Tag Archives: D’Angelo Russell

NBA Free Agency: Pairing Max-Contract Stars

The NBA is about to undergo a seismic shift. Current powers are set to topple while newcomers will emerge for a shot at a championship

Free agency begins in the NBA on July 1.

Players around the league will change teams, and thus, the outlooks of those teams. The right move could land you squarely into contention for a title, while the wrong signing can set your franchise back for any number of years.

It’s kind of a big deal.

With that, let’s take a look at some pairings for this crop of free agents, particularly those commanding max (or near-max) money.

None of these have been mentioned as even a remote possibility, but we won’t let that stop us. The goal is to create a duo that would be both fun to watch and have a legit chance at sustained success.

Conspicuously omitted from the festivities is one Kevin Durant. The forward would be no worse than the number two (and most likely the top) target on the market and a fun piece to pair with another star for this exercise.

That is if he weren’t set to miss most if not all of next season recovering from a ruptured Achilles.

Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton

Mirror mirror on the wall, this is a pairing of two players with similar abilities.

Both Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton are thought of more as off-ball, glue guys than true superstars in their own right. That could be beneficial against opponents defensive gameplans; who do you key on?

Conventional wisdom says that Thompson will be maxed by the Golden State Warriors and rehabs his torn ACL before returning around February. He averaged 21.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists on a .467/.402/.816 shooting line in 2018; just under his career-high in points and matching his high-mark in rebounds.

That same line of thinking would suggest that the Milwaukee Bucks do whatever it takes to max Middleton. He averaged 18.3 points, 6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and slashed .441/.378/.837.

They need to in order to keep their Eastern Conference finalist team intact and to keep a certain MVP happy and, ultimately, in town.

Klay took 80.1 percent of his shots off an assist, canned 42 percent of his catch and shoot opportunities, but also hit 44 percent of his pull-ups. Middleton had the ball more; over 57 percent of his makes came unassisted. He dropped 41.2 percent of his pull up attempts and generated nearly as many points per catch and shoot attempt (4.0) as he did per drive (4.4).

All of that and we have not even covered their defensive chops yet.

Middleton was top-20 in the NBA in defensive win shares while Thompson’s 108.5 defensive rating (and first appearance on an all-defense team) belies the defender he is. Separate they have been the ideal complementary pieces. Together they would be a coach’s dream.

Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris

What the previous pairing offers is to two-way ability, the pairing of Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris is to the offensive end. Put simply: they get buckets. They won’t provide much defensively, but they combined to average 45.6 points per game in 2018.

That would have been 11th among the top-two scorers on any team and Harris appeared on two of those teams.

Walker has been doing all the lifting for the Charlotte Hornets since 2011.

The three-time All-Star made his first All-NBA team with 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game on .434/.356/.844 shooting. The points and boards were both career-highs while earning All-NBA honors means he is supermax eligible.

But it is not inconceivable that the Hornets let him walk.

Harris has been a hired gun (without the hired part) his entire career.

Never scoring less than 11 points per game after his rookie campaign, he has been traded five times, including draft night. Harris split 2018 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers but still averaged a career-high 20 points to go with 7.9 boards with a .487/.397/.866 slash line, all career-highs.

Putting the two professional scorers together would not hinder either player.

Walker is ball dominant (over 71 percent of his makes were unassisted in 2018), but Harris was equally adept off as on, sporting a 49.9 to 50.1 assisted/unassisted ratio. Walker got most of his points off of drives (9.1 per game) and pull-up jumpers (10.5) and Harris (5.8 on drives, 5.0 on pull-ups, and 4.3 on catch & shoot) scores, period.

Together this max pair would give defenses all they could handle. Both of their 2018 campaigns featured numerous career-high marks, hinting that their best ball is ahead of them. Their ideal situation would be on a defensive-oriented team where they could be the primary generators of offense.

Their pick and pop would be borderline unfair.

D’Angelo Russell and DeMarcus Cousins

2018 was wonky for different reasons for this potential max pair. D’Angelo Russell broke out and led the Brooklyn Nets to their first playoff berth since 2014. DeMarcus Cousins spent most of his 2018 recovering from a torn Achilles (shout to KD), appearing in 30 regular season games with the Warriors to end the season.

Russell’s path to success was…bumpy.

Traded from the Los Angeles Lakers for off the court reasons, he put up career-highs across the board averaging 21.1/3.9/7 and shot 43.4 percent from the floor and 36.9 from deep, both personal bests. Rumors of the Nets not-so-secret pursuit of Kyrie Irving could mean Russell needs a new home.

