Archive for February, 2016

Are the Portland Trailblazers Good?

Posted: 02/26/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

Two years ago, the Portland Trailblazers surprised everyone by going 54-28 a year after losing 13 consecutive games to end the season. The next season, they kept most of the same core intact and won another 51. After last season, though, star big man LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio, shooting guard Wesley Matthews signed with Dallas, center Robin Lopez went to New York, and small forward Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte for mediocre wing Gerald Henderson and raw big man Noah Vonleh. One of the best starting lineups in the league was torn to shreds, and five of the team’s six best players left (sixth man Arron Afflalo joined Lopez with the Knicks). With only young and unproven Vonleh, Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Maurice Harkless replacing the departed veterans, this team looked likely to take a big step back. Many preseason predictors thought that the Blazers were primed to tank this season, setting themselves up for a top pick and oodles of cap space going forward.

Those predictors underestimated the scoring potential of the backcourt. Running the point, of course, is Damian Lillard, the only starting Blazer from last year who is still on the team. Lillard has always been a very good point guard, but this year the 25-year old has taken his game to the next level as he’s been given additional scoring responsibilities. He’s averaging 25.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game and has posted a career high 23 PER, tied for 13th in the NBA. His defense is still a question mark, but Lillard’s one of the best offensive players in the NBA, as evidenced by his absolute destruction (51 points in a 32-point victory) of the Golden State Warriors (52-5) last week. But we all knew Lillard, a two-time all-star in his first three seasons who somehow got snubbed this year, was great. The emergence of C.J. McCollum, the presumptive Most Improved Player award winner, has been slightly more surprising. McCollum was a classic small-school draft darling (actually, kind of like Lillard). He was dinged time after time for going to Lehigh but ended up going 10th in the draft anyway because of his clear talent and high basketball IQ. For the first two seasons of his career, McCollum played sporadicly, appearing in 12.5 minutes per game in his rookie year and 15.7 last season. With the departures of so many key players, though, McCollum was given the chance to take on a much heavier burden. The result? 21.1 points per game (15th in the league, while Lillard is 5th), 3.6 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game, and 45/41/80 shooting. Like his backcourt mate, McCollum lacks much in the way of defensive prowess, but he makes up for it with his consistent scoring.

The Blazers are 30-28 and average 103.5 points per game, which means that their starting guards score about 45% of the team’s points, even with the Warriors (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson average 52 combined points per game) for the highest percentage in the league among guard duos (Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, at 47%, are highest among duos at any position). It’s no surprise, then, that the Blazers rank fourth in the league in threes attempted and tied for third in threes made per game, nor is it shocking that they rank 25th in paint points per game. What is more surprising is that the Blazers rank fifth in the league in rebound rate (51.6%) and 19th in defensive efficiency (with those starting guards, I would have thought they’d be in 30th). And for that, Portland has its unsung heroes to thankThere are a lot of unsung heroes on this team, but there are three who really stand out: Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Mason Plumlee. The fact that all three of these guys came to the team in under-the-radar moves is a true testament to the job that GM Neil Olshey has done. Aminu, the team’s starting small forward, actually leads the team in Net Rating at +3.2. While he lacks the passing ability that makes departed small forward Nic Batum so good, Aminu is a perfect fit for a team with two high-octane guards. He doesn’t use many possessions, is a solid rebounder, and is a very good defender. Most importantly, though, he’s developed a three point stroke this year; after hitting a combined 64 threes in the last four years, he’s hit 83 already this season while shooting a career-high 35% from three. Aminu is pretty much the definition of a gritty, valuable player who performs a huge role behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Plumlee, the starting center, is a quietly-skilled player who is averaging 9/7.6 per game (in 25.5 minutes) while adding 2.7 assists, third-most on the team. He’s played good defense, shot 51% from the field, and, like Aminu, has started all 58 Portland Trailblazers games this season. But the most unsungiest of the unsung heroes has to be Ed Davis. I mean, this guy has been really good (and consistent) for his entire career, which is now in its sixth season. Sure, he’s never averaged double-digit points or rebounds in a single season, never started more than 24 games in a season, and never played more than 25 minutes per game in a season, but the guy is good. This season, he’s averaging 6.5/7.3, which doesn’t seem that great, but that comes in just 21.2 minutes per game. Davis ranks 12th among 185 players who’ve played more than 50 games in rebounding rate (18.6%, meaning that he gets 18.6% of possible rebounds when he’s on the court). So that surprisingly-good rebounding rate that the Blazers sport? Yeah, a lot of that is Davis. Furthermore, Davis is shooting 61% from the floor, second in the league among guys who have played 50+ games. And yet most people scoffed at the contract Portland gave Davis this offseason (3-years, $20 million). That is what we call underrated.

