Pep Guardiola's quest to conquer Europe and continue domestic domination with Manchester City has seen him sign Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish in a deal reportedly worth £100million.

Grealish becomes the most expensive signing in Premier League history after being prised away from Villa Park, where he had spent his entire career and captained his boyhood club since 2019.

The England international, who helped the Three Lions to a first major final appearance in 55 years at Euro 2020, has regularly been linked away from Villa but committed his future after rumoured interest from Manchester United, signing a long-term contract in 2020.

In the 2020-21 campaign, the 25-year old contributed with six league goals and 10 assists, while also creating 81 chances across 26 appearances for the Villains.

Dean Smith will no longer have the playmaker to call upon, though, as Guardiola has demolished the previous Premier League transfer record – set by Paul Pogba's return to United in 2016 – to secure Grealish's services.

After City's record-breaking acquisition of Grealish, Stats Perform looks at the other most expensive signings in English top-flight history.

PAUL POGBA – Juventus to Manchester United, £89.3m

Jose Mourinho's first transfer window with the Red Devils saw the France midfielder return to Old Trafford in a then-world record transfer.

Since making that reunion in 2016-17, only Marcus Rashford (78) and Anthony Martial (64) have been involved in more Premier League goals for United than Pogba (57 – 28 goals, 29 assists), while the midfielder has created more top-flight chances (207) than any other player for the club during this period.

He scored and assisted one apiece for France at Euro 2020, while only Antoine Griezmann (10) created more chances than Pogba's eight for Les Bleus.

HARRY MAGUIRE – Leicester City to Manchester United £80m

United broke the world transfer record for a defender in 2002 when they signed Rio Ferdinand for £30m and 17 years later they acquired Maguire for more than double that fee.

The centre-back endured a tricky start to life in Manchester, however, his quality eventually shone through as he strung together 71 consecutive appearances for United.

Despite missing the last four games of the 2020-21 campaign, Maguire ranked second in the Premier League for aerial challenges won (135) and fifth for successful duels (203) before featuring prominently at Euro 2020 for England.

 

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Southampton to Liverpool, £75m

Jurgen Klopp, albeit under contentious circumstances, convinced Van Dijk to move away from St. Mary's Stadium in December 2017.

The commanding Netherlands captain guided Liverpool to their sixth Champions League success in 2018-19 before playing a key role as the Reds ended their 30-year wait for an English title.

Van Dijk's absence severely affected their Premier League defence last term. Klopp's men have won 75.8 per cent of their league matches with Van Dijk in the side since his debut in January 2018, a figure that falls to 54.3 per cent in his absence.

 

ROMELU LUKAKU – Everton to Manchester United £75m

The Belgium forward never settled in at Old Trafford and left after two seasons, despite converting 42 times in 96 games for United.

Lukaku scored twice in United's stunning Champions League last-16 comeback victory over Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 before completing a switch to Inter, where he helped Antonio Conte's men to their first Scudetto since 2009-10.

During the title-winning campaign, Lukaku shunned doubts over his finishing as he converted almost one in four chances to bag 24 goals and improved his link-up play to form an effective partnership with Lautaro Martinez. Since his Inter debut only five players have scored more goals in Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku (64).

He has now been linked with a return to former club Chelsea in a deal which could shatter Grealish's new record.

 

JADON SANCHO – Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United £73m

After leaving Manchester City in 2017 for Borussia Dortmund, Sancho found himself signing for the red half of Manchester four years later. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pursued Sancho for multiple transfer windows and finally got his man in the wake of England's Euro 2020 shoot-out heartbreak.

Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, the 21-year-old has been directly involved in the joint-most goals of any English player across the top five European leagues (78), while he has played fewer minutes than Harry Kane – also on 78 – in this period.

Sancho also became the first Englishman to reach at least 10 assists for three consecutive seasons in Europe's top-five leagues since David Beckham, who achieved the feat between 1997-98 and 2000-01 for Alex Ferguson's United.

Lionel Messi is to leave Barcelona due to "economic and structural obstacles", the club said in a shock announcement on Thursday.

Messi had been expected to agree a new deal with Barca after he became a free agent at the end of last season.

But the club's dire financial situation meant they could not bring their greatest ever player back under LaLiga's salary restrictions.

Messi's next move is far from clear, but the sensational development brings to an end a glittering Camp Nou career.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks at some of the forward's incredible feats with the Blaugrana.