Cousins took flak for joining the Dubs to chase a ring, but he also did it to prove he could be a team player. He did that, returning from a quad injury suffered early in the playoffs to play in all six Finals games. Those results were mixed, but he averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 boards, and 3.6 assists in 2018.

Unfortunately, two straight years with leg injuries likely suppress his value.

Russell cut down on his turnovers and posted the highest player efficiency rating of his career. Boogie’s growth as a player and teammate is a bigger development than his down stats in what is a particularly unique situation with the Warriors.

If he is able to get a long-term deal in free agency, he would be wise to consider it regardless of where it comes from.

The immediate image that thoughts of this duo conjures is a deadly scoring combo that can do so from all three levels.

Cousins did not operate as a roll man much (8.8 percent) for Golden State (Russell ran the action nearly 50 percent of the time) instead being utilized most in the post (21.9 percent) and as a spot-up shooter (24.3 percent). Still, he is an adept passer and Russell hit 39.4 percent of his catch and shoot triples.

Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving

This max pair is probably best described as an enigma wrapped in a question.

Kawhi Leonard followed up a lost 2017-18 season to lead the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Championship, winning Finals MVP for his efforts. Most thought that the return of Kyrie Irving would carry the Boston Celtics into the Finals, but they ended up being sent home a round earlier instead.

Leonard’s exit from the San Antonio Spurs was very public but very one-sided. He let his play do most of the talking averaging 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds during the regular season and 30.5 points and 9.1 boards in the playoffs; all career-high marks.

Now he is the big fish in free agency (shout to KD) and reportedly choosing between Toronto and the Clippers.

Irving was traded to the Celtics last year and put up 24.4/3.8/5.1 and shot 49.1 percent from the floor (career-high) and 40.8 percent on (a career-high) 6.8 threes per game. This year it was 23.8/5/6.9 on .487/.401/..873 shooting.

Rather than putting the Cs over the top, though, he was often the root of the problem; butting heads with many in the organization.

Fit should be of no concern on the floor, Leonard’s Raptors were a lot different from the DeMar DeRozan-led squads; three of the five playoff starters for Toronto were in their first year in The North. Despite Irving flopping as a leader in Boston, his having played (well) with LeBron James means he is comfortable being off the ball.

Both of these guys are savants at what they do.

Leonard is the only person keeping Klay Thompson from being the best two-way player in the NBA and Irving is a shot taker and maker with a flair for the big stage. Between this shot from 2016 by Irving and this gem from this year’s playoffs by Leonard, these two paired would be the cause of a lot of heartbreak across the association.

All stats and info provided by Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

NBA Playoff Surprises and Disappointments: Eastern Conference

The Western Conference was the focus of the last article but this time, it’s the Eastern Conference that gets a turn. It’s playoff time! A long, grueling NBA season has finally given way to the postseason and there will be no shortage of excitement. Before breaking down the first-round matchups (an article for another day), let’s continue identifying the playoff teams that surprised by making it. Conversely, we will also discuss a pair of squads that enter with more doubt than confidence.

Playoff Winners and Losers in the Eastern Conference

Pt. 1

Brooklyn Going Hard

Somewhere Jay-Z has to be throwing up the dynasty sign. A decade after the release of the hit single that served as the theme when they relocated from New Jersey, the Brooklyn Nets are living up to the hook. They had back-to-back 44+ win seasons in 2013 and 2014; following the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But that was always an ill-fated attempt to capture (someone else’s) lightning in a bottle. This is, by and large, a homegrown product that has turned around the fortunes of the once-wayward franchise.

D’Angelo Russell’s maturation has been the catalyst to what GM Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson have built. Heavily reliant on the three-ball (34.1% of their offense, 5th in NBA) the Nets are also among the best at defending it (31% of opp. Scoring, 5th in NBA). Russell (.369) and this year’s winner of the three-point contest, Joe Harris (.474), can and will shoot it out with the best of them. And Spencer Dinwiddie, their second-leading scorer, is slashing .442/.335/.806 while leading the team in free throw attempts with 5.2 per game.

Now for the not so positive part. Brooklyn allows the highest shooting percentage and the third-most attempts in the paint in the Association. That is a problem for second-year big man Jarrett Allen with one Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers on tap for the first round. Allen averages two blocks a game but Embiid (30% from 25+ ft) is fully capable of pulling him away from the basket. Allen allows 38% on such shots. The other major knock on the Nets: turnovers. Brooklyn turned the ball over at the fourth-highest rate in the NBA. That is a problem as Philly is scoring 21.4 points per game in transition, eighth-most in the league.

