may not be the most athletic guard out there, but his special offensive instincts make up for the lack of astounding speed or length. Though he won’t take many threes (only 85 attempts in 34 games), he makes them at a consistent rate (35 percent).
Unfortunately, Ennis and Goodwin may be out of luck for this season. Because Zoran Dragic has the most experience, and because the Suns want to keep Goran happy in preparation for his free-agency period next summer, Zoran will likely receive the most playing time. The other two could easily find themselves in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam for at least part of the season.
But that doesn’t mean Ennis and Goodwin aren’t in the team’s future plans. In case either Goran Dragic or Gerald Green leave in free agency or if someone is traded, those two prospects will eventually be called on to step up. It’s simply this season is not their “breakout” year.
Small forward is still a pretty deep position for the Suns. P.J. Tucker will be the team’s starter again, anchoring the team’s perimeter defense and providing corner three-point shooting, rebounding and hustle as always.
After him, Marcus Morris is likely next on the depth chart. The 25-year-old forward put up 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game for the Suns last year while shooting 38 percent from three-point range. Sixth, seventh and eighth men Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green and Marcus Morris might prove to be the deadliest scoring trio of any NBA bench unit this season. Plus, Marcus’ mid-range and three-point shooting will certainly be needed in the absence of Channing Frye, who signed with the Orlando Magic.
Still, there should be some leftover playing time for 6’8″ combo forward T.J. Warren, who the Suns drafted 14th overall out of N.C. State.
A lot of the hype surrounding Warren is fueled by his fantastic performance in the summer league. In five games and 24.8 minutes per game, Warren averaged 17.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from the field.
Warren was the team’s leading scorer as a rookie. Archie Goodwin and Alex Len are both featured in this article and both have NBA experience, and yet they were outplayed by Warren (in defense of Len, he suffered an injury). Miles Plumlee was the team’s starting center throughout all of last season and was outplayed as well.
Summer league production is no guarantee at success, but it is a promising sign. And it is just one reason Warren has the greatest chance for a breakout season.
Another huge factor for him is roster depth. Warren is not the victim of a positional logjam, like Goodwin, Ennis and Zoran are. Even the two talented small forwards ahead of him are not much of an issue.
As long as Warren can establish himself as a reliable scoring threat and prove he can contribute to the bench unit, finding playing time for him will be easy. After all, Marcus Morris can easily slide over to power forward in smaller lineups to give Warren more playing time.
If he plays well, the minutes will come. That isn’t as much of a given for the backcourt prospects.
Finally, we explore the curious case of Alex Len.
First of all, it is important to cut Alex Len some slack. Even though he was the fifth overall pick of the 2013 draft, remember that ankle injuries kept him from playing for the first few months of the 2013-14 season. Not only that, but he wasn’t able to play in the summer league in 2013 or participate in training camp, all because he was recovering from an ankle surgery. He was already put at a disadvantage compared to other rookies.
And now, in 2014, bad luck hit him again. In his summer league debut, he injured his pinky finger, which sidelined him for the rest of the tournament.
With all that being said, he was also terrible in his rookie season. The 7’1″ Ukrainian big man posted a PER of 7.3 and contributed 0.2 win shares for the entire season.
It would be nice to see this be Len’s “breakout” season, but that might also be an unreasonable expectation. It is well-known that power forwards and centers need more time to develop in the NBA, and Len is a huge developmental project at the moment. There are too many negative aspects of his game he needs to fix before he can come close to taking over the starting center spot.
For instance, his entire offensive skill set is incredibly inconsistent. The following highlight video shows what Len can do at his best, which is score in the post and knock down short jumpers. But also keep in mind he shot just 42 percent from the field, and that those jump shots and post moves failed more often than they succeeded. The potential is there, but it’s a work in progress.
He also needs to work on his footwork and on becoming more mobile. The reason Plumlee is so effective in the Suns’ offense is because he can outrun other big men and leap for dunks. Plumlee has the ability to make a highlight block and then score on the other end in a matter of seconds because he is one of the most athletic big men in the league.