 

Messi played 778 games for Barcelona in all competitions, scoring 672 goals and providing 265 assists across those games. That amounts to 937 goal involvements during his Barca career, which began as a 17-year-old.

The one-club man's first appearance for Barcelona came under Frank Rijkaard against Espanyol in October 2004, while his first goal arrived seven months later against Albacete at Camp Nou from a Ronaldinho assist.

Brazil great Ronaldinho was the last Barcelona player to wear the famed number 10 before Messi took that shirt in 2008 and made it his own.

But Ronaldinho does not feature among the top assisters for Messi goals, a list that is led by Luis Suarez (47). Dani Alves assisted 42 of the attacker's goals and third is Andres Iniesta with 37, six more than fellow legendary midfielder Xavi.

 

Messi played under eight different coaches during his time with Barcelona. Of those, he featured most often (219 appearances) and scored the most goals (211) during Pep Guardiola's tenure.

However, the 60 goals Messi scored in 50 games under the late Tito Vilanova – an average of 1.20 goals per match – was his best goals-per-game return with a single coach.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Messi's lowest average goals-per-game ratio was during the Rijkaard era at the start of his career (0.38), followed by the 0.63 managed under Quique Setien between January and August 2020.

 

Messi's most prolific season as a Barcelona player was in 2011-12 when scoring a remarkable 73 goals in all competitions and providing a further 28 assists, setting a personal record in both categories.

Indeed, the forward netted 79 goals for his club across the calendar year in 2012, which is a record amount by a single player. His next most prolific year was 2010 when registering 58 times.

In more recent years, Messi managed 51 goals in 2016, 50 goals in 2017, 47 goals in 2018, 45 goals in 2019 and 26 goals in 2020 – a steady decline that he had already rectified this year, having scored 28 times in the first half of 2021.

He is the only player to have scored 10 or more goals in LaLiga in 15 consecutive seasons.

 

Messi's 672 goals for Barcelona were scored against 82 different teams. Sevilla were his favourite opponent, finding the net against them 38 times in 43 appearances.

Atletico Madrid were next on that particular list, with Messi bagging 32 goals in that fixture, followed by Valencia (31), Athletic Bilbao (29) and bitter rivals Real Madrid (26), making him the leading all-time scorer in El Clasico.

In terms of individual goalkeepers, Diego Alves was Messi's biggest victim, the former Almeria and Valencia man having conceded 21 goals against the Argentina superstar.

Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas was joint-third with 17 goals against, one less than the 18 Messi put past Gorka Iraizoz.

 

Messi is of course synonymous with Camp Nou, a ground where he has scored 394 goals in 381 games at an average of 1.03 per match. Madrid fans will be particularly sick of him as he has scored 15 times in 22 games at the Santiago Bernabeu – his second favourite venue.

That is followed by Vicente Calderon, Atletico Madrid's old home (14 goals in 20 appearances). Deportivo La Coruna's Estadio Riazor (13 in eight) and Sevilla's Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan (13 in 18) complete the top five.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Messi has played more times at Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena (three) without scoring than at any other stadium for Barcelona. He is also without a goal in two trips to English grounds Anfield and Old Trafford.

 

Messi's other notable records and achievements

– Messi is the all-time LaLiga top scorer with 474 goals and is the second-highest scorer ever in Europe's top five leagues behind Cristiano Ronaldo (476).

– He scored in 21 consecutive LaLiga games between November 2012 and May 2013, a record for a player in the competition's history.

– The Newell's Old Boys product is one of only two players to reach 100 goals in Champions League history (120), alongside Cristiano Ronaldo (134).

– Messi was the first player to score five goals in a Champions League match, doing so against Bayer Leverkusen in March 2012 at Camp Nou.

– The Argentina forward is one of six players to score more than 50 goals in Copa del Rey's history and the only one to score in six different finals in the tournament (Telmo Zarra scored in five).

Can Paris Saint-Germain get back on track? Are champions Lille in contention again? Could any top French sides face the drop?

Stats Perform aims to answer all of these questions and more as the new Ligue 1 season gets under way.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

What does that mean for PSG and the rest of the French elite? Read on to find out...

POCH'S PSG TITLE FAVOURITES

It will surprise nobody, but PSG have been identified as the clear pre-season favourites. They are given a huge 79.5 per cent chance of reclaiming their title after falling behind Lille last term.

