It is a new day in Detroit. After years of mediocre front offices making misguided moves, the Pistons have a new general manager in Troy Weaver, who comes over from the Oklahoma City Thunder with a good reputation around the league. Weaver had been with the Thunder since 2008, and was part of the front office when the Thunder drafted and developed Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams, among others (Kevin Durant was drafted the year before Weaver got there).
It is good that he can draft well, because Weaver is walking into a bleak situation. The Pistons have an aging, oft-injured, expensive star in Blake Griffin, and not a lot else. Griffin could still get back to his best; he is 31, and only one year removed from an All-Star season in 2018–19 in which he averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. But even then, Detroit was only good enough to land the eighth seed and a first round sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, and the East has gotten stronger since then. When Griffin was limited to 18 games last season, the Pistons were a lottery team.
With his age and injury history, it is tough to count on Griffin. He has missed a lot of games over the past several seasons, and, even when healthy, his once-otherworldly athleticism is gone. But he can still play, and has added passing vision and better outside shooting to make up for his lost athleticism. Griffin is scheduled for a hefty $36.6 million paycheck next season, with a player option the following year. He has certainly earned that, given his play earlier in his career, but it will be nearly impossible to move him for anything other than a similar gargantuan contract (Russell Westbrook? Al Horford?). The Pistons’ best bet is probably keeping him on the team through the end of his contract in 2022.
Beyond Griffin, the roster is weak, but Detroit may have unearthed a potential star in Christian Wood. After yo-yoing between the G League and NBA with several other organizations, he shined for the Pistons last season, averaging 13.1 points per game in only 21.4 minutes. Wood can score inside (73.5% field goal percentage inside 5 feet on 4.4 attempts per game) and out (38.6% from three on 2.3 attempts per game), and, at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, has the length to block shots inside.
Wood’s defensive ability at this point is mostly theoretical, as he only blocked 3.4% of opponent shots while he was on the floor, and allowed opponents to shoot 56.9% at the rim on 4.1 attempts per game, middle of the pack numbers for a center. He is pretty lanky right now and can get bullied under the rim, but has the potential to develop into a good rim protector.
Unfortunately for Detroit, Wood is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and is sure to draw plenty of interest around the league. While betting big on a player with a limited track record is risky (see Hassan Whiteside), the potential reward for signing a center with Wood’s scoring ability is immense. The pandemic may depress the free agency market, which could bring Wood’s price down. But the Pistons should be major players for Wood (provided he wants to come back of course). They should be willing to go high to retain him, even as high as $20 million per season. They have no other potential stars on the roster, and are not going to be players in free agency otherwise at any point in the near future. After dumping Andre Drummond, they have the money.
The Pistons have not drafted well the last several years; of their first-round picks between 2013 and 2018, only Luke Kennard is still on the team, and they famously took him one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell. Last year’s first-rounder, Sekou Doumbouya, has a lot of length and athleticism, but played like the raw teenage rookie he was last season. Down the depth chart, young players like Svi Mikhailyuk, Bruce Brown, and Luke Kennard can play but do not offer much reason for excitement.
Detroit will not win many games this season. It is time instead for Weaver to evaluate what he has, and see what works. Maybe they can pick up another Wood-type off the scrap heap. Maybe one of these young players can thrive in an expanded role. Who knows?
The past several years have been a rough time for Detroit Pistons fans. They have not won so much as a single game in the playoffs since 2008. The team is going to struggle this year, but they have a new front office who will run things differently. They have the seventh pick in the draft this year and a clean cap sheet starting in 2022. This is only the beginning of their journey.
Nothing about the pronunciation of Jakob Poeltl’s name makes sense to me and my Americentric world; a sure sign that I could use more culture in my life. Like me, your favorite NBA team could also use more Poeltl. While the Spurs have a contractual edge on signing the 25-year-old restricted free agent, he may look for more playing time with another squad, and several could come calling.
Despite being an analytics gemstone, Poeltl has registered46 career starts in 276 career games and logged only 17.7 minutes per game last year. Recently, he toldNews 4 San Antonio that he is going to look at “a few other options and maybe find something that fits the concept better…when it comes to my career and my development, my role and the playing time are in the foreground.” Does he deserve more playing time, however?
Over the past three seasons, Poeltl has posted exceptional block, offensive rebound and effective field goal rates. According to Cleaning the Glass, he hasn’t finished below the 80th percentile in any of those categories since his freshman year in San Antonio. What’s more, he is an impactful dribble handoff (DHO) player. With Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat leading the way in popularizing DHO strategy, expect that skill set to be in higher demand in upcoming seasons. That, paired with his excellent short-midrange touch, makes Poeltl an enticing free agent.
Touch in the Short Midrange
Poeltl does much of his damage near the rim, but because he lacks the requisite explosiveness to be a lob threat, he spends most of his time underneath it. Specifically, CTG informs that he took 26 percent of his field goal attempts from the short midrange last season. He sank an outstanding 49 percent of those shots, a slight but noticeable increase from last year’s 47 percent clip.
While Poeltl should not be asked to carry an offensive load, it would be interesting to see what he could do with a few more touches per game. What the center surrenders in vertical gravity, he makes up with soft touch, a high release, and solid instincts. A competent big man who can do things other than dunking, Poeltl has earned more scoring attempts.
Currently rostered on the Spurs are a handful of playmaking guards. Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker (not to mention DeMar DeRozan, if he returns)each have experience in the DHO game. Many of them have found success running this set through Poeltl and his concrete, 7-foot frame. Both his assist percentage and assist to usage ratio provide the proof:
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then expect Bam Adebayo to be blushing all year long. In a copycat league, teams will likely adopt the staple play that led the Heat to the NBA Finals. This puts Poeltl’s best offensive skill in high demand. Not only are his screens and passes perfectly timed, but he has shown real chops as a short-roll passer.
With Devonte Graham, Terry Rozier and perhaps a draft pick like LaMelo Ball or Anthony Edwards, the Charlotte Hornets could find themselves in need of strong DHO players. Plus, they have the cap space to outbid most suitors. Chicago may have a similar guard/wing-heavy roster and the full mid-level exception to work with.
Despite playing south of 18 minutes per game, Poeltl finished 12th in blocks per game among all players this season. In fact, he hadmore total blocks than defensive stalwarts Adebayo, Jarrett Allen and Giannis Antentokounmpo. It’s no wonder that Poeltl placed in the 93rd percentile for block percentage (CTG). Without an elastic wingspan or elite springiness, Poeltl still protects the paint. But how?