Len doesn’t have the same speed or vertical, and he tends to look clumsy on the court. And although he is only 21, he also lacks the muscle and strength to bully opposing centers at this point in his career.
Because the frontcourt is so thin, Len will likely receive more playing time this year. But although he may improve, it is hard to believe he could have a legitimate breakout season. He needs at least a couple more years to gradually develop his game. Even then, it is unlikely he will become the star of any team’s frontcourt. The best-case scenario for Len is he will become a solid starter for years to come.
Overall, Warren should be the one to watch in 2014-15. Alex Len will also be watched closely as he gains more minutes in the rotation, but it would be surprising if he manages to establish himself as one of the most-productive members of the team’s bench.
Goodwin, Ennis and Zoran will be interesting to watch, only because the three will constantly be fighting for playing time. However, the chance that any of those three will consistently play 15-20 minutes per game is very slim. That is, unless there is another major injury.
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Danny Ferry isn’t too popular in the court of public opinion these days, but he managed to mend fences with a prominent member of the NBA’s African-American community Tuesday. The Atlanta Hawks’ general manager, who currently is on an indefinite leave of absence after audio was released of him making racist remarks about Luol Deng, sat down with Magic Johnson and apologized for his comments, according to Johnson. Just had a heart to heart meeting w/ Hawks GM Danny Ferry! He apologized for his comments about Luol Deng & the African American community.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 23, 2014 The former Los Angeles Lakers star apparently came away from the meeting impressed and thinks Ferry deserves a second chance. In our meeting Danny Ferry’s apology was very sincere.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 23, 2014 I have a lot of respect for Danny because he called and wanted to talk about how his comments offended so many people.— Earvin Magic John…
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Wayne Ellington might face an uphill battle for minutes with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the 26-year-old shooting guard should like his chances of at least securing a roster spot.
The 28th pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Ellington signed with the Lakers on Monday, the team announced:
According to Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, Ellington’s contract is partially guaranteed for the 2014-15 season:
With 13 guaranteed contracts already on the books, Ellington falls short of being considered a lock. But his resume suggests he could play his way into that role, as his three-point stroke, defensive effort and reliability would all be welcome additions to the Lakers’ perimeter.
“While not necessarily a game-changing acquisition, Ellington will provide some depth on the wings for the Lakers,” wrote Lakers Nation’s Corey Hansford. “With Xavier Henry not quite ready yet, and Jordan Clarkson being a rookie, Nick Young is the only known commodity off the bench on the wings.”
Head coach Byron Scott, via Medina, has penciled in four of his five starters for this season: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill. For the record, that’s a 76-year-old starting backcourt, which made a combined 21 appearances in 2013-14.
Depth isn’t a luxury for the Lakers, it’s a necessity.
Ellington can be more than an insurance policy, though, despite his busy summer schedule perhaps indicating otherwise.
Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times detailed the long, winding road Ellington took to get to the Lakers:
Drafted in 2009 with the 28th overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ellington has already been traded four times during his five years in the NBA, including twice this summer — from the Dallas Mavericks to the New York Knicks, then by the Knicks to the Sacramento Kings.
Sacramento chose to stretch out Ellington’s remaining $2.8-million salary over the next three seasons, making him a free agent earlier this month.
If no one apparently wants Ellington around, why should the Lakers?
Well, it starts on the outside, where the sharpshooter has done his best work. He converted threes at a 42.4 percent clip last season, bumping his career three-point percentage to 38.6.
Now, the Lakers might not seem as if they need another perimeter gunner. After all, they finished last season ranked sixth in three-point attempts (24.8 per game) and third in percentage (38.1).
However, nearly all of the parties responsible for those numbers have left the purple and gold.
Ex-coach Mike D’Antoni, who values the long ball and schemes to create those looks, resigned after overseeing a campaign that produced the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history (.329). Of the seven different Lakers who shot above 37 percent from deep last season, only Nick Young (38.6) remains.
