Thursday, May 19, 2022

One reason for hope for every NBA non-playoff team, including ageless LeBron James, return of Damian Lillard

After the last couple of years we’ve all been through, it’s easy to be pessimistic. With all that’s gone on in the world, having your favorite NBA team miss the playoffs this season might just be the revoltingly bitter icing on a cake that was mixed with salt instead of sugar.

But, as the great 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire once said, “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” So, feel free to delude yourselves as we identify one beaming reason for hope for every team that missed out on the 2022 NBA postseason. From LeBron James to Franz Wagner, every one of these teams contains the signs of a promising future, provided you look at them through properly adjusted rose-tinted lenses.

Houston Rockets

Jalen Green’s elite finish to the season

For most of his rookie season, Green looked like so many young guards who have played for a bad team with a ton of responsibility. In his first 45 games, Green shot just 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from the field en route to 14.7 points per game — with essentially as many turnovers as assists. But, as Rockets fans are well aware of, Green appeared to figure things out during the final month of the season.

In 20 games from March 1 to April 5, Green put up 22.4 points per game on 49/41/77 shooting splits, while averaging 3.3 assists compared to 1.7 turnovers. He also had a run of five consecutive 30-point games, something no NBA rookie had done since Allen Iverson. During that stretch, Green shot 49 percent on mid-range jumpers, a far cry from the 33 percent he made before that, and knocked down 41 percent of his pull-up 3-pointers, according to NBA.com. Overall for the season, Green is in the 77th percentile with 0.974 points per possession on shots off the dribble, according to Synergy Sports.

All of these numbers spell a much more confident offensive player who’s starting to figure out how to get to his spots, and executing when he gets there. Watch as he punishes switches with an assortment of balanced, step-back 3-pointers.

“I’m a bucket,” Green said when asked what he’s learned over his rookie season. “I just need to stay confident in myself. That comes with playing the games and seeing it right in front of me. It’s gonna eventually slow down. It’s gonna come down to work.”

It’s a similar trajectory to Minnesota Timberwolves 2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards, who finished last season with averages of 23.3 points and 3.8 assists per game on 47/36/77 shooting splits in his final 20 games after shooting just 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from deep prior to the last month of the season. This year, Edwards was in the All-Star discussion and, more importantly, has helped the Wolves reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and the second time since 2004.

Houston drafted Green with the hope that he’d grow into a franchise talent, and fans might have been on the fence for the first few months of the season. But with the way he finished, it’s clear that Green has elite scoring potential, with blossoming playmaking ability that’s slowly coming along.

Orlando Magic

Wendell and Wagner

Entering the last day of the season the Magic had an overall net rating of minus-8.4, second-worst in the league just ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, who have lost by 30 every other game for two months. So it might surprise you to find out that in over 1,500 minutes with Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner on the court together, Orlando’s net rating is basically even. That’s right, the Magic were essentially a mid-level NBA team with both of those young players on the floor this season, which is truly a reason for optimism.

Overall, the offense scored five more points per 100 possessions with Carter and Wagner on the court together compared to their overall season totals, and the defense allowed three fewer points per 100 possessions. In his rookie season, Wagner averaged 15.2 points and 4.5 rebounds on 47/35/86 shooting splits, while the 22-year-old Carter put up career highs in points (15), rebounds (10.5) and assists (2.8) and made over a 3-pointer per game.

The two youngsters also played off of each other well in the pick-and-roll, with Wagner showing his versatility as a playmaker and Carter displaying his above-the-rim finishing ability.

With Jonathan Isaac potentially returning, Markelle Fultz getting more playing time and Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs continuing to improve, the development of Wagner and Carter this season — particularly together — is a sign of encouragement for the Magic rebuild.

Detroit Pistons

Cade Cunningham has arrived

Halfway through the season, the NBA might as well have begun filling out the shipping label to send the Rookie of the Year trophy to the house of Cleveland Cavaliers big man Evan Mobley. After a dismal start to the season, however, Cunningham quickly turned things around and has finished with a flourish, making a strong case to take home the honor for first-year players. In 20 games after the All-Star break, Cunningham averaged 21.1 points, 6.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 46 percent from the field. He’s continued to be a streaky 3-point shooter, but his control of the offense has presented itself to end the season.