Compensating for his lack of athleticism, Poeltl is a bright defender with top-notch court awareness. He stays ahead of plays, times block attempts to avoid fouling, and thrives in drop pick-and-roll coverage. Yet, he isn’t a liability when dragged out onto the perimeter. Poeltl uses angles to his advantage and lets his instincts do the rest. His knack for blocking or altering three-pointers is a testament to his innate feel for the game.
Fits & Possible Contract
Aron Baynes has played his way into a sizable payday, giving the Phoenix Suns a need at the backup center position. Poeltl won’t see a minutes increase there, but he will have an important role as the Suns try to break a decade-long postseason drought. They can afford to overpay for Poeltl’s services and might be happy if they do.
Poeltl’s former team, the Toronto Raptors, could find themselves suddenly without both Marc Gasol and/or Serge Ibaka. The Austrian big man might just nab a starting role for his old club and could do so for a nice chunk of the MLE ($9 millionish.) These teams, alongside Charlotte, make sense for Poeltl.
Don’t forget about his current team, either. LaMarcus Aldridge is set to be a free agent after next season, and the Spurs could move on from him. Perhaps they trade him to a contender and kickstart a rebuild. Both of those scenarios suggest a starting role could be on the horizon for Poeltl. If Poeltl does re-sign, I might consider it a harbinger that Aldridge’s time in San Antonio could be coming to a close. Regardless, expect Poeltl to earn between $5–8 million in restricted free agency.
PODCAST BONUS! – Listen to Zach talk to Jeff Garcia of Locked On Spurs about all things San Antonio related. Garcia gives insight on Lonnie Walker’s inconsistency, DeMar’s player option, and the Spur’s upcoming draft pick.
In Mario Kart on Nintendo 64, the mother of all tracks is Rainbow Road. With its length and difficulty, it separates the pros from mere amateurs. Racers have a choice at the beginning of the track. If you jump off the edge, and time it juuuuuuust right, you bypass a large part of the track and give yourself a huge advantage over your opponents. But you have to nail it exactly; if you miss, you tumble through the abyss of space for what feels like forever, only to be dropped back at the beginning, too far behind everyone else to make a comeback.
Betting big on Christian Wood is a similar proposition; it is an incredibly risky proposition, but the potential reward is amazing. In his fourth NBA season and first real run at significant playing time, Wood was excellent, the rare big man who can hurt teams both inside and from the perimeter on offense. Even though he has only played a little over 100 games in his career, including only 14 starts, the 24-year-old Wood has shown enough to be considered one of the best options in this limited pool of free agents.
Elite Inside Scoring
One of the fundamental truths of basketball is that taller players have an advantage because they are closer to the hoop. Even with all the small-ball that has swept the league in recent years, that is still true, as evidenced by the Lakers’ dominance in the paint throughout their championship run. Christian Wood has elite size; he is 6-foot-10, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and he can jump out of the gym. He is an incredible lob threat who can jump up and corral passes from insane heights and throw them down. According to Cleaning the Glass, Wood shot 77% at the rim, ranking him in the 89th percentile among big men.
What separates Wood from most bouncy big men is that he can hit threes as well. He shot 38.6% from three on 2.3 attempts per game— well above average, especially for someone of his size. Prior to last season, he was just a 30.9% shooter on 42 career attempts, but he has a high release and good form (and took significantly more attempts this season than ever before), so it is likely the improvement is sustainable. The percentage may come down a little as defenses start to key on him outside, but this can help him in another way: Wood is an incredible inside threat, and if defenses have to watch for him popping to the three-point line, it makes it that much harder to prevent him from getting to the rim. This showed up in his play-type numbers this year; Wood averaged1.5 points per possession as the roller in the pick-and-roll, an elite number.
In one of his best games last season, against the 76ers on March 11, Wood showed how he could put it all together on offense:
Passing Needs Improvement
The missing piece for Wood’s offensive game is playmaking. He struggles in this area, averaging a paltry 1.0 assist per game, with a 7.3 assist percentage and 0.36 assist-to-usage ratio, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those are all poor numbers, even for a big man. As defenses adjust to Wood, they will throw more and better defenders at him and force him to make a pass. He needs to improve in this area to continue to be effective on offense. But the bar is low. As a center with great scoring ability, he only needs to make basic reads for his passing to be effective.
Owing to his immense length (again, he has a 7-foot-3 wingspan), Wood has a lot of potential on defense, but was closer to average than great this season. He was decent at blocking shots (66th percentile among big men in block percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass) and jumping passing lanes (48th percentile in steal percentage), but not incredible. He is a good rebounder, with Cleaning the Glass putting him in the 54th percentile for offensive rebounding percentage and 75th for defensive rebounding percentage. At the rim, he allowed opponents to shoot 56.9% on 4.1 contested shots per game, solid but not elite. Since Wood came off the bench for most of the season, he was often playing against opponents’ benches. It will get tougher for him to put up these numbers against better lineups. He has not shown enough to be relied upon as a primary rim-protector for a good team, but he could get there. He has the tools.
While Wood does not have a long track record and has shortcomings to his game, he should be highly sought after this offseason. Bobby Marks estimates Wood to get the mid-level exception, $9.3 million per year. If that is really his market, every team in the NBA should go after him. Any team could use a big man who can score in the ways Wood can, and if he can develop his passing and defense (I’m more bullish on the defense), he could be great. In this year’s market, there are not a lot of other players you can say that about—and the only ones you can (Anthony Davis, Brandon Ingram) are likely staying put.
Because of this, teams that have no other opportunities to sign stars should go higher than the mid-level exception to sign Wood. The Pistons, Sacramento Kings, and Charlotte Hornets are not traditional free agent destinations and are at various stages of rebuilds. While many teams might understandably prefer to save their free agency dollars for next offseason, when far more talent should be available, Wood provides a good opportunity to land a potential star. For these teams, having money for next season is not going to get them that star; Giannis Antetokounmpo is not coming to Sacramento.
What Wood has shown so far is stardom, just in an extremely small dose. If it is at all likely that that is who he is going forward, then Detroit, Sacramento, and Charlotte should bet big on him. Sure, it is a risk to spend a ton of money on such an unproven player, but for these teams, the alternative is overpaying a veteran or taking on a bad contract to pick up a mid-to-low first-round draft pick. Neither of those options is as likely to result in acquiring a star as signing Wood. Teams should be willing to bet big on Wood, even going as high as $15–20 million per season.
The NBA revolves around shooting these days, so it is crucially important for draft prospects to be able to shoot. We have seen countless talented prospects (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Justise Winslow, etc.) falter over the years in the NBA due to a lack of a reliable jump shot.
But it is hard to predict how shooting will translate from college to the NBA. The college three-point line is shorter, for one. For another, the seasons are shorter and amateur teams often play far less open offensive styles, so most players have not taken a high volume of attempts.