So the Blazers have totally outperformed preseason expectations, and, with their two stud guards and a lot more youth (none of the 10 players in their rotation is older than Henderson, who recently turned 28), look to have a bright future. But what’s the outlook to close out the season? As one of four teams currently separated by 1.5 games for three playoff spots, can they hold onto a spot? Well, they have the third-toughest remaining schedule among Western Conference teams and will play 12 of their next 15 games on the road before going home for seven of their final nine. They still have two games at Golden State, one at San Antonio, one at Oklahoma City, one at Toronto, and one at Boston. But they’ve won 15 of their past 19 games, and if they can just tread water during their brutal stretch of road games, they’ll be able to pad their record with a bunch of easy home wins at the end of the season. It’s far from a sure thing, but the Blazers definitely have to be considered a favorite to make the playoffs, if only because three out of the quartet of Portland, Dallas, Houston, and Utah will almost certainly make the postseason. And once they get to the playoffs, who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to take down Golden State four more times!

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One would expect — or at least hope — that the cream of the NBA draft prospect crop would be playing and excelling on the biggest stage the NCAA has to offer: the NCAA tournament. The tournament holds way more importance vis-a-vis NBA draft stock for prospects who hail from smaller schools or aren’t as highly regarded, but even top prospects can improve their draft outlook with a great tournament performance. NBA teams are looking to see how these players respond to heightened competition, after all, and the competition is never stronger than in the tournament. Last year, for example, D’Angelo Russell may well have leapfrogged over Jahlil Okafor thanks to a superior tournament, while in the past plenty of top picks have soared up draft boards after great tournaments. And remember when little-known Stephen Curry of Davidson put up a show in the 2008 NCAA tournament, leading his underdogs to the Elite Eight before finally falling by two points to eventual champs Kansas? Well, even if you don’t, NBA teams sure did, which is why Curry was so sought after even though his team didn’t even make the tournament the next season. Again, guys like Curry and Damian Lillard from smaller schools show how pivotal the tournament is for under-the-radar players. This year, draft-hopefuls like Marquese Chriss (Washington), Gary Payton II (Oregon State), and Ron Baker (Wichita State) could be beneficiaries of some primetime exposure.

While the top guys might not have as much to gain from a strong tournament performance, they still almost always make the tournament. Top prospect Ben Simmons and his LSU team seem unlikely to do so, which begs the questions: how much, if at all, are LSU’s struggles hurting him? Will his draft stock be harmed by an NIT trip while guys like Brandon Ingram and Kris Dunn star in the NCAA tournament?

First, a key reason that most top prospects make the NCAA tournament (besides the obvious, which is because they’re good and lead their teams there) is because most of them go to a very small number of schools, all of which are almost always successful. Simmons is an outlier, as he chose to go to LSU because of a family connection. The results, well, haven’t been great. Coach Johnny Jones isn’t very good, and the team has almost no chemistry. As a result, following a loss tonight the Tigers are just 16-12 and 9-6 in the SEC. They have losses to College of Charleston, Houston, Marquette, NC State, Wake Forest, Tennessee, and Arkansas, none of whom is particularly good. Their RPI is flirting with triple digits, and they haven’t won more than three consecutive games all season. Sure, they have talent, as evidenced by 18-point win over Kentucky and 8-2 SEC start, but they aren’t likely to secure a berth unless they win the SEC tournament or come very close. But guess what? I think the poor play means absolutely nothing for Simmons’ draft stock. Why? Because the point forward has the talent to transcend the team’s mess. He doesn’t take jump shots, but he’s so good that it doesn’t matter. Simmons is averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists per game while shooting 56% from the field and averaging 8.6 free throw attempts per game. I’m not here to talk about the plusses and minuses about Simmons’ game today (I will do that closer to the draft), but I’m very confident in saying that NBA teams will care far more about his individual play than his inability to lead LSU to success. Team executives can see the poor coaching and team composition just as easily as we can.