While systematic changes may explain those departures, it doesn’t change the fact that L.A.’s three-point voids went unfilled over the offseason. Newcomers Jeremy Lin and rookie Jordan Clarkson are slashers, not floor spacers. Lin has converted just 34.3 percent of his career perimeter attempts, and Clarkson was only a 32.2 percent shooter from distance during his collegiate career.
Someone will need to demand defensive attention from downtown, and Ellington has the tools to assume that role.
Unlike last season, these Lakers are built to attack from the inside out.
General manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters that an aging Bryant has “become most effective where you see a lot of him posting up.”
Post touches should be in equal—OK, relatively equal—abundance for Boozer and rookie Julius Randle. If the Lakers are counting on Nash, then they should be relying on his ability to navigate the pick-and-roll game, especially with athletic screeners like Hill and Ed Davis at Nash’s disposal. Lin and Clarkson, assuming the latter gets minutes, might get a constant green light to attack off the dribble.
With so much of this offense likely geared around the interior, the Lakers have to deploy a three-point threat capable of pulling defenders away from the basket. Scoring chances may come few and far between, but that player must be able to convert those that come his way.
That is precisely the part Ellington played for the Dallas Mavericks last season.
With only 393 minutes of action spread across 45 games, his stat sheet was understandably underwhelming: 3.2 points, 1.0 rebounds, 0.4 assists and a 12.2 player efficiency rating.
He was, however, an offensive safety valve when given the chance to be one.
Of the 216 players to attempt at least one catch-and-shoot three a night (minimum 40 games played), Ellington tied for 16th with a 44.7 percent conversion rate, via NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data. As a spot-up shooter, he had the league’s 15th-most efficient scoring rate of 1.25 points per possession, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Most importantly, Ellington’s demeanor never changed, despite his role frequently doing just that.
He never got off the bench in 37 different games, yet he was always active and productive when his number was called.
“There hasn’t been one time all year where he’s complained or dropped his head,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, via ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon. “He’s been a real pro about it. Guys that approach it the right way are always ready when their time comes. He’s a high-character guy.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of that trait for the Lakers. They will enter the 2014-15 campaign with contrasting motivations, one to give their veteran players a chance to be competitive and the other to develop their young prospects.
Minutes could come at a premium, particularly considering how little the Lakers have invested in Ellington. They didn’t burn a draft pick on him nor commit significant funds to bring him on board. He might be another body to them, and not everyone is built for that type of humbling role.
But there’s also a chance for him to have a much larger say in the team’s success. Scott, in an interview with KPCC’s A Martinez, has already admitted he’ll need to closely monitor the Mamba’s minutes:
He’s so competitive, he wants to win, and I do too. But I don’t want to win at the expense of having my one of my guys get hurt. And sometimes, like I said, we’re going to sit down, me and my trainer have already sat down, already started talking about the amount of minutes Kobe should probably play, going into this season. And I have to stand fast on that. I have to make sure that when he’s up to those minutes, that’s it, no matter what the game situation is, as much as I want to win, as much as he wants to win, I’m not going to sacrifice his health to try to win games.
The Lakers have other options to man Bryant’s spot, but as Medina noted, a lot of those players will be utilized in other roles, too:
Ellington, like any other 14th man, isn’t a needle-mover. His impact may not be felt any more than his minimum contract.
But he helps fill a need as a perimeter shooter, he offers some stability as a veteran presence and he competes at the defensive end. There are far worse ways to fill out a roster, and the opportunity exists for him to easily outperform his salary.
With a risk-reward analysis slanted heavily toward the latter, Ellington has quite the compelling case for a permanent spot.
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Flush with fresh-faced phenoms like Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo and marshaled by league legend Jason Kidd, the Milwaukee Bucks are nothing if not a team on the rise.
Sadly, time is not on Milwaukee’s side, making this generation of players—young, hungry and tantalizingly talented—perhaps the city’s last, best hope of remaining in the NBA fold.