One good way to evaluate shooting is to use a statistical technique called Empirical Bayesian probability (see here for a good explanation). Using this technique, we regress a shooter’s three-point percentage towards the NCAA average three-point percentage, weighted by how many attempts the shooter had.
What Empirical Bayesian probability does is regress all players’ three-point percentage towards the NCAA average, but with a stronger regression for players with fewer attempts. The effect is shown in the graph below, with three-point percentage plotted on the x-axis against Empirical Bayesian three-point percentage (lighter dots represent shooters with less attempts):
The basic idea is that, if you have gone 6-for-10 on three-point attempts, you are probably not a 60 percent shooter (so we regress you heavily towards the average), but you probably are better than someone who is a 20-for-100 shooter (we are more confident they are a bad shooter since they have taken a large number of attempts).
A college player’s Empirical Bayesian three-point percentage has a slightly stronger relationship with NBA three-point percentage (0.13 R^2) than his raw college three-point percentage does (0.11 R^2), as shown below:
The leaders in Empirical Bayesian three-point percentage among this year’s college class are as follows:
Empirical Bayes 3P percent
Using this statistic, I created a regression model for NBA three-point percentage based on Empirical Bayesian College three-point percentage, Empirical Bayesian College free-throw percentage, Empirical Bayesian shooting percentage on long twos (which includes basically all two point jump shots), Empirical Bayesian College three-point rate (the percentage of field goal attempts that were threes), and position. All statistics were taken from the player’s last season in college. Only players who had taken at least 100 threes in the NBA were included in the training set. I used data from Bart Torvik’s site, which is a great resource for college stats.
The R-squared value for the model is .155, meaning the model explains 15.5 percent of the variance in NBA three-point shooting percentage in the test set. The mean absolute error (MAE) of the model is .028. Since the model is predicting percentages, that means it was off by about 2.8 percent on the average player. The model has a root mean squared error (RMSE) of .039 on the test set. These error numbers are decent, since no one can predict shooting percentage with absolute certainty, but could stand to improve.
The model is very conservative. It never predicts a player to have an NBA three-point percentage above 40 percent, and only rarely predicts shooters to be below 30 percent. The best prediction in the training dataset came for Tyler Herro, who was predicted to shoot 38.4 percent from three in the NBA (he has slightly surpassed that, shooting 38.9 percent in his career). Luke Babbitt (38.3 percent), Ian Clark (38.2 percent), Luke Kennard (38.0 percent), and Bryn Forbes (38.0 percent) all also had high projections. On the other hand, Andre Drummond (27.4 percent) had the lowest projection in the set.
There have been some misses. Seth Curry (projected 37.2 percent, actual 44.3 percent), Duncan Robinson (projected 37.9 percent, actual 43.7 percent), and Michael Porter Jr. (projected 32.2 percent, actual 42.2 percent) have all shot far better than projected, especially Porter. Porter only played three regular season games in college, shooting 30 percent from three in those games, so his low projection is explainable, and a good reminder that scouting is very important. Relying solely on his statistics did not come close to telling the full story. As for Curry and Robinson, they are two of the best shooters alive, and are outliers that are hard to predict.
Of this year’s college draft prospects, The model predicts Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley as the best shooter, with a projected NBA three-point field goal percentage of 38.2 percent. Sam Merrill (38.0 percent), Isaiah Joe (37.8 percent), and Markus Howard (37.3 percent) all also profile well. Meanwhile, Precious Achiuwa (29.0 percent), Lamine Diane (30.5 percent), Xavier Tillman (30.8 percent), and Isaac Okoro (30.9 percent) do not project well.
Among top prospects, Anthony Edwards (33.2 percent) does not project well due to a poor college three-point shooting percentage. James Wiseman (31.3 percent) and Onyeka Okongwu (31.8 percent) also do not project well, but they are big men, so that is more acceptable for them.
Below, see a table of NBA prospects shooting projections, including an 95 percent confidence interval (there is a 95 percent chance they will shoot in that range in the NBA).
Well, in theory any team could sign these players. Perhaps I’m projecting some positive energy upon my beloved Celtics. Or maybe I’m catering to a specific fan base in a strategic attempt to grow my journalistic profile. Getting paid to watch basketball then write my thoughts on it is the dream, and I’m inching closer. Sue me.
A pair of former NBAers are also inching closer to playing stateside, and I’m not talking about the G-League. I could play the role of spoiler and drop those names now, but I’ll lure you in by holding off. This leaves one player to hint about, however, and all I’ll say is that he’s a sub-six-foot, Argentine point guard who is drawing tons of NBA interest. Okay, now you’ve been officially hooked, journalism style. Read on.
This former second-round draft pick played in the NBA for three years before being pushed out of the League. A 6-foot-5 guard with mediocre length and athleticism, Dorsey has been forced to pursue his comeback with EuroLeague powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he started alongside fellow NBA flameouts such as Dragan Bender and Ante Zizic. Before his departure to Israel, however, Dorsey was starting games for the pre-Morant Memphis Grizzlies andaveraging a line of 14.6/3.2/4.3 while hitting on 34.3 percent of his three-pointers.
Yet, Dorsey found himself without an NBA home. The Grizzlies exchanged Dorsey for that Morant fella and De’Anthony Melton; two moves that worked out in their favor. NBA teams likely passed on Dorsey due to his poor defensive performances and sneakiness as a scorer. So, what about Dorsey piques my interest?
In plainest terms, Dorsey can score the ball. His catch-and-shoot ability passes both the eye and numbers test. He sank40 percent of catch-and-shoot threes while in Memphis, and his stroke simply looks nice. Dorsey can also create triples off of the bounce, a coveted skill in today’s game. Boston needs a bench guard/wing who can generate offense for himself and cash in on open looks. The Celtics’ offense can stagnate with Brad Wanamaker manning the second unit, and while Dorsey may not pan out, it would be wise to spend a minimum contract on someone with a higher ceiling. Plus, Dorsey has shown improvement at finishing at the rim, something that used to plague him.
What’s more, Dorsey is an underrated passer. Brad Stevens does not want to bring in a ball-stopper, and Dorsey can keep it moving and find shooters on kickouts after attacking closeouts. He’ll also hit open men during transition, something Wanamaker struggles with. With a buyout clause in his contract, Dorsey is prepping for a return. A versatile microwave scorer who nailed39.4 percent of his triples last year, he could be just what Boston needs. If Dorsey were to sign in Boston, expect his defensive effort to improve as he plays for his NBA life.
Facundo Campazzo would do more for the Celtics than be an immediate contender for most fun name in team history. I’ll dig into his playing style in a bit, but to hold you over, here is a list of his accomplishments from Wikipedia.