The signings of Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi and Georginio Wijnaldum should ensure PSG get back on track, while Mike Maignan, Boubakary Soumare and coach Christophe Galtier have all left Lille.

The defending champions are still considered PSG's most likely challengers, though.

Lille have a 12.4 per cent likelihood of retaining the championship, which puts them well clear of Lyon (5.7 per cent) in third. Monaco's 2.4 per cent bid to repeat their 2016-17 success makes them the fourth and final side to be given any chance at all.

TOP FOUR SEEMS SET IN STONE

Four into three does not go, so at least one of the title contenders will miss out on the Champions League. They should all make the top four, though, with Europa League qualification guaranteed for fourth place.

PSG unsurprisingly look certain for one of the two automatic Champions League spots, rated at 94.9 per cent.

Lille are considered most likely to join them at 54.6 per cent, leaving Lyon to take third – the Champions League third qualifying round (35.2) per cent – and Monaco fourth – the Europa League group stage (40.0 per cent).

There are at least a clutch of rival clubs given a slim hope of crashing the Champions League party; Marseille (0.5 per cent), Rennes (0.2 per cent) and Montpellier (0.1 per cent) are all just about in the running for second place.

Interestingly, Nice – ninth last term but having recruited Galtier – are not given a significant chance of even making the Champions League qualifiers, whereas Lens (0.2 per cent), Nantes (0.1 per cent), Reims (0.1 per cent), Saint-Etienne (0.1 per cent) and Strasbourg (0.1 per cent) all come into consideration.

Every team in the league have at least a 0.1 per cent likelihood of finishing fifth – a Europa Conference League play-off round place – although PSG are joined by newly promoted pair Troyes and Clermont with the most remote chance.

BIG-NAME BORDEAUX IN BOTHER?

It figures that Troyes (38.8 per cent) and Clermont (34.5 per cent) are backed for relegation straight back down to Ligue 2, but some of last season's top-flight sides are also at significant risk.

Brest are rated at a 26.4 per cent chance of relegation, with Angers at 19.0 per cent and Lorient at 15.0 per cent.

Most interestingly of all, though, Bordeaux are third-favourites for the drop behind the two promoted clubs.

The six-time champions won the title as recently as 2009 but have been in steady decline, even if a 12th-placed finish last time out saw them steer five points clear of the relegation play-off.

Indeed, Bordeaux were in the European picture in late January before an awful run and they will hope new coach Vladimir Petkovic can ensure there are no relegation worries in the coming campaign.

The transfer window will be open for another month and Manchester United have already made two statement signings. That fact alone is something for fans to celebrate.

"We've scrambled before towards the end of the window and now I have to say we're in a good position," manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after securing Jadon Sancho's arrival and a deal in principle for Raphael Varane before the end of July.

The issue of whether one of the world's richest and most successful sports franchises should celebrate making just two transfers is best saved for another time. The fact remains United made a mess of the majority of their recruitment drives before Solskjaer took charge in December 2018. Now, they look like having their best pre-season window since the transformative signing of Robin van Persie nine years ago, a deal that heralded their most recent Premier League title.

More signings could yet come before the deadline at the end of August – although this depends on sales - but United will almost certainly look stronger than last term when 2021-22 gets underway. Their bid to close the gap to champions Manchester City, make a decent fist of a Champions League run and win a first trophy since 2017... well, they all look a bit more promising than they did in late May, in that laboured Europa League final with Villarreal.

Off the pitch, Solskjaer has done some sterling work. Now comes the moment to get the Red Devils firing consistently on it. They are close to the top but, as a 12-point gap to City last season proves, not close enough. Solskjaer's tactical decisions could be the difference between another year of disappointment and a return to their perch atop English football.

SANCHO UNLEASHED

United had to play the long game to bring Sancho back to England, but it's ultimately proved cost-effective. Borussia Dortmund wanted over €100million guaranteed a year ago but sold Sancho in 2021 for a fee understood to be worth £72.9million (€85m), the fourth-highest in United's history.

There's a reason Solskjaer was prepared to be patient. He likes his forwards to be fast, direct and fearless, with spontaneous brilliance often encouraged over more systematic attacking patterns. In that regard, Sancho might just be the ideal Solskjaer signing.

Sancho's attacking output is fearsome. He scored 38 goals and provided 45 assists in 104 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund; since his debut in October 2017, only Thomas Muller (91) and Robert Lewandowski (137) managed more direct goal involvements. In that time, Sancho also attempted 544 dribbles – 100 more than any other player in Germany's top flight – and completed 284 of them, again the most in the division.