Cunningham has also consistently stepped up in big games against big opponents, showing the competitiveness Detroit needs from the player it hopes will be the alpha for years to come. Cunningham scored 34 points on 5-for-11 3-point shooting in a close loss to Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets at the end of March, then followed that with 27 points in a win over Joel Embiid and the 76ers two days later.

“When you got a 6-7 point guard, I mean, it’s a good start, you know?” Durant said after playing against Cunningham. “Somebody that can wreck a whole defensive game plan with his size, his talent, his skill. So it’s a great start.”

Scoring isn’t even necessarily Cunningham’s most elite talent, as his ability to read defenses and make quick and appropriate decisions is also improving. Much like his time at Oklahoma State, he’s often passing to inferior teammates as a member of the Pistons, which limits his assists.

When given a semi-threatening pick-and-roll partner after the Pistons traded for Marvin Bagley III, Cunningham immediately developed chemistry with the big man, showing great patience and precision while hitting his new teammate for lobs.

More than the stats, however, Cunningham’s leadership has really revealed itself as the season has progressed. He’s far beyond his experience as a 20-year-old, and Pistons coach Dwane Casey puts him in pretty good company in that regard.

“I still think he is top of the list just because he sees the floor. He is a leader. He has that ‘it’ factor,” Casey said in early March. “Someone asked me who I’ve had like him — (Kyle) Lowry was like that. He had that ‘it’ factor. Close games, he makes big buckets, big plays. He talks in timeouts and in practice, so I’m impressed with Cade with that.”

Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a bona fide star

Sooner or later the Thunder are going to try to win games, and Gilgeous-Alexander will be ready and waiting. Whether or not the Thunder finally get their game-changing lottery pick remains to be seen, but it’s clear that SGA is ready to be, at the very least, a secondary star on a playoff team. In 56 games this season, he averaged a career-high 24.5 points per game, putting him near the top 15 in the league, while adding 5.9 assists and five rebounds per game. His percentages dipped considerably from last season, but that can be attributed to defenses having him, and sometimes only him, on the scouting report every single night.

Lacking proficient pick-and-roll partners this season, Gilgeous-Alexander did most of his damage out of isolations, where he was in the 75th percentile with 1.019 points per possession including passes, according to Synergy. He got used to operating in crowds on drives, as you can see in the clip below. He maneuvers his way through three Milwaukee defenders and somehow finds Vit Krejci for the open 3-pointer.

We haven’t gotten to see what a fully realized version of SGA looks like because of the Thunder’s tankapalooza over the last two seasons, but at just 23 years old he is clearly a building block of the franchise. He could also serve as the centerpiece of a potential trade for a disgruntled superstar, along with some of OKC’s gazillion draft picks, if Sam Presti and the front office decide to make a big move.

Either way, here’s hoping that Gilgeous-Alexander gets some better pieces around him so he can get some more experience as the lead guard in high-leverage situations.

Indiana Pacers

Total rebuild might not be necessary

The way they finished the season, it certainly appears as if the Pacers are on their way to a full-scale rebuild, which coach Rick Carlisle says he’s fine with. However, keep in mind that Malcolm Brogdon barely played to end the season and Myles Turner didn’t play at all. Put those two in the lineup next to Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield, who have both played well since coming over from the Kings in the Domantas Sabonis deal, and you have the makings of a young, solid team with room to grow. The front office has also done well, drafting Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson as well as finding undiscovered talents in Duane Washington Jr. and Terry Taylor, which inspires hope for their upcoming pick in the 2022 draft.

“This franchise right now is in one of the most exciting positions it could possibly be in with the potential for a top-five pick, the potential to possibly have Cleveland’s [first-round] pick … and then we have Houston’s second-round pick, which is going to be at the very top of the second round,” Carlisle said. “This franchise hasn’t had a pick in the top nine since before 1990.”

Turner complained earlier this season about wanting a larger offensive role, and he’ll have plenty of opportunity with Sabonis’ departure freeing up the lane. He’ll also be a necessary anchor of a defense in dire need of improvement.