Six years have passed since Clay Bennett first uprooted the Seattle Supersonics, marching the team 2,000 miles east and resurrecting it under the rebranded banner of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And while OKC has enjoyed perennial success as one of the NBA’s most exciting squads, Seattle’s lingering animosity has steadily morphed into what’s become a near iron-clad consensus: If and when the league decides it’s high time for a new team, it belongs in the Emerald City.
As a franchise with a middling history and uncertain financial future, the Milwaukee Bucks have been placed squarely in the crosshairs as a potential vessel for Seattle’s NBA resurrection—even while the wishes of their onetime owner ring out in silent protest.
The Politics of Place
In an impressively comprehensive dispatch penned this past June, Sonics Rising’s Kevin Nesgoda lays bare the tricky political quagmire in which Milwaukee’s new owners—Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry—now find themselves.
A full year before letting go of the reins, Herb Kohl, the former U.S. senator and longtime Bucks owner, stipulated that any prospective buyers would have to agree to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee.
“When that time comes and the right person or group appears, then my mind will start moving in another direction,” Kohl told WPR.org’s Chuck Quirmback in June 2013. “But, they must stay here. That’s the bottom line.”
In a joint statement released shortly after the team’s April sale, Edens and Lasry capitulated to Kohl’s wishes, albeit with slight linguistic flexibility:
We are lifelong basketball fans who are committed to the success of the Bucks and the identity of the team as a part of the city of Milwaukee. It is our vision for this franchise to be admired both locally and nationally for its success on the court, the quality of its organization and the loyalty of its fan base.
But while the two’s commitment might sound steadfast, the group’s hoped-for arena upgrade—self-imposed though it may be—could be enough to change the calculus entirely.
In short: Owing in large part to the ascendance of staunchly anti-tax governor Scott Walker, the Bucks have little hope of orchestrating the kind of publicly ensured arena deal that kept the Sacramento Kings from heading to the Pacific Northwest. As Nesgoda shows, that puts Edens and Lasry in quite the financial pickle:
Judging by the current political climate, the polled voters would most likely shoot the proposition down for any public money going toward a new arena that would save the Bucks and keep them in Milwaukee.
The only ray of hope for the Bucks would have to be a substantial private contribution. Before the sale both Kohl and Edens/Lasry said they would contribute $100 million each to the new arena, cutting the public contribution by nearly half. Edens and Lasry have also discussed the potential of adding 5 to 10 additional investors to their group.
After the sale, however, multiple sources have told me that the amount is still $100 million, but not from each party as stated before the sale-just total. This would put the needed public contribution in the neighborhood of $350 million.
Nesgoda’s piece, though undoubtedly speculative, expertly breaks down the specifics of what this means for the Bucks, but suffice it to say the outlook isn’t good. Although it should be specified that, according to Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal, Kohl and the Edens-Lasry group would would each contribute $100 million toward the cited $350 million.
However, even the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, rife though it is with provisions designed to broaden the NBA’s revenue-sharing measures, wouldn’t by itself be enough to close the $150 million shortfall Nesgoda suggests.
At the same time, it’s hard to argue the Bucks—who long ago outgrew the dated confines of the Bradley Center—couldn’t use a serious arena upgrade.
The only possibility left, then, is that the blossoming Bucks themselves somehow foster the kind of excitement (and revenue generation) capable of compelling all the powers that be to keep the team—and its 40-plus-year history—bolted to Lake Michigan’s banks.
Of Wins and Wills
Nesgoda cites spring 2016 as the potential drop-dead date for the Bucks staying put. In other words, short of some unforeseen funding measure, Jason Kidd has two years to turn his precocious cagers into a viable long-term play in Milwaukee.
For a team that won just 15 games last season, that would seem quite the wishful thinking indeed.
Based on Milwaukee’s current roster construction, three players appear most likely to serve as the team’s foundation: Parker (19), Antetokounmpo (19) and center Larry Sanders (25).