So Simmons isn’t going to be dinged for the 16-12 record, although I can easily see a situation in which he struggles to win games in his first few NBA seasons and people point quickly to his college days to suggest that he’s not a “winner” or some garbage like that. Will he lose ground in the race to the top pick as other prospects get tournament experience? I guess that’s slightly more likely. I can envision a scenario in which Brandon Ingram has a great tournament, becomes the consensus #1 pick in April, and then… well, Simmons is going to be the top pick. I’m pretty sure of that. This sort of reminds me of a European player situation in that they always get downgraded in March and April but then slowly rise up draft boards as the tournament shine wears off. The Simmons situation is different, obviously, but I think his draft stock’s trajectory could be similar. This might be more of a debate in a different draft, but outside of Simmons and Ingram, it seems like the lottery is fairly weak. So while I guess I could see BS dropping to #2 after Ingram dominates the tournament, there’s no shot he falls further than that. The answers to my two questions, thus, are as follows: No, and not unless Brandon Ingram has an amazing tournament for Duke that convinces the team with the top pick to go with the shooter who led his team to the Final Four over the guy whose team lost 14 games. That scenario isn’t that far-fetched, actually, so I guess I’ll amend the comment that I’m almost positive Simmons goes #1 and instead say that he’ll probably go #1. I won’t get into my personal feelings about Simmons vs. Ingram now, but it’s bound to happen at some point in the months before the draft.

Nikola Jokic — Denver’s Hidden Gem

Posted: 02/21/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

Last year, a certain European rookie was terrorizing the league as a member of the Denver Nuggets. That guy was Bosnian sensation Jusuf Nurkic. I remember watching Nurkic last year and thinking the guy was here to stay. He’s got a quick temper and can be nasty (I seem to remember a lot of angry Bosnian-sounding shouts and a lot of fouls), but he’s also huge and skilled. From December 30th, 2014 until he got injured on February 25th, 2015, Nurkic averaged 8.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game in just 23 minutes per contest, or roughly 13/13/1.7/2.7 per 36 minutes. Then he missed eight games with an injury and wasn’t really the same for the rest of the season, averaging just 6.1/4.8/.7 steals/.6 blocks. To add injury to insult, he had to have knee surgery after the season. Still, Nurkic, the 16th overall pick in the 2014 draft, was expected to be back for the start of this season, and even if he sat out a little longer than that, he still seemed set to be the center of the future. Coach Mike Malone compared him to DeMarcus Cousins, and he ended up averaging a monster 13.9/12.5/1.7/2.2 line per 36 minutes (along, of course, with 6.8 fouls per 36, but that’s a different story).

So what’s happened this year? Well, a European, second-year center is having a great year for the Nuggets. It just isn’t who we all thought it would be heading into the season. Instead, it’s Nikola Jokic, a 6’10”, 250-pound Serbian monster, who’s dominated for Denver this season. Last year, as Nurkic plied his trade for the Nuggets, Jokic, the 41st pick in the 2014 draft, played in Serbia. He played really well in the Adriatic League, but he played in the Adriatic League. It was a surprise that the Nuggets even decided to bring him over this year, but he signed a four year, $5 million deal nonetheless. Let’s just say that the deal he got looks like the best contract in the NBA from the Nuggets’ point-of-view, because Jokic has been one of the best players in the league on a per-minute basis.

I don’t know whether it’s because he plays just 20 minutes per game, because he plays in a not-great basketball market, or because he plays for a not-great team, but Jokic has gotten almost no recognition. That’s why I decided to write this post. At the surface, his numbers don’t seem that special. He’s averaging about 10 points and 6 rebounds per game. So what? Well, remember that he’s playing just 20 minutes a contest. His per-36 minute numbers are 17+/11+, which already makes him look a lot better. But Jokic is also a terrific free throw shooter (79%), a very efficient shooter (53% from the field and 39% from three), a great passer (16.8% assist rate ranks eighth among 60 qualified centers, and a very good rebounder. That’s why his 21.7 PER ranks 23rd in the league, right above Andre Drummond, Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, and LaMarcus Aldridge, all of whom happen to be All-Stars this season. His ESPN ORPM is +2.76, 26th in the league, while his Basketball-Reference ORtg is 118, 12th among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season. Ok, we get it. Jokic is an extremely skilled offensive player. But there has to be a reason he slipped to the second round in 2014 and played in Serbia last year, right? He’s a slow guy, so how does his defense look?