Small sample size, of course, but the Pacers scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions with Haliburton and Hield on the floor together in 24 games after the trade (we won’t mention the defensive rating), which is a better scoring rate than the NBA’s top offense this season. Keep in mind that the players around them weren’t exactly the 2017 Warriors offensively, and it’s not hard to hold onto some hope that Indiana could be a strong offensive team next season.

The Pacers also have the luxury of blowing it all up if they don’t like what they see, with tradeable assets such as Hield, Brogdon and Turner that other teams have coveted in recent years. But that’s not entirely necessary — at least not immediately — if the organization wants to see what it has before cashing in all its chips. Either way they have Haliburton, whose journey to stardom may be extremely fast after he put up 17.4 points and 9.6 assists per game on 50/42/85 shooting splits as a Pacer this season. In losses to the Kings and Pistons, Haliburton had a combined 32 assists and didn’t commit a single turnover. You don’t see stuff like that very often.

“I just pride myself in taking care of the ball, pride myself in getting guys involved,” Haliburton said after his 17-assist, zero-turnover performance against Detroit. “I think that’s probably my best asset as a point guard, the unselfishness I play the game with, just getting guys going, guys making shots. They make me look better than I really am. They have to make the shot, I just gotta get it to them.”

Portland Trail Blazers

Dame Time!

This is an obvious one. The Blazers took advantage of a disappointing season that included only 29 mostly injury-plagued games from Damian Lillard. They shed salary and tanked their way into what should be an excellent draft pick, leaving plenty of options open for the offseason. What they do with the flexibility remains to be seen, but the good news is that Lillard will hopefully be coming back at full strength next season. Not many teams with a potential top-five draft pick also have a perennial All-NBA point guard at their disposal.

The scoring of CJ McCollum and Norman Powell, who were both traded mid-season, will have to be replaced, but the draft pick and cap space will allow Portland to potentially add more defense to the mix, an area where the team has struggled for several seasons now. Lillard acknowledged that the team took “some steps back” with the trades, but said he’s excited about the possibilities the offseason presents. And yes, he has continued to reiterate that he wants to be in Portland.

“My best is yet to come. And the only things that I play for at this point is I want to be the MVP of the league and I want to win the championship,” Lillard told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes. “And once I do those things, I feel great about the investment that I made to this game over my whole life. If I accomplish those two things, I’m walking away feeling like I literally got the most out of myself as an athlete.”

Whether he can do those things as a Blazer depends largely on the front office’s execution this offseason.

Sacramento Kings

Sabonis-Fox pairing had its moments

Not gonna lie, things aren’t looking great for the Kings moving forward. Trading Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield for Domantas Sabonis was a curious move, but the intentions were clearly win-now in nature. The problem is the Kings didn’t win very much afterward, going 5-8 when Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox played together. The numbers with the pairing on the floor together, however, were slightly encouraging.

The Kings had a negative net rating with Fox and Sabonis on the court at the same time, but they did manage to score a robust 115.2 points per 100 possessions in 360 minutes. That’s a positive development for a team that’s going to finish this season near the bottom five in offense this season. The pairing should be extremely difficult to switch against in the pick-and-roll, since the lightning-quick Fox can blow by slow-footed big men, and Sabonis is one of the few bigs in the NBA capable of consistently punishing smaller defenders in the post.

In their brief time together, Fox and Sabonis flashed some solid chemistry in terms of how/when to slip screens and the timing on rolls. Watch here as Fox gives Sabonis an extra beat to create more space in the lane as he seals his defender out of the pick-and-roll.

Is Haliburton a better long-term asset than Sabonis? Almost certainly yes. But there is a chance that Sabonis, particularly given the way he’s played with Fox so far, gets the Kings closer to their immediate goal of ending the NBA’s longest postseason drought.

Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James is still elite

Some thought this year might mark the transition where the reins were handed from LeBron James to Anthony Davis as the Lakers’ top scorer. Not only did that fail to come to fruition, but LeBron nearly led the entire NBA in scoring. We don’t need to harp on the disappointment of the Lakers’ season, but one positive moving forward is that LeBron looked absolutely incredible. For a 37-year-old with that amount of basketball mileage on his body, it’s borderline miraculous that James could go out and score 30-plus points on a nightly basis. He’s the only reason the Lakers were remotely competitive when Davis went down with a foot injury, and the few bright spots that did take place for the franchise this season were almost entirely thanks to him.