But why stop at one dribble? Over the past four seasons, Sancho also leads the way for multi take-ons – times on the ball when he tried to beat more than one player – with 48, at least 14 more than anyone else in the Bundesliga. In that same period, United's best such performer was Anthony Martial with 39.

Sancho, then, is an optimal player for an attack where improvisation is key. His skill and daring on the ball could be critical to United finding a way through those low-block defences against which they can look notoriously laboured.

But to unleash Sancho to his fullest, Solskjaer must tweak the system.

MOVE ON FROM MCTOMIFRED

"As long as them two are playing in midfield for Manchester United, they will not be winning big trophies," former captain Roy Keane said of Fred and Scott McTominay after May's 4-2 home loss to Liverpool. So far, he's been proven correct.

Solskjaer has often favoured a double pivot of Fred and McTominay to screen the defence while allowing Bruno Fernandes creative freedom as the number 10. It's often worked well, particularly against stronger opposition where United have been happy to give up the ball: in 2020-21, they lost only two of the 21 league matches where both players started, averaging under a goal a game conceded. The problem is they only won 10 of those matches.

"Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles," was Ferguson's old adage. In favouring Fred and McTominay last season, Solskjaer focused on both and didn't quite master either. They were sometimes possession-based, sometimes counter-punching, but never entirely comfortable in either guise.

In 2020-21, United put together 562 sequences of more than 10 passes – a figure more than 300 behind champions City. They also ranked only fifth in the league for passes per sequence (4.14) and for build-up attacks (125). However, they were not masters of the quick counter, either: they managed 61 direct attacks last season, the eighth most in the division, and although they scored six times from fast breaks, those goals came from just 13 such attempts – amazingly, seven fewer than City.

United's attack was second only to City for goals scored, but it was still not as effective as it should have been. They finished last season with 392 open-play shots in the Premier League, only the fifth-highest in the competition. Their expected goals tally of 44 put them third, as did their actual goal count of 53, when own goals and penalties are excluded.

One option to sharpen up in the final third would be to abandon the 4-2-3-1 for a 4-3-3, allowing a more forward-thinking midfielder to join Fernandes in the middle. That could be Paul Pogba, but if the France star gets the move away he apparently wants, it is also a role that would suit Donny van de Beek, who underlined his determination to kick on from a poor first season in England by returning for pre-season with some serious extra muscle.

The 6-2 thrashing of Leeds United at Old Trafford showed the value of a midfielder breaking the lines – McTominay, in that case – and United's opener against their old rivals in August would be an ideal time to test the 4-3-3 Solskjaer is said to be pondering. With Fred as the patrolling defensive player – he won possession more often than any other United player (228) last term, and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88) – Solskjaer could give licence to two attack-minded midfielders to support Sancho and fit-again Mason Greenwood, likely to start in place of the injured Marcus Rashford.

Of course, such a shift from the double defensive pivot puts the defence at greater risk. There will also still be games where more caution is warranted - key Champions League matches, or Manchester derbies. But Solskjaer may already have solved that problem.

VARANE-GUARD

Whatever certain pundits may think about the pitfalls of adapting to the Premier League, United look to have pulled off a masterstroke by signing Raphael Varane.

A World Cup winner, a four-time Champions League winner, a three-time LaLiga champion, Varane brings huge experience of success to a squad still short on trophy-lifting knowhow. The imposing France international would also, you'd expect, improve United's appalling record last season of conceding 14 goals from set-pieces, a tally surpassed only by Leeds (15) (Varane won 72.3 per cent of aerials in 2020-21; Victor Lindelof won just 59.4).

He will also add pace to a United defence that often looks cumbersome when Harry Maguire and Lindelof face direct runners – another reason why Solskjaer liked his double midfield screen. And that extra speed might also let United push further forward: their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their goal last season was deeper than six other sides.

A higher line would make attacking easier and perhaps keep the opposition shot count down. United faced 317 in 2020-21, more than Arsenal, Wolves, Brighton and Hove Albion, and relegated Fulham. Limiting attempts on goal would also reduce the pressure on the goalkeeper, as David de Gea and Dean Henderson continue to battle for the number-one spot.