Well, it’s definitely not bad. By the eye-test, Jokic is a “meh” defender. He doesn’t make many huge plays, but it also doesn’t look like his relative lack of speed gets taken advantage of very often. He averages just half a block per game but adds a steal per contest, which could be a sign that he’s more active defensively than it seems like. Since I have no idea whether or not Jokic is a good defender, what do the advanced stats say? By ESPN’s DRPM, Jokic is +2.9, 26th in the league. He has a 104 DRtg, which is middle-of-the-pack, but his Defensive Box Plus/Minus, another Basketball-Reference stat that’s measured on a per-minute basis, is 47th out of the 456 players who have played in a game this year with a +2 DBPM. And how about this: the Nuggets score more points and allow fewer when Jokic is on the court than when any other single player on the team is on the court. While the team is -3.6 per 100 possessions, Jokic is a shocking +3.1. Besides Erick Green, who’s played all of seven minutes this season, the next best mark on the team is Kostas Papanikolaou, who has played just 294 minutes and is a -.2. Next comes Randy Foye, who just got traded. Then comes Darrell Arthur at -1.4 and, ironically, Nurkic at -1.6. You get the idea. Jokic has looked extremely skilled on the court and put up solid per-minute numbers while also transcending his poor team when he’s on the court. His +3.1 overall rating per 100 possessions is not only the best on the Nuggets but also better than any other player on a losing team in the entire NBA. And Denver isn’t just a losing team, they’re a 22-34 one. So yeah, this Jokic guy is good.

The public might be sleeping on Nikola Jokic, but the NBA certainly isn’t. Coach Mike Malone said he wouldn’t trade Jokic for “anyone in the world,” and why I somehow find that hard to believe, it’s reasonable to believe that Denver’s love for Jokic might have cost them a shot at Blake Griffin in particular. And you know what? They were right to turn down that trade, both because it would have sapped them of their depth and because they have one of the most valuable commodities in the league in Jokic.

If your team isn’t in contention (only four teams really are) or is and still lacks intrigue (cough cough Cavaliers cough cough), you should by all means follow the Warriors. But the Warriors aren’t the only story you should follow. There are other interesting and great things happening in the NBA slightly more under-the-radar, and Nikola Jokic is one of those things. So get some popcorn, tune into a Denver Nuggets game (yes, I know they’re 22-34), and watch the Super Serb.

Dwight Howard, Al Horford, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside, Jahlil Okafor, Jeff Teague… These were just some of the names bandied about in the days leading up to the trade deadline. Would the Clippers trade Griffin? Was a Love-Anthony deal possible? Were the Hawks and/or the Rockets going to break up their teams? The answers to these questions, as well as all the others, were unequivocal “no”s. As it so often is, it was a quiet deadline, as even the biggest deals look pretty unlikely to move the needle very much. With that being said, there were some trades, with a few semi-relevant players changing hands and some relevant teams making trades.

The biggest deal of the week didn’t even come today. On Tuesday, the Orlando Magic traded Tobias Harris, the forward they just signed to a four year, $64 million deal before the season, to the Pistons in exchange for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. To put it bluntly, it was a salary dump for Orlando that frees up a lot of cap space after this season. It’s clear that coach Scott Skiles is not the biggest fan of Harris, whose usage rate has gone down this season, Skiles’s first as coach. Jennings and Ilyasova probably aren’t longterm pieces for this young Magic team, although they both have played for Skiles in the past. Instead, the Harris trade opens up playing time for Aaron Gordon (yes, dunk contest Aaron Gordon), who in addition to dunking can also play basketball pretty well. And it’s clear that something about that Magic team just didn’t work. It remains to be seen whether that something is Harris, but I think the front office still has a lot more work to do. The team lacks any consistent scorers aside from big man Nikola Vucevic and is going to have to pony up a lot of money to retain Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, exciting guards who can’t shoot at all. My initial reaction is that they gave up on Harris a little too early, but I understand the trade from their standpoint.

On the other side, this was a slam dunk for the Pistons. They’ve basically just made their marquee free agent signing a few months before free agency, except that Harris’s contract (three for $48 million after this year) is a lot more reasonable than most will be this offseason considering the vast cap increase everyone is expecting. Tobias fits perfectly into Stan Van Gundy’s team as the third option behind Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond and has the tools to become a key player on a good team. Getting that at a reasonable contract for two expendable pieces sounds pretty good for me.