Last season, James was in the 59th percentile in half-court offense as a scorer, according to Synergy. This season, he improved all the way to the 83rd percentile with 1.059 points per possession. The biggest change came in isolation situations, where James was in the 46th percentile last season with 0.843 points per possession, and he improved to 1.029 points per possession this season, good for the 82nd percentile. That’s a lot of fancy numbers to say that when the Lakers needed buckets, LeBron was the one who could go and get them, either by bullying his way to the basket, hitting his patented step-back 3-pointer, or coming up with ridiculousness like this on the fly:

Russell Westbrook was a disaster, Anthony Davis couldn’t stay healthy and the supporting cast was underwhelming. But if the Lakers are looking for reasons for hope for next season, LeBron James proved that he’s still a force to be reckoned with and showed minimal signs of decline.

Washington Wizards

Kristaps looked great

It’s no secret that Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic weren’t exactly the best of buds in Dallas, and the Wizards took advantage of that by getting a uniquely talented player in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie, who had quickly worn out his welcome in Washington, and Davis Bertans, whose salary they were happy to wave goodbye to. Playing without Bradley Beal for 17 games after coming over from the Mavericks, Porzingis averaged 22.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game on 48/37/87 shooting splits.

After all the controversy surrounding the lack of post-up opportunities for Porzingis in Dallas, he was excellent operating on the block in his time with the Wizards, landing in the 86th percentile with 1.117 points per possession, according to Synergy. He showed a wide array of moves and fakes, finding ways to score over and around big men as tall and long as Magic center Mo Bamba.

Where Porzingis excels, however, is using his 7-3 frame to shoot over the top of smaller defenders — particularly over his left shoulder. Watch below as he knocks down the jumper over LeBron James without even acknowledging his existence.

Porzingis was also an incredible rim-protector with Washington, allowing just 0.788 points per possession around the basket, according to Synergy, which landed in the 96th percentile. Outspoken Timberwolves wing Anthony Edwards called Porzingis “the best rim protector in the league,” and the big man certainly showed why toward the end of the season.

“Anytime I go against Porzingis, I don’t get no layups,” Edwards said in December.

Even when he’s beaten by quicker guards, his length and timing allow him to recover to disrupt or block attempts at the rim.

Of course with Porzingis, the biggest issue has been availability, but he even checked that box in his time with the Wizards. He only missed one game, a back-to-back, before being shut down for the final two games of the season. Washington had a brutal stretch with nine games in 14 days from the end of March to the beginning of April, and Porzingis played in all of them, averaging 23.3 points and 9.8 rebounds on 41 percent 3-point shooting.

You can never predict injuries, but with both his durability and performance, Porzingis gave Wizards fans hope that he can be a legitimate second option to Beal offensively and a stout rim-protector on defense.

New York Knicks

Post-All-Star break RJ Barrett

Not a lot went right for the Knicks this season, including a decline in production from Julius Randle in the first year of a massive contract, but at least they can point to Barrett’s improved scoring to close out the season. Was he efficient? Certainly not (40 percent field goals, 32 percent on 3s), but the third-year guard/wing led the team with an average of 24.5 points in 22 games after the All-Star break.

It often takes scorers a while to improve their efficiency, particularly when tasked with a lot of responsibility, so there is some hope that next season Barrett will be able to maintain similar production while shooting more accurately from the floor. Another area where Barrett improved toward the end of the season was his playmaking. He averaged 2.6 assists per game before the All-Star break, and 3.8 afterwards. He won’t be mistaken for a pick-and-roll maestro any time soon, but he showed some maneuverability and patience that led to pretty plays like this lob to Mitchell Robinson.

The Knicks probably still aren’t sure what to make of Barrett, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft, but he at least proved in the latter part of this season that he’s capable of being a high-volume scorer. Next comes the difficult task of improving his efficiency and playmaking.

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