“Most Spectacular Player” sounds like an award someone made up because the other awards simply weren’t good enough. But the tape shows why he earned this title. Until I get my acceptance letter from Hogwarts, Campazzo’s passing is the best proof we have that wizards exist. Hoops nerds search for Facundo passing highlights the way White Nationalists type “Tucker Carlson OWNS _______” into YouTube. And here’s why…
Facu has spent the last seven years in Spain’s top league. There, he has averaged a line of 9.8/4.5/2.3, which may not seem overly impressive at first glance. But the European game is different from the American one. Teammates play in shifts that are similar to hockey, limiting the gaudy stats we are accustomed to in the States. If you have doubts, find comfort in the fact thatMarc Stein believes Campazzo is closer than ever to signing with an NBA team.
Although he’s a tough defensive player, he has athletic and physical limitations. Moreover, Facu is streaky from deep, and it shows in his year-by-year percentages. Yet, he has made48 out of 100 postseason three-point attempts since 2015.
For the Celtics, Campazzo would have the opportunity to play a substantial role. Boston may look to manage Kemba Walker’s minutes due to his knee concerns. Campazzo could come in and orchestrate the second unit, creating easy looks for projected bench players like Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Marcus Smart and Bobby Timelord. There will likely be a bidding war for Campazzo, and the C’s should toss their hat into the ring.
Please, do not be that person who reads Derrick Williams and then immediately thinks, “Dude busted out of the league lol, I’ll pass.” To do so would be foolish, especially when considering how he has developed as a player in Europe. While Williams did not end up excelling to the degree we associate with a top-two draft pick, he has altered his game to earn another NBA chance.
And if opposing teams ever think highly enough of Williams to closeout on him, well, this can happen…
Now, do the Celtics have room for a forward (possibly small-ball five) that won’t wow you from deep? No. Fortunately for Williams, he does more than that. It is not a stretch to say that if Williams were brought to Boston, he would be the best athlete on the team. Yes, I am aware the Celtics have a Jaylen Brown. At 6-foot-9 with dominant, pain-inducing explosiveness, however, Williams jumps (pun intended) off the screen in a way that suggests he could give Brown a run for his money.
Toss in his roughly 7-foot-1 wingspan and Stevens could get freaky with some lineups that feature Williams at the center spot. Plus, the NBA has shifted into a league where Williams would no longer be shunned as a tweener. Rather, Williams could terrorize slower centers as a pick-and-roll lob threat on offense, and defensively, his bulk/footspeed combo makes him a prime candidate for anchoring small-ball defenses. A high-IQ player coming out of college, Williams could earn playing time by giving max defensive effort.
I’m unsure if Williams has a buyout clause, but the other two aforementioned players do. Smart money would suggest Williams’ agent worked one into his contract. So, how would I rank these players in order of importance to the Celtics offseason?
I’m of the belief that the Celtics may have their bench scoring solutions on the roster already. Expect Langford to play more minutes next year, and do so with a positive impact. Additionally, Grant Williams should be able to both take and hit more three-pointers. To boot, Boston is primed to add a ready-now scorer like Desmond Bane or Saddiq Bey with one of their two-dozen draft picks. This places Dorsey at the bottom of my list.
Next up is Campazzo. There’s a good chance that some other club is willing to shell out more money for him than what Boston is capable of offering. Still, should they get him, the addition could move the needle. With staggered second units that perpetually feature two of Boston’s core four (Hayward, Brown, Kemba and Tatum), Campazzo could wreak havoc. This postseason, Boston showed how they need a handler to initiate offense when a star is sitting. Facu is that guy.
Still, you can’t teach height. Or athleticism. Williams’ ability to switch against pick-and-rolls would have been much appreciated during the Heat series, as the Celtics struggled mightily defending Bam Adebayo. I’d be comfortable extending Tremont Waters and then luring Williams to Boston as a do-it-all hybrid who brings toughness and a jolt of competitiveness to the squad.
In 2013 m, fresh off Damian Lillard’s Rookie of the Year campaign, the Portland Trail Blazers used the ninth-overall pick to draft CJ McCollum, an undersized two-guard from Lehigh. There were concerns about the guards’ fit at the time, and with McCollum only managing 6.3 points per game through his first two seasons, it looked as though Portland’s attempt at a dynamic duo had fallen flat.
A half-decade later, Lillard and McCollum have grown into arguably the NBA’s premier pair of backcourt assassins. Their collective resumé includes a run to the Western Conference Finals, an immortal run of destruction to steal an unlikely playoff berth, and at least one series-clinching shot by each. There were growing pains, to be sure, and the Blazers have yet to crack the championship code for good, but their star backcourt has lifted them to contender status for the foreseeable future.
Across the map, the Cleveland Cavaliers look to be following the same trail the Trail Blazers blazed. Like Portland, the Cavs used top-10 selections on offensively gifted guards in back-to-back years, taking Collin Sexton eighth overall in 2018 and Darius Garland fifth in 2019. And while it’s still unclear whether SexLand will work out quite as well as its name, year one of the Cavs’ ‘Portland East’ experiment provided reasons to believe they can replicate the formula—even if you have to squint to make them out.
The Two Guards
Between the two of them, Sexton and Garland possess many of the traits that make Lillard and McCollum such a lethal duo—they’re just allocated a bit differently. Sexton mounts vertical attacks with Lillard-like power and ferocity, but his sophisticated finishing ability and around-the-world shot profile line up more closely with McCollum.
Garland handles a shifty and precise ball like McCollum, but has shown signs of Lillard’s propensity to generate space with cross-continent pull-up missiles.
Sexton should slot into something resembling McCollum’s secondary role. Sexton isn’t the technician McCollum is, but he’s an expert finisher from just about anywhere on the floor. This season, Sexton shot with above-average efficiency from every area of the floor save for the rim. He’s developed an elite three-point shot, converting at just under 40 percent (though his low release might not always function properly off the dribble), he rarely turns the ball over (80th percentile in turnover percentage), and he’s built a solid in-between game on the strength of a delicate floater that belies his brutish style.
Much of this stems from his astonishingly low capacity for passing basketballs. It’s perhaps the most on-brand development in basketball history that Sexton is probably known best as the dude who damn near won a game going three-on-five. His assist numbers (bottom-five percentiles in assist percentage and assist-to-usage ratio) and occupy similar territory as players like Kris Dunn, Jarrett Culver, and Luguentz Dort, whose job descriptions read “please don’t murder our offense.” Even raising his passing numbers from “unbelievably bad” to “standard-variety bad” could unlock new levels for both himself and the Cavs’ offense.