As for the other deals, Markieff Morris, Jeff Green, and Courtney Lee were probably the best players who changed hands. Green and Lee were dealt from the Grizzlies, who have rightly realized that they have no shot at a championship this year, to the Clippers and Hornets respectively in return for Lance Stephenson and picks from both teams. It’s more interesting to look at these deals from the other side. The Clippers traded Stephenson and a first round pick for Green, and while getting rid of Lance is a plus, I don’t really understand why they’d sacrifice a first rounder for an impending free agent who just isn’t very good. Green won’t elevate the Clippers at all; he’s a decent player and an upgrade at forward, but he’s not good enough to make the Clippers any more dangerous to the top three teams in the Western Conference. They’ll still probably advance to the second round and then lose to the Warriors; now, they just have one fewer first round pick. I think the Hornets’ trade of two second round picks for Lee is much more defensible. First of all, they didn’t get rid of a first rounder. Second of all, the Hornets didn’t make this deal with the expectation that it would make them title contenders. All they want to do this year is make the playoffs and then have an exciting playoff series, and, after losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist again, they needed to trade for a wing player. Lee isn’t flashy, as evidenced by Memphis’s low asking price, but he will provide close to 30 quality minutes a game and score between 10 and 12 points per game. Again, that doesn’t sound great, but the Hornets needed a guy like that after losing MKG.

Meanwhile, the Wizards parted with a first round pick (likely to be in the 10-14 range this year) for Markieff Morris in a deal that made some sense for both teams. In a vacuum, the deal looks great for the Suns, who turned a headcase into a valuable first rounder. But, considering the team-friendly deal Morris was signed to and the fact that Phoenix likely would have gotten more for him before the season, it’s easy to feel a bit disappointed about the return they ended up getting. Still, trading Morris resolves a lot of the lineup problems the Suns were having while also maximizing their chances at securing a top tier draft pick this year. As for Washington, it was probably very painful for them to give up their pick, but I think it’ll end up looking like a good decision. Morris has his problems, but he’s a very skilled basketball player, and I think people have forgotten his potential too quickly. This is a guy who averaged upwards of 15 points per game just last season, and he’s an excellent midrange shooter as well as a good passing big man. Most importantly, he’s signed to a great contract, as he’s due just $8 million a year over the next three seasons. The Wizards needed a power forward, and they got one who will provide great value over the next few seasons. Giving up a mid first rounder is tough, especially when guys like Devin Booker and Myles Turner, players taken around the same place in the draft as the Wizards will pick this year, are excelling. But getting Morris at his value’s nadir is a clear win for the Wizards, who could still make a playoff push with a lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Morris, and Marcin Gortat.

There were other deals made today, but they were mostly deals made by teams looking to shed salary or to gain a cheap second round pick. Sure, the Thunder traded for Randy Foye, but by now we know that Randy Foye isn’t very good. More interesting is the fact that the Pistons surrendered a first round pick for Donatas Motiejunas, a risky move that could backfire if Motiejunas can’t shake the injury yips. But the biggest deals were the ones I’ve already talked about, which says everything you need to know about how inactive this trade deadline was.

Like it or not, the top half of any given NBA draft is going to have a lot of freshmen, many of whom did not prove that much at the college level. Of the top 15 picks in last year’s draft, nine were freshmen. Another three were international players who, for all intents and purposes, are freshmen too. That leaves Willie Cauley-Stein, Frank Kaminsky, and Cameron Payne as the only three players who were not freshmen or international and were drafted in the top-15. And guess what? The unproven college freshmen who went ahead of NCAA tournament studs like Kaminsky and Jerian Grant have generally outperformed their elders. Myles Turner, drafted 11th, was inconsistent at Texas for a very disappointing Longhorns team, but the Pacers saw his talent. The result so far? Averages of 10 points and five rebounds per game in just 20.3 minutes per contest. And he’s 19. The guy’s going to be really good. Trey Lyles, the oft-forgotten starter of that great Kentucky team, played out of position in college and didn’t always look good as a result. People laughed when the Jazz took him, but Lyles already has 29 starts under his belt and seems like a starter in the future. Devin Booker, another member of that Kentucky team, was picked 13th. He’s exploded onto the scene since Suns’ guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight got injured. He was 18 when the season started, but that hasn’t stopped him from averaging 17 points per game since the new year began (he also finished third in the three point contest). Anyway, you get the idea. Everyone’s obsessed with freshmen in the draft, for good reason. They’re generally the most talented players, since upperclassmen would have declared for the draft as freshmen were they good enough.

With all that being said, it’s no surprise that there are only four non-freshmen or international players in the top 15 of DraftExpress’s 2016 Big Board. Instead of tooting the horns of the freshmen in the 2016 class, though, I’m going to instead do a 180 and say that this year, the upperclassmen might really be worth taking.