Do You Believe in (the) Magic?

Mouse in the house! The Disney sponsored Orlando Magic have reached the postseason for the first time since Dwight Howard last donned the blue and white (2011-12). Their 42-40 mark is their best since the 2010-11 season when they won 52. The Magic are 11th in three-point percentage (35.6%, 10th out of playoff teams. More impressive, they are fifth in turnovers (13.2) and second in personal fouls (18.6); playing a very clean game on both ends. Orlando also managed to block 5.4 blocks per game, good for sixth across the NBA.

Maybe it was divine intervention that kept Nikola Vucevic with the Magic. More likely it was lack of a quality offer. Whatever the case, Vuc set career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists; going for 20/12/3. He did that while slashing .518/.364/.789 and committing a career-low 2 fouls per game. Perhaps his contract situation contributed to his (and Terrance Ross’) mid-career breakout, but Head Coach Steve Clifford, and Magic fans will take it. Aaron Gordon showed more of his playmaking ability, notching a 16.6 assist percentage, and tallied a career-high 5.1 win shares.

Where they may need some actual magic, getting easy buckets. Orlando is dead last in free throw attempts per game. They draw fouls at the second-lowest rate too, so it isn’t as if the calls they get are simply on the floor. The Magic are a screen-heavy offense but that is where the positives about their hustle stop. They are 27th in deflections, 27th in loose balls recovered, and a paltry 29th in contested shots. Their first-round opponent, the Toronto Raptors, are no worse than third in any of those categories.

Green Envy

The Boston Celtics finished 49-33, fourth in the East. That is a drop from the 55 wins and second-place finish of last year. But a closer look shows they had improved production in several areas this season. They increased their scoring output, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and assists. They also managed to cut down on blocks, increase steals, and blocked more shots. Their advanced metrics improvement is also largely across the board.

So why are they a disappointment? Well, for starters (no pun intended) Marcus Smart will miss the entire opening round and, quite possibly, all of the second with a torn oblique. Smart has a slash line of .422/.364/.806 with career-high effective field goal and true shooting numbers. But his greatest impact is on the defensive side of the ball. He tied for eighth in steals per game during the regular season and is in the top-40 in defensive win shares. Boston will attempt to replace what Smart brings with Terry Rozier, who also resides in the top-90 for defensive win shares, but lacks Smart’s size to defend wings.

Of course, this is a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. But Irving (23-6-5) has been the talk of NBA Twitter this season in regards to where he will even be playing next year. Meanwhile, Hayward (11-4-3) is having a down year in his comeback campaign after playing all of five minutes last season. Then there is young Jayson Tatum, who is also dealing with an injury. Undoubtedly adjusting to life as something other than the top option, he has seen his scoring efficiency fall in his sophomore season, though he has upped his point totals, rebounding, assists, and steals.

Keeping the Pace

Indianapolis Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan has to be a darkhorse favorite for Coach of the Year. Sure the Pacers record is the exact same as last year. But Indy has managed to raise their production across the board, save for dips in free throw percentage, offensive rebounds, steals, and a minor drop in two-point attempts. Oh yeah, they also only got 36 games out of their best player, Victor Oladipo, after he went down with a quad tear back in January. That was supposed to be the death knell for the Pacers in 2019 and instead, they head to the NBA postseason.

For all the praise they deserve for even getting here, the loss of Oladipo might be about to catch up to them in a major way. We already know that the team with the best player usually wins in the playoffs. One could argue that even if Oladipo was healthy, he would still not be the best player on the floor in their first round matchup against the Celtics. But, it is hard to envision a scenario in which a player who averaged 22 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in the playoffs last season would not help.

All of this feels like a slight to the amazing season Bojan Bogdanovic is having. He is averaging 18-4-2 this season; well above his career numbers of 13-3-1. He also parlayed career-high usage into his best efficiency rating, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. He has been the de facto lead dog for a team with seven players averaging double figures for the season. Where they lack sans Vic is in isolation. They are the 24th in Isolation play frequency so that could obviously be the reason. But there will be times in the postseason when the play breaks down and they will need a player to go get a bucket.

Eastern Conference Has Warts

Just like it was for the teams in the Western Conference surprises and disappointments piece, these are indeed still playoff teams. There is a case to be made that this is all nitpicking, and maybe so. But the issues raised here only accentuate what is already assumed. Save for Boston, none of these teams are thought of as true contenders for a title. Even the Cs have less luster than last year with what, in total, is a better team simply by having Irving and Hayward healthy.