That leaves Garland as the Cavs’ Lillard-lite. Kevin O’Connor listed Lillard as one of Garland’s best-case comparisons, but his rookie season went, umm, less swimmingly than Lillard’s. Garland struggled hard and often in his first professional go-round: he was a statistically bad shooter (47.2 effective field goal percentage) and distributor (though he was better than Sexton), and was in the bottom-ten percentile-wise for committing turnovers. Not great, Bob! (I never watched Mad Men.)
Projecting positivity for Garland moving forward requires a little faith and a hefty investment in the ol’ IswearIknowwhatI’mtalkingabout eye test. Coming out of Vanderbilt, Garland’s most promising trait was his outside shooting. For all his struggles scoring inside the arc, that held up: Garland largely matched Lillard’s rookie-year outside-shooting performance, and we’ve already seen his willingness to emulate Logo Lillard.
Garland also displayed solid passing vision and instincts that belie his modest assist numbers:
Oh, and also: Lillard played four years in college. Garland played five games. He may have gotten atomic wedgied on a near-nightly basis, but a full offseason (and then some) of mass-cultivation and studying defenses should lead to a beefier, more on-target Lillard impersonator.
(Watch The Playgrounder’s in-depth breakdown of Darius Garland’s rookie season here.)
Filling Out the Roster
The Blazers have spent years cycling through three-and-D wings, but most of them lacked the shooting and/or playmaking to keep Portland’s offense from collapsing in on itself (Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Evan Turner), got vaporized on defense by bigger, faster wings (Gary Trent Jr., Carmelo Anthony), or are Mario Hezonja (Mario Hezonja). The Cavs will need to fare better in finding two-way players to alleviate some of the pressure on its backcourt.
Thus far, they’re light on in-house solutions. Kevin Porter Jr. is a good athlete and showed some promise on offense, but at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, is prone to getting steamrolled by the LeBron/Kawhi/Harden-type monsters that patrol the wing. Cedi Osman (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) has solid size and speed and a soft shooting stroke, but those individual components have yet to coalesce into a legit three-and-D wing.
Playmaking bigs like Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo dominated the 2020 playoffs, and Portland employs one of the better ones in the league in Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic’s ability to anchor a defense while providing supplementary playmaking on offense, and with neither Sexton nor Garland looking like a top-tier floor general, the Cavs need as much secondary distribution as they can get. When he’s not injured or fouling everything in sight, Zach Collins is a solid two-way player who should keep improving. Beyond those two mainstays, Portland has rotated in board-dominant rotation bigs such as Hassan Whiteside and Enes Kanter with moderate success.
Portland’s frontcourt might be harder to replicate. Timberwolves-era Kevin Love was something of a prototype to Nikola Jokic as a frontcourt player who could be an (exceedingly large) offensive fulcrum, but their similarities carry over to their poor defense. (Also, he’s spent the last year wailing basketballs at teammates and begging the Cavs to let him leave.) Andre Drummond is more Whiteside than Nurkic, . Tristan Thompson is a solid passer and defender and a rebounding menace, but he handles and shoots like a 200-pound sixth-grader. Larry Nance Jr. might (should?) be the only long-term Cavalier in the current rotation.
Millions of years from now, when new lifeforms inhabit earth and discover basketball, they’ll study the Blazers’ 2016 offseason as an exercise in avoiding financial ruin. The Cavs should follow suit and hold onto their cap space, at least until they have something resembling a future playoff team. That likely means shooting for a net-zero on any Love trade, letting Drummond bounce next offseason, and building through the draft.
The good news is that in Sexton and Garland, Cleveland might already have its backcourt in place. KPJ, Osman, and Nance Jr. are also solid complementary pieces whose timelines mesh with the two guards’. And with the fifth pick in the upcoming draft, the Cavs have a lot of options to opportunity to fortify their roster. Isaac Okoro could be the wing defender the Cavs desperately need. He also projects as a capable distributor, an imperative alongside one of the most assist-averse guards in the Association. Should they look to the interior, Onyeka Okongwu fits into the Adebayo/Draymond Green-type role that’s on the upswing in today’s NBA.
The bad news is that the Cavs are still trying to climb out of the radioactive wasteland LeBron James left behind; four years of we-absolutely-cannot-lose-this-year moves left the roster barren of young talent. So for now, the main priority should be cultivating a healthy and sustainable environment (something multi-billion dollar organizations are notoriously dedicated to) (😕) where young players can grow. The Cavs don’t have many material assets for now, but they appear to have a plan moving forward and a roadmap to follow—that’s more than they could say the last time LeBron left.
I want you to take 30 seconds to close your eyes, and think about the things in life that matter to you. If someone were to pose the question, “What is the best thing in your life right now?” what would you say?
Some of you may say an extremely precious item, or a piece of memorabilia that you own. Others might have a really expensive car, or vacation home. Maybe you went a little more practical, and said your house, access to safe drinking water, your family, or your health.
Now take a step back, and reset. This time I want you to think of the most valuable thing in your life. This is something that you can’t live without, and it is of utmost value to you. For some people, these answers may coincide with one another. Some people may still have said that really expensive Ferrari sitting in their garage, or the beach house in Los Angeles that you visit a few times a year.
However, I’m sure the majority of people came up with a more of a practical answer to this second question. Health, family, food, employment; a lot of answers probably came up.
Why is that? Why can something be the most valuable thing we own, yet still not be considered the best?
We see this argument a lot when it comes to the MVP award, which is given out upon the conclusion of every NBA season. Every year we hear the same thing: “LeBron could win MVP every year he’s been in the league, if the award truly was given to the most valuable player!”
Is this true? Is LeBron truly the most valuable player every season? I’m sure one could argue that he’s been the best player in the league every year for the past 10 years, but has he had the best regular season every single year?
That right there is the first thing to iron out. The MVP award is awarded to a player based solely on the current season. It’s easy to look at a player’s whole body of work throughout their career and express why they’re still the better player than the current MVP. There’s a few guys I would still say are better than reigning two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. We see evidence that there are still a few players who are better than him every year when the pressure of the playoffs brings players to their boiling points.
It’s possible to keep that distinction in mind when discussing the MVP award while at the same time recognizing that Antetokounmpo had, at the very least, one of the two best individual performances of the 2019–2020 regular season.
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s get into what everyone came here for; the main entrée, the main event, the semantic battle of ‘most valuable’ vs. ‘best’ player!
This is a debate which can be fun, yet annoying when taken too far, or had with stubborn individuals. (Realistically, I just described every debate you could have. Nevertheless!)