I can tell just by looking at the NCAA rankings (AP top 25) and the 2015 recruiting rankings that this is a bad year for freshmen. Kentucky, the #1 recruiting class in the nation (again) is ranked 22nd. Duke, #2, is shockingly unranked. Arizona was third in the recruiting rankings and is 17th in the AP rankings. LSU finished fourth in recruiting and is unranked. Texas A&M was fifth and, after four straight losses, seems likely to fall out of the rankings. Of the top 14 recruiting teams in the nation, nine are unranked. Even the ones that are doing well, namely Kansas and Louisville, are doing so in spite of their freshmen rather than because of them. The Cardinals are led by two senior guards and then a couple of sophomores, while the Jayhawks will claim a top five ranking next week despite playing their two five-star recruits just 9.7 and 8.5 minutes per game. Meanwhile, most of the teams ranked at the top of the country, from Villanova to Maryland to Oklahoma to Iowa to Xavier (and on and on and on) are powered by upperclassmen. Last year, when Kentucky and Duke dominated the country thanks to their freshmen studs (and when Wisconsin’s experience was the outlier), seems like a long time ago.

It’s the lack of freshmen talent this year that’s part of the reason why I think Kris Dunn (junior), Buddy Hield (senior), and Denzel Valentine (senior), the three oldest players in the top 35 of Draft Express’s big board (all of them are around 22 years old) should get consideration near the top of the draft this year. Of course, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are exempted from this conversation. They are stud freshmen who are having terrific seasons, and they will in all likelihood be the first two names off the board. But even if you assume that Dragan Bender, a Croatian who has been compared (unfairly) to Kristaps Porzingis, goes #3, there’s still a lot of room left near the top of the draft for the other three.

Dunn was the most highly regarded from an NBA standpoint heading into the season, as he was consistently placed in the top 10 of mock drafts. The redshirt junior is a 6’4″ point guard who very much knows how to play his position. He averages 17.1/5.9/6.6 with three steals per game and plays good defense thanks largely to his 6’9″ wingspan. He could have been a mid first rounder had he entered the draft last season, but he (probably smartly) decided to return to Providence to up his draft stock. Dunn’s a great college player and a possible top five pick, but it’s hard to tell how much of his move up the draft boards comes because he’s played better this year and how much has to do with the fact that this year’s draft is weak. He and Ben Bentil seem likely to lead a team that is otherwise very shallow to a mid single-digit seed in the tournament, but Dunn’s numbers are no better than they were last year. Also worrisome is the fact that, while he’s a solid college three point shooter, I don’t think Dunn will be a good long range shooter in the NBA. His 67% free throw percentage hints that he will be closer to Rajon Rondo than Damian Lillard. But, like Rondo, he’s a tremendous distributor, ranking second in the NCAA with a 44.2% assist rate. He’s also taller and, crucially, longer than Rondo, which should help him both offensively and defensively. The Rondo comparison has been made, but given the difference in height it’s probably not the best one. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dunn’s a future starter in the NBA and a guy who will be able to rack up huge assist numbers at the next level. The problem is that, in today’s NBA, the point guard position is extremely deep and talented, so I’m not sure it would be smart to spend a top five pick on a point guard who likely won’t shoot better than 30% from three at the next level.

As a freshman, Buddy Hield averaged 7.8 points per game and shot 23.8% from three point range. Three years later, he’s a totally different player. The best player in college basketball, he’s averaging 25.6/5.5/2.3 and is shooting 51/50/90. He’s been a very clutch player for Oklahoma this year, making big shot after big shot, and he seems likely to lead the Sooners to a deep tournament run. It’s pretty clear that Hield is going to be a good scorer in the NBA. His range is deep enough to make him a shoo-in for at least decent numbers from three, and he’s a very good finisher. Unfortunately, Hield probably won’t be a great all-around player at the next level. He turns the ball over a lot and is fairly short (6’4″) for a shooting guard, which will make defending a struggle. There’s a reason he was pegged to go in the second round before the start of the season. But again, the guy has made huge improvements this year, and he can really score. NBA teams will always need instant offense, and there will be a role for Buddy Hield in the NBA for a long time. He reminds me a bit of C.J. McCollum, a similarly-sized combo guard who averaged 23.9/5/2.9 while shooting 52% from three in his senior year of college. The difference is that McCollum went to Liberty, just a small step down from Oklahoma. The fact that C.J. is averaging nearly 21 points per game for the Blazers this year is very promising for Hield. It’s also hard for me to imagine a guy scoring so effectively in a really tough conference and then being an NBA bust. Buddy’s floor is high, but his ceiling (25 ppg?) is pretty high too, which means he should probably be at least a top 10 pick.