Of course, there are plenty of pieces that could emerge as cornerstones in their own right, including point guard Brandon Knight (22), rangy forward John Henson (23), the sweet-shooting Ersan Ilyasova (27) and Damien Inglis, the intriguing 19-year-old Frenchman and 31st overall pick in June’s draft whom the Bucks will likely opt to stash in Europe for a year or two—unless, of course, his performance warrants a stateside sojourn.
It’s a breed and generation apart from the one Kidd was tasked with shaping during his lone season with the Brooklyn Nets.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Unlike Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the rest of Brooklyn’s veteran-heavy squad, these Bucks are bound to see Kidd less as a peer and more as an authority figure—albeit one just two years removed from the same basketball stage.
What’s more, Kidd seems more than willing to experiment with his charges, to shape what remains a mostly formless slab into something resembling a coherent, cohesive structure.
Of the many strategic plays at Kidd’s disposal, perhaps none is more intriguing than the one at which the surefire Hall of Famer hinted during a July interview with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper: Playing “the Greek Freak” at point guard.
We’ve seen it in practice, and so when you see a player’s comfort level with the ball no matter what size, we want to see it in game action and we slowly have started letting him have the ball and running the offense… With the group we have right now, with B-Knight and Giannis, we have additional playmakers and when we have that on the floor, it makes the game easy. We’ll see how the roster shakes out, but we’re not afraid to play him at the point, as you see.
Parker, too, figures to give Kidd another dynamic shape-shifter—a player capable, if all breaks right, of playing up to three positions at the NBA level.
Even in a historically weak Eastern Conference, Milwaukee’s playoff prospects are, at this point, as slim as Antetokounmpo’s limbs. Still, as far as youth and upside go, the Bucks have all the makings of a League Pass staple.
Squint just a little bit and you might make out the faint form of a familiar template—one whose most recent instantiation exists as both promising bellwether and potentially ironic harbinger of the Bucks’ near-future fate: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Youth in Revolt
For Seattleans, losing their beloved Sonics was painful enough. Having to watch the newfangled Thunder develop into a perennial juggernaut replete with superstar studs? The injury itself might’ve been less insulting.
Bucks fans understandably want to forestall that scenario entirely. And rightly so: Compared with the prospect of hemorrhaging the team in the days of Brandon Jennings and Michael Redd, losing this crop of up-and-comers—congenial, convivial, virile in their untapped potential—would be a sickening closing salvo to what’s already been the sourest of sports sagas.
The Philadelphia 76ers, the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics: These equally plucky upstarts have the luxury of time fully on their sides. The Bucks, meanwhile, enter a stretch in their history in which they face not only the best efforts of hardwood foes, but those of the ticking clock as well.
All is far from lost, of course. From changing league dynamics to shifting political pressures, much can change in the matter of a few years.
Just don’t blame fans for hoping it’s positive changes on the court, rather than the negative off it, that conspire to keeps Bucks basketball alive.
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If this ends up being the year DeMarcus Cousins finally seizes the opportunity laid out in front of him—if he becomes the leader so many of us want—know this: he laid groundwork with Team USA.
Cousins underwent nothing less than a full redemption at the FIBA World Cup in Spain. Never assured of actually making the team in the first place, Cousins rapidly became the best reserve big man on the roster.
He never embarrassed himself or his country, never hurt his team by complaining, never loafed or whined or scowled. Even when presented with a chance to justify the skeptics—a chance very few level-headed players could have resisted—Cousins didn’t bite.
Instead, he went about his international business, completing the tournament with averages of 9.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 70.2 percent shooting in 13.9 minutes per game. Quietly, Cousins was one of Team USA’s very best contributors.
And then, not so quietly, he assured the U.S. of a gold medal by stepping up in the final:
All in all, Cousins had himself a nice little tournament—if you consider a potentially career-altering, reputation-rehabilitating run to be a “nice little tournament.”