Even though the ‘best player in the league’ discourse is extremely subjective, everyone is at least generally aware of the criteria used. Some people use the eye test, some use stats, but often the majority of people will use some combination of the two. Either way, the point stands: every basketball fan would be able to tell you who they think the best player in the league is (or best players if there’s a tie) without hesitation.
The true question—and the one that comes into focus every year without fail— is what ‘valuable’ actually means in basketball terms.
I guess the first item to discuss is to figure out what the most ‘valuable’ thing in a basketball game is. If you polled 100 people, I’m sure you would receive at least 20 different answers. However, in its simplest form, the most valuable thing in basketball is winning. It doesn’t matter how well you score, assist, rebound, defend, etc. If you factor into winning games, you are valuable.
Is it just the best player on the team with the most wins then? That would be Giannis Antetokounmpo. That doesn’t necessarily make sense though, because you win games as a team. So the best player on the best team, isn’t always the most valuable player in the league.
Should we just credit the player with the highest win shares? James Harden would take the cake for this season then. However, as much as advanced stats certainly have their place, they need to be taken with context. Sure, the guys at the top of the win share charts would be amongst the league’s most valuable, but it isn’t necessarily the best tool to divide the top from the top.
So then is it the best player on a team with a weak supporting cast that still manages to win a substantial amount of games in comparison to the team this player has around them? (Whew! That was a mouthful.) How do we even begin to determine that?
To me, ‘most valuable’ needs to be decided the same way which we determine the best. Through a mix of statistics, and the eye-test.
Since the most important aspect of basketball is winning, I figured the best way to determine the most valuable player is to ask yourself the following question, and plug in the player and team which you think suits the blanks best. Like so:
The ______ (team) would fall off the hardest, if they were without _______ (player).
Essentially, we’re asking what team would have the biggest gap between a season with a specific player on the court, and then without that specific player.
Since we can’t just simulate an entire NBA season 450 times, (one time without each individual player) this once again becomes a subjective question.
So I did what any smart person does when posed with a difficult question, I went to the experts! I had the pleasure of exchanging messages with two of the smartest guys in the basketball analysis business, Howard Beck, and Justin Termine, who were generous enough to answer the fill-in-the-blank above, and to give me their rationale behind their answers. Keep in mind what we discussed earlier. This is a regular season award, so I received these answers prior to the start of the playoffs. Even though their answers did include the eight seeding games from inside the bubble, which the MVP award itself also excluded, both of their responses were submitted before Game 1 of every first-round series.
Let’s take a look at what each of them had to say!
I believe the Trailblazers would fall off the most if they were to lose Damian Lillard for a significant time. They went 2-6 in the games he missed this year, but the most telling evidence for how significant their drop-off would be came from the games we saw in the bubble. Portland’s defense was ranked 27th in the NBA this year, and without Lillard they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the amount of points they’re giving up. Even looking at the bubble we saw Portland need 51, 61, and 42 points from Lillard in their final three ‘seeding games’ to beat the Sixers, Mavericks, and Nets seven combined points. In the case of the Sixers and Nets, they weren’t even facing opponents near full-strength.
This was an intriguing answer. Damian Lillard, as phenomenal as he was this season, did not put up a year which would be typically considered for MVP. Which is interesting, because if everyone on his team was slightly better, yet Lillard put up the same stats, Portland could have finished as a top-three seed instead of squeaking into the playoffs. Were that to happen, Lillard would most definitely be in the running for the award.
Why is that? How can a guy’s MVP chances shoot up so drastically, simply through better performance of his teammates? That’s one of the reasons this award is flawed. Lillard may have very well been the most ‘valuable’ player in the league in a literal sense, but he only finished eighth in voting because he didn’t have as good of teammates as the players who finished ahead of him.
The Bucks would fall off the hardest if they were without Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s their best scorer and their leading playmaker, the engine of their offense and the linchpin of their top-ranked defense. The Bucks’ entire identity depends on him. Milwaukee does have Khris Middleton, but he’s a complementary star, not a leading man or No. 1 option. They have no one else who can consistently create or break down a defense. Without Giannis, the Bucks would be no better than a seventh or eighth seed.
Howard decided to go the route of a player whose team won a lot, yet still the player who had the biggest impact on a winning team. Milwaukee was most certainly the best, and most dominant team in the league throughout the regular season, and Giannis cemented himself as the best player on that team.
The second point which he brings up is one which I agree with a lot. Giannis had a weaker supporting cast, specifically at the top of the roster, than his fellow competitors. As much as Khris Middleton certainly had an all-star caliber season, he is not as good as Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, or Paul George (regular season award!); the other players who would typically be considered as an adequate second fiddle.
A lot of people would likely retort that point by saying that Milwaukee has a greater collection of talent, which is true, but playing alongside other top tier talent is a lot more beneficial to the respective player, than a team full of depth. Giannis has a lot of teammates who make great secondary, and tertiary creators; players who can make open shots, and create plays once Giannis has already broken down the defense. Playing alongside another star, allows him to potentially “take plays off,” and also become a secondary creator himself at times. Giannis would be extremely strong as a roll-man, or attacking off a close-out, if he had a teammate who commanded enough attention from opposing defenses.
The question becomes, what do we do with the MVP award? Do we just leave it in this abyss of ambiguous criteria? Where MVP voters are picking based on their own conceptions of value? Or should the award’s categories be slightly more solidified to the point where it does go to the player who was the most traditionally ‘valuable’?
I personally believe Bradley Beal was the most valuable player to his team in the 2019-2020 regular season. Beal averaged over 30 points per game while being extremely efficient, yet he received zero credit for it this year, because the remainder of his team was so lackluster. Beal most definitely should have been an All-Star, probably should have made an All-NBA team, and quite honestly, was arguably the most ‘valuable’ player to his team during the season. Without Beal, the Wizards are probably sitting with the worst record and the number one pick in the upcoming draft.
The MVP award often goes to the player who had the most dominant season, combined with winning, which is far easier when you have better players around you. “As it happens, I did vote Giannis for MVP this season. But not based on the ‘take player X off team Y’ formula. It’s because he was the league’s most dominant player, period, and he powered his team to the NBA’s best record” (Howard Beck).
Should there be two awards then? A Most Valuable Player Award, and then a Best Individual Season Award? The only problem with that, is the BIS award would go towards the player who would typically win MVP, and the MVP award would be all over the place. Not to mention the title of league MVP has developed such a pedigree in itself that, even though the BIS award might be more prestigious, it would probably never look that way in anyone’s eyes.
Matt Esposito and I discussed this on the most recent episode of The Playgrounder Podcast. He brought up a great point of how the MVP award is used as such a substantial piece of someone’s legacy, yet in the grand scheme of things, might not always be a great indicator of how good a player was.