Remember the last great under-appreciated Michigan State senior? That was Draymond Green, who was drafted in the second round a few years ago by the Warriors and is now one of the best players in basketball. Now, Valentine’s a totally different player than Green, but there are some similarities in other aspects. Valentine, like Draymond, is clearly a great leader. He’s also been pretty much ignored NBA-wise until recently, when he’s entered the mid-teens of rankings. I don’t understand why he isn’t more highly regarded. He’s averaging 19/8/7 and shows up in every big game. He’s a 6’6″ guard (probably a shooting guard in the NBA) with a 6’10” wingspan. He’s a great ball-handler and an innovative finisher. But guess what? He’s not very athletic. Nevermind my earlier question about why he isn’t more highly regarded. Seriously, though, a lack of athleticism is a legitimate gripe, because it will likely keep Valentine from being a very good defender or from being an elite finisher. But at some point you have to look past the lack of athleticism and take the great numbers and leadership into account. Valentine’s a playmaker, and he’ll be a playmaker at the next level. He won’t be a great defender, but his offense and his feel for the game is already at a level that most prospects can only dream of reaching.

There’s no doubt that Dunn, Hield, and Valentine will have an impact come March. With the exception of Simmons, they’re the three best players in college basketball. But they can also be a whole lot more than that. If I were a team drafting in the 5-10 range, I would look very hard at these three before selecting a guy like Jaylen Brown or Henry Ellenson, players who have potential but are nowhere near the same level as the three upperclassmen at this point. I’m usually the person arguing to take the potential and the youth, but this year is different both because there’s a lack of top-level freshmen talent and because Hield, Valentine, and Dunn have all given us a lot to think about with their great play this winter. Would I take any of the three at #4? At this point, yes, although I wouldn’t rule out falling in love with Brown, Ellenson, sophomore Jakob Poeltl, or another skilled teenager. But come the back of the top 10, I’d be thrilled to get any of the three.
My top 10 at this point:
Simmons
Ingram
Bender
Dunn
Hield
Valentine
Brown
Jamal Murray
Diamond Stone
Poeltl

It’s generally not a good sign when your coach, interim or otherwise, says your team is broken. That’s what Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said a couple of days ago after the Rockets lost to the Blazers, falling below .500 and out of the playoffs entering the All-Star break. The fact that the Rockets are anywhere near .500, let alone below it, at this point in the season is shocking considering the expectations heading into the season. The Rockets were the sexy pick to win the Western Conference this year, with a team seemingly well-suited to be at least a great regular season team. They were this season’s “sleeper pick to the point that that they aren’t actually a sleeper pick,” and it wasn’t particularly close. Coming off a WC finals appearance and with coach Kevin McHale locked up to an extension, it looked as if great things were ahead for the Rockets.

Instead, James Harden showed up out of shape (some off-season Kardashian drama may or may not have had something to do with that) and the Rockets started 4-7 before promptly firing their beloved coach. Three months later, they still haven’t been more than three games over .500 all season, and they’re only as close to the playoffs as they are because it’s been a down year for the middle of the Western Conference. As would generally be the case after a coach makes a comment like Bickerstaff just made, people have been talking about what has gone wrong with this team and what they can do to turn it around. Coming up in trade talks, predictably, has been oft-injured center Dwight Howard.

The biggest and broadest problem the Rockets have had is clearly their defense. They rank 26th in defensive efficiency and allow the second most points per game in the NBA. They’re 11-3 when giving up fewer than 100 points and 16-25 when giving up triple figures. Howard, long a great defender, is far from prime-D12 defensively but certainly isn’t the problem defensively. He ranks 15th in the league in DRPM and is a solid defender across all metrics. Backup big Clint Capela also seems to be a pretty solid rim protector, averaging 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes. Who’s the problem? Everyone else. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley, long considered great defenders, have both fallen off big-time this season, going from well above-average to sub-par. Meanwhile, Harden, who took a big (and very public) defensive step up last year, has fallen back to his previous, lazy ways, posting perhaps the worst defensive season of his career. And Ty Lawson, never known to be a great defender, has been a total nightmare for Houston, especially defensively. Unless Harden starts trying again and Beverley (who has been nursing injuries all year) ramps up his defense, the defensive troubles are probably irreparable given the team’s current composition, which means the Rockets are either going to keep trying (and often failing) to outscore teams 120-118 or that they have to make a move.