Will It Translate?
The Sacramento Kings won’t be satisfied with 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds from Cousins this season, which is fine because Boogie has never had an issue producing big numbers. He posted a career year in 2013-14 with averages of 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds. 2.9 assists and 49.6 percent shooting.
What the Kings really want is for Cousins to bring his new demeanor back from Spain.
All the positive reinforcement he’s been getting of late makes that a possibility, as Cousins has recently gone from being a frustrating talent with a victim’s mentality to a surprisingly beloved object of national pride.
Separately, patriotism and redemption stories are powerful things. What we’re seeing with Cousins right now proves that, together, they’re transformative.
Despite that, it’ll be harder for Big Cuz to maintain his poise and maturity in Sacramento. The opportunities for frustration will be frequent, as the Kings don’t figure to threaten the playoffs. Simply returning to an environment that had so much to do with negatively influencing Cousins’ personality could pull him back toward his old ways.
The Kings have been a model of dysfunction over the past decade, featuring seven head coaches in the past eight seasons, zero playoff appearances and no track record of player development. Anyone criticizing Cousins’ lack of development in any way has to acknowledge that he’s spent his entire NBA career in a culture of inconsistency and instability.
Consider this, too: For all the growth Cousins showed with Team USA, he never had to be a leader. Not even close, really.
He was a very good player on a very good team already loaded with veterans, stars and tone-setters. Not to mention head coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose gravitas negated the need for an on-court alpha.
Cousins won’t enjoy any such luck with the Kings, where head coach Mike Malone has just last year’s 54-loss campaign on his coaching resume, and Rudy Gay occupies a default leadership role because of his veteran status.
Neither of those two are ideal leaders, and neither has really earned such a distinction to this point. That means Cousins—if he’s ready—has a golden opportunity in front of him.
We have to be careful about overstating what Cousins proved with Team USA, though. He showed he could function as a terrific role player, that he could go about fulfilling his duties as part of a team without bringing attitude or distraction into the equation.
He didn’t show he could be an unquestioned franchise figurehead.
The Kings’ flimsy power structure is screaming out for somebody to take control, and in a perfect world, the team’s best player would be that somebody. Rest assured, the organization wants nothing more than for Cousins to step to the fore and assert himself as an on-court captain and off-court commodity.
Remember, the Kings are going to market Cousins like crazy—no matter what.
“We want to create a global brand here, a global franchise, and I said, ‘I’d like nothing better than a billion Indians to know who DeMarcus Cousins is,’” Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said in a press conference before last season, per The Associated Press.
Ideally, Cousins will be someone the Kings someday won’t have to work so hard to market. He’ll be someone fans want to support.
Maybe he already is.
He’s easily the organization’s most recognizable player, easily its most talented and still its most promising. Sacramento desperately needs Cousins to mature into the man who dominates on the court and sets the tone off of it.
It’s just hard to know if that will ever be possible. We learned plenty about Cousins in Spain—most of which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean as much as it might seem for his NBA career. It’s unquestionably a good thing that Cousins suppressed the antics that have hurt his reputation, and we can certainly view that as a sign of hope for his overall progress as a player and person.
We just can’t be sure he’s ready to be the centerpiece around which a good NBA team can be built until he proves it in Sacramento.
The Power of Urgency
Is it too late for Cousins to be a legitimate franchise player? Maybe.
But it’s a little crazy to say that about someone who just turned 24.
What’s more, we now know Cousins can shape up when presented with a last chance. Another bad camp or emotional outburst and Boogie’s shot at ever being part of Team USA would have disappeared forever this past summer. He’d sabotaged his chances in each of his two previous tries and knew perfect behavior (and excellent play) were necessary to make the most of his final shot.
Cousins delivered when he absolutely had to.
So if you want to say this season marks Cousins’ last chance to prove he’s capable of taking that next step, maybe that’s a good thing. Urgency has motivated Boogie in the past.
The Kings have to be hoping it happens again.
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