Take this year for example. Yes, Giannis was the best player through the regular season, and he deserves recognition for that. However, he and the Bucks flamed out in the playoffs to a team who was ranked four spots below them, and there were multiple players who performed better than Giannis on the most important stage. We see that happen a lot—the MVP of the regular season isn’t even close to the MVP of the playoffs. Yet, 30 years from now, all we’re going to see is who won the MVP, without necessarily seeing the full picture.
Voting for MVP is an extremely difficult task. The best, and most valuable player for me, most certainly coincide, because to me the best thing you can do, and the most valuable thing you can do as a player is effect winning in a positive manner. However, as we’ve already established, having better teammates around you not only makes winning easier, it provides more room for individual success as well.
I think in order for the MVP to hold as much value as it does, it has to include the postseason. Otherwise, we’re awarding such a prestigious honour to an individual for how well they perform only to exclude the most important part of a season.
I am still all for recognizing the player who performs the best in the regular season, regardless if they might be a product of their situation or not. But does that make them the most indisputably valuable player in the entire league? My answer is no, and it seems a lot of other people feel the same.
I’d like to also shoutout the Miami Heat, a fantastic team full of ballers. Coach Spoelstra is a damn fine coach. Jimmy Butler showed the world why he deserves more love. It won’t be shocking if they stack up the team a little in free agency. They will be back at a high level.
Now back to my Lakers emotions…
This team is special. The chemistry was there from the very beginning and got even better as the season continued. They became brothers. When Markieff Morris, JR Smith, and Dion Waiters were added to the team, the chemistry only blossomed even further.
The coaching staff was excellent. FRANK VOGEL IS A CHAMP! Everything worked.
This season included redemption stories as well. Dwight Howard’s first stint with the Lakers in the 2012–2013 season wasn’t good. They took a gamble on him this season and signed him to a non-guaranteed contract. He ended up becoming a big part of this championship run, providing defense and scoring, and when he wasn’t playing, he was cheering and guiding the team. And now he’s a champion and fulfilled his hopes of making it up to LA.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also showed Lakers fans that he could not only improve and live up to his contract, but become a key sharpshooter for the team.
And then there’s, of course, Playoff Rondo. Rajon Rondo wasn’t as good during the season, but completely turned it up in the playoffs and ended up with 19 points in Game 6 of the finals to help the Lakers secure the championship. He proved a lot of doubters wrong and showed the entire NBA that he can still perform at a high level. He also now has the bragging rights of being able to say he’s won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.
The GOAT, Alex Caruso, had a breakout year and became an important piece of this championship run. Some people may think he’s just a meme, but he showed his worth and Lakers fans are forever grateful for his winning plays, outstanding defense and dedication to his craft.
When Kobe Bryant and his daughter passed away in a tragic helicopter crash in January, this season was dedicated to his memory. The team made Kobe and Gigi very proud. Vanessa Bryant also frequently showed her love and appreciation to the Lakers in her Instagram stories.
Now, it’s (finally) the offseason, and we wait to see what this team does. Will they look the same? Will we get some new faces? And when will Anthony Davis sign his contract? ‘Cause we all know he’s not leaving. The purple and gold will definitely be ready to do it all over again next season.
Thank you Lakers for this amazing year. Now get some rest and enjoy your bubbleless life once more—and see you next season so we can RUN IT BACK BABY!
In 28 games as a starter for the Phoenix Suns this season, Aron “All of Australia” Baynes averaged a line of 13.6/6.7/2.1 while hitting a career high 37.5 percent from deep. While filling in for a suspended Deandre Ayton, Baynes showed that he can be a nightly starter for the right team. A free agent this offseason, expect Baynes and his agent to cash in on what was certainly the best year of the 33-year-old’s career to date.
As a Celtics fan, I can tell you how easy it is to get swept off your feet by Baynes. What’s not to like about a gritty big man who gobbles up offensive boards and deters opponents from the paint with his sheer girth? Baynes adding a three-pointer to his arsenal only made me fall harder for him. What’s more, it’ll force general managers to shell out more cash to sign him. Considering Baynes can defend and keep the ball moving on offense too, his next contract will still be a bargain.
It would be very on-brand for me to begin a Baynes breakdown by detailing his defensive technique, but let’s have a little fun for once. Coming into this year, Baynes had taken a total of89 three-point attempts. He damn near doubled that number this season (168 3PAs) before COVID-19 cut his season short. Was Baynes justified in taking a high volume of triples?
The journeyman center sank 37 percent of his non-corner triples, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s good enough to land him in the 70th percentile for his position. While his shot is uglier than my pimpleified, mybodyisgoingthroughchanges sophomore-year school photo, it works. Plus, the sample size is now large enough to project Baynes as an average three-point shooter for the rest of his career. Whoever signs Baynes next is getting a legitimate floor spacer
Both the eye test and Cleaning the Glass analytics support my claim that Baynes has been an effective, skillful passer over the past few seasons. During his most recent two stops in Phoenix and Boston, Baynes has displayed a knack for making the right, easy passes, and even showed an ability to sling backdoor helpers. Smart coaching and proper utilization has resulted in positive trends for both his assist percentage and assist-to-usage ratio.
That maroon squiggle outlines his last three seasons. Solid progress, right? There have been two significant developments in Baynes’ game as a passer. First, he can hit corner shooters out of the short roll. Considering Baynes is not a high-flying lob threat, being able to play out of the short roll is imperative for him. Additionally, he has quickly picked up the art of attacking closeouts, something even elite shooters still struggle with throughout their careers.
It might have made more thematic sense to put this section underneath the one discussing Baynes’ three-point shooting, but I just want to give my editor a headache. Despite being 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Baynes is not someone who commands rim gravity—well, not in a traditional sense, however. He won’t slam down pick-and-roll lobs, but Baynes’ midrange touch still forces defenders to stay tight with him.
Although it doesn’t always look pretty, Baynes has a workable floater. While he should not be tasked with taking many shots from this area, his ability to knock them down when the opportunity arises is an added bonus for any offense. With the league trending more towards situational zone scheming, Baynes could find himself extra valuable due to his potential for passing out of a zone defense’s weak spot or sinking push shots from short range.
Perusing Baynes’ defensive counting stats won’t wow you, but the advanced stats tell a different story. One of my favorite advanced defensive stats comes from analytics guruAndrew Patton. Named Regularized Adjusted Deterrence, or “RAD,” the formula is used to determine how many shots a player prevents from being taken in the paint. It is a way to measure a player’s impact on limiting high percentage field goal attempts. For his career, Baynes has managed anelite score of -3.19. In other words, whenever he is in the game, he prevents an average of 3.19 shots at the hoop.