Howard’s the guy people expect the Rockets to move. I’ve never gotten the sense that he’s been totally happy in Houston, and in Capela, the Rockets have another defensively-strong, offensively-limited big man to anchor the defense. Capela is no Howard, but he’s only 21-years old and will likely improve. Is there evidence that the Rockets will be better without Howard? Well, of the Rockets’ 14 lineups that have been used at least three minutes per game in at least 10 games, eight contain Howard. Of the seven he’s in, five have given up more than they’ve scored, while three have been a net plus. Of the six he’s not in, four have been negative and two positive. That didn’t help much. The fact is, though, that Houston’s two best lineups have had Howard on the bench. The Ariza-Beverley-Corey Brewer-Harden-Capela lineup is +45.6 (a ridiculous number that has a lot to do with the fact that it plays only four minutes per game) points per 48-minutes, while the Ariza-Capela-Lawson-Harden-Marcus Thornton lineup is +16.8 per 48. Replace Capela with Howard in the first lineup, and you get the Rockets’ worst lineup at -22.2 per 48. These samples are too small to mean anything, but I think the Rockets could replace Howard with Capela and not suffer too much. Plus, Houston would also benefit salary-wise, shedding a near-$23 million cap hit for the next year and change. The question then becomes: what can the Rockets get for Howard? The problem is that the market for Howard is extremely limited. I can’t point to a single Western Conference team with which a trade would make sense, because of fit or where the team is at this point. In fact, the only team that makes total sense for Howard is the Boston Celtics, a team with a lot of assets and a need for an upgrade at center. Howard would certainly constitute an upgrade, because, for all his flaws, he still is a good player. In addition to his defense, Howard is also a fantastic rebounder and is averaging 16 and 12 since January began. The Celtics could give up David Lee’s expiring to make the finances work and then could throw in a couple of first round picks, which would allow the Rockets to clean up their cap sheet moving forward while giving them a few chances to draft a new stud. A trade like that would mean that Houston is giving up on this season, but that’s ok, because they have nearly no shot at advancing if they play any of the West’s top three teams in the first round.

So the trade market for Howard is pretty clear: limited, but with one suitor that clearly makes sense. But what about Harden, a star who is certainly a more valuable trade asset? Even though he can’t play defense, I don’t see it happening. Remember, Darryl Morey collected assets for years just so he could have the opportunity to acquire a star. Harden was that star. Two-and-some years later, he’s established himself as, if nothing else, one of the premier scorers in the NBA. Even after a poor start this year, he’s averaging 28/6.3/7 while shooting 43/36/87. He gets to the line at will and can drag his team to victory even when nobody else is playing well. So yeah, even though Harden stinks defensively and even though the Rockets could get a lot in return for him, I don’t see Morey trading Harden unless he gets an established superstar back, which seems very unlikely.

So I guess the verdict on what the Rockets should do is that they should try to trade Howard to the Celtics for a couple of first rounders. If that doesn’t work, I’m not sure how much they can do at this point. They’ll probably end up keeping the same team intact for the rest of the season, and I expect them to out-win the Blazers and “win” the eighth seed and the chance to be swept by the 74-8 Warriors. Unless they can trade a guy like Brewer or Ariza or Lawson, next year may be more of the same, because the Rockets already have nearly $80 million on the books next season. Regardless of what happens, the fact that Houston is going to have to go on a hot streak to even make the playoffs says everything about how disappointing this season has been for last season’s Western Conference runner up.

Super Bowl 50 Preview: The Pick

Posted: 02/07/2016 by levcohen in Football

So I’ve looked at all of the matchups, and the game’s going to start in less than three hours, so it’s time for me to make a pick. If you’ve gotten the sense that I’m going to predict a low scoring game, you’re right, as I think the first team to 20 is very likely to win. I think it’ll be a close game, but the Panthers are quite clearly the better all-around team, so I’m going to pick them to win 20-16, with the Broncos covering the 5.5 point spread and the game going under the 43.5 over/under. I expect a pretty dull game throughout with some exciting moments at the end, but I just hope it isn’t Super Bowl XLVIII all over again, because it certainly has that blowout potential.