For context, Baynes ranks in the top 40 in NBA history with that score, ahead of career defenders like Joakim Noah and Anthony Davis. Besides his behemoth body, one of the reasons Baynes is so good at limiting shots in the paint is due to his technique. To compensate for a lack of lateral quickness, Baynes often deploys angles that ice ball-handlers towards the sidelines. This allows him the extra time and space he needs to contest shots.
When combined with his laudable effort and tendency for high hands, Bayne’s keen awareness of angles leads to timely blocks or altered attempts. The stat sheet won’t show someone contending for the league lead in blocks (and neither will the highlight reel), but rest assured that GMs know exactly how impactful Baynes is a rim-protector.
There must be a reason Baynes has not regularly been a starter in the NBA, right? A look back at his career shows that Baynes has often been rostered alongside players who are better than him (Al Horford, Tim Duncan) or were selected with draft capital that demands starting minutes (Andre Drummond, Deandre Ayton). Still, Baynes does have some limitations that must be addressed.
His lack of side-to-side speed is concerning. Baynes will never be a center who glides across the court like the aforementioned Davis. When isolated near the perimeter against a faster player, Baynes can get beat if his angling is off. And even when he properly closes lanes, shifty players can still wiggle their way into a foul or layup.
Fit & Potential Contract
Personally, I believe Baynes to be playable during crunch-time, although I’m sure many GMs would disagree with me. It is difficult to justify paying Baynes a starter’s salary if you are unsure if he can close out late round playoff matchups. Regardless, his earnings last year were far below his value, and he is on track to earn more than than the $5.4 million he most recently pulled down. But how much larger will his next contract be? Expect Baynes to be offered near whatever the maximum MLE comes out to be. That translates to a contract in the ballpark of $9 million.
With Ayton looking at a slight increase in minutes and a bigger role next year, Baynes may want to find a place where he can receive more playing time than Phoenix can offer. Here’s a scenario: Toronto signs Fred VanVleet to a sizable contract, lets Serge Ibaka walk, and brings in Baynes as their starting center by using their MLE.
Alternatively, perhaps Houston senses they need more size and offers Baynes a starting role and all of their $5.7 million tax-payer exception. The Warriors have a similar exception and may want to revive their old Andrew Bogut role with the Aussie big man. Baynes’ former team, the Boston Celtics, are a name to watch, although they lack both the minutes and money that will likely be needed to land him. Nevertheless, contending teams will chase after Baynes, and in doing so will reveal just how coveted his skill set is in today’s game.
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Wenyen Gabriel may not be atop many free agency big boards, but he is primed to prove himself a bargain when the ink on his next contract dries. But, allow me to clarify a bit: Wenyen Gabriel is a restricted free agent, meaning that Portland can match any offer that another team extends to the big man. And although other teams canoffer Gabriel as much as the non-taxpayer MLE, expect his offer sheet to be much lower. Yet, a contract under the MLE does not indicate that Gabriel isn’t a quality NBA player worthy of rotational minutes.
Gabriel showcased his utility during Portland’s bubble games. He was asked to cover multiple positions, protect the paint when necessary, and hustle his tail off. Despite a small sample size (he’s only played 30 career games), it doesn’t require much squinting to see how Gabriel embodies the traits of those coveted big/forward hybrids.
In Sudanese, the name Wenyen means “wipe your tears.” If developed properly, Gabriel’s defensive game will surely cause some tears for opposing players. Clips of him smothering players such as Paul George andhis younger clone Cam Reddish display his stopping potential. His lateral movement is great for his size, and Gabriel is just now learning how to let loose that lanky wingspan of his.
Next season, the Blazers’ best defensive lineup would feature a healthy (fingers crossed!) Zach Collins alongside Gabriel. Obviously, this assumes Portland brings back their inexperienced rookie. The cost of doing so should be reasonably low, unless some team is higher on Gabriel than the consensus.
During bubble play, I may have shouted “let if fly, WG” a few times. Guilty as charged. But if you watch Gabriel’s shooting stroke, you’ll understand why. Without further ado, this is when I distract you from googling his career made triples (six) by shoving a video in your face.
Those sure are some pretty mechanics for someone who hardly ever hoists three-pointers. A deeper dive reveals that Gabriel has been working on his perimeter game for quite some time. During his college days in Kentucky, Wenyen converted62 of 169 three-point attempts (36.7 percent.) In the G-League, he buried38 percent of his threes while putting up 2.5 attempts per game. Gabriel is a floor-stretcher in the making who simply needs an opportunity.
Help Blocks & Agility
Traditionally, bigger players need more time than guards to adjust to the speed of the professional game. (Ask Celtics fans how patiently they waited for Jared Sullinger to pick it up.) Gabriel seems to finally be catching onto the fast pace of defensive rotations, however. His help-side blocks demonstrate this.
Although still prone to blowing assignments, Gabriel can make up for mistakes with long strides and agile footwork. This, when paired with his length, makes for some highlight-reel material. Some may be itching to see Gabriel at the five spot, but he may be best suited for the four. His agility is good enough to hang with speedy, hybrid forwards, and he still has the wingspan to protect the paint. I expect some smart team to use him precisely in that manner.
So, there must be some reasons this guy doesn’t have more free agency hype, right? One of Gabriel’s most concerning problems is his lack of physicality. At 205 pounds, the man is a walking string bean. It certainly shows on the defensive end, but may actually be more visible when he’s playing offense. Gabriel has a tendency to avoid bodies in the paint instead of capitalizing on his athletic abilities. This can scare general managers, as it purportedly reveals insight into a player’s on-court mindset.
According toCleaning the Glass, Gabriel finished in the 69th percentile for field goal attempts at the rim, but ranked in the 2nd percentile for makes once there. At first, I thought this to be a fluke given his small sample size, but the eye test supports the numbers. In the very first play in that clip, Gabriel wiggles his way out of a dunk attempt and it is inexcusable, especially for us gravitationally challenged earthlings.
Fit & Potential Contract
Sticking with Portland is the most obvious fit for Gabriel. They witnessed his potential firsthand, and could have a greater need for his size if Hassan Whiteside bounces in free agency. The Phoenix Suns are another team to watch. They have team options on guys like Cheick Diallo and Frank Kaminsky, plus Aron Baynes could sign elsewhere. If the Suns find themselves in the market for a cheap big with some untapped potential, Gabriel should be their guy.
What kind of money will he sign for in his next contract? Expect it to be cheap. While Gabriel certainly has potential, he lacks the production to pull down anything north of $3 million per year, and even that would be generous. The Blazers could probably convince Gabriel to return one aone-year deal for about $1.74 million. Do not be surprised, however, if another team offers slightly more than that and pries Gabriel away from Portland.