The centre-back also offers a tactical bonus, to which Solskjaer has already hinted: he can play comfortably enough in a back three. Maguire, Varane and Lindelof would represent an imposing rearguard and allow the rejuvenated Luke Shaw to push up as a wing-back. If United's pursuit of Kieran Trippier proves fruitful, even better. A 3-4-1-2 would give Solskjaer that balance of defensive security without compromising too much on attacking quality, which could be essential for the biggest derbies, knockout games or cup finals.

Varane and Sancho give United some serious star power, but also tactical flexibility and game-winning potential. If Solskjaer can trust his defence to stay resolute and unshackle the attack, the gap to City may well begin to shrink – and that elusive first trophy could be within his grasp.

A decade ago, the Dallas Mavericks stood atop the basketball world after Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and company won the NBA Finals over a heavily favoured Miami Heat team that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their first season together.

With the Heat dynasty clearly on the rise and with the Mavs fielding a veteran roster already, Dallas decided not to make an earnest title defense and traded defensive anchor Tyson Chandler.

The Mavericks have yet to win a playoff series since those 2011 NBA Finals.

Despite postseason appearances in six of the past 10 seasons and the acquisition of a generational talent in Luka Doncic, owner Mark Cuban decided change needed to come in the 2021 offseason.

Gone is Donnie Nelson, who had been the general manager since 2002 and was the architect of that title team a decade ago.

Also gone is longtime head coach Rick Carlisle, who had been in place since 2008 and amassed a record of 555-478. Nonetheless, Cuban decided to change things up.

"The league has changed in the 21 years since I've been here," Cuban said. "Players have changed. How you build a championship team has changed. Sometimes you just have to look to have a different tool set."

Who is in charge?

Doncic and Nelson have a famously close relationship and the 22-year-old star was disappointed to see his longtime friend replaced by former Nike executive Nico Harrison as general manager.

While training with Slovenia in preparation for the Olympic Games, Doncic admitted he was less than thrilled by the move:  "It was kind of tough to me. I really like Donnie. I know him since I was a kid and he was the one that drafted me.

"It was tough for me seeing that, but I'm not the one making decisions there."

This indicates that Cuban, who has long held the reputation as one of the most involved owners in American sports, was asserting his view of what the Mavs' leadership team should look like.

Yet moving on from Carlisle, long considered a leading NBA coach, appears to be a move targeted at appeasing Doncic. The young star had openly shown his disapproval with some of Carlisle's coaching decisions and substitution patterns, becoming increasingly prone to on-court displays of frustration.

Doncic may not quite wield the sway of someone like LeBron James, who has become the face of the "player empowerment era" in the NBA, but Cuban has wisely taken Doncic's input into consideration.

And as much as the hiring of a new leadership team represents a new era for the Mavs, Cuban is clearly trying to revive some of the magic of the 2011 squad.

Jason Kidd was named the team's next head coach, with it also announced that Dirk Nowitzki would begin a formal role as a front office advisor – two moves that also surround Doncic with mentors to help him progress into a champion.

 

The cornerstone

Doncic's career is off to an unprecedented start, and Dallas clearly intends to build around its multi-talented superstar well into the future. Doncic was the fastest in NBA history to reach 5,000 points, 1,500 rebounds and 1,500 assists, hitting those marks in 195 career games.

LeBron James took 228 games to reach those numbers. Michael Jordan needed 282 games.

Doncic has also improved every season since entering the league in 2018. Already a triple-double machine, he posted career-high efficiency in 2020-21 by shooting 47.9 per cent from the floor and 35.0 per cent from three-point range.

His game has started to mature, as well, especially as a scorer. Doncic is a child of the shot-efficiency era, and he has always gotten shots from the most efficient areas on the floor – at the rim, behind the 3-point line and at the free throw line. Those shots remain valuable, but Doncic has diversified arsenal of mid-range options by developing a variety of floaters and pull-ups. He shot 51.5 per cent from mid-range last season – better than mid-range maestro Devin Booker (51.2 per cent) – after shooting around 41 per cent in his first two seasons.

This bodes well as an indicator of future success in the postseason, when opponents' defenses are geared toward taking away the most efficient shots.

Doncic's numbers are virtually unassailable and make him almost a lock to win an MVP – if not more – at some point in his career. It can be hard to forget, though, that Doncic has only played three years in the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, although a less refined prospect when drafted, needed until his sixth season to win his first MVP and became a champion in his eighth season only after suffering heart-breaking losses, sanding away some rough edges in his game that made him vulnerable in the playoffs and evolving into a true leader.

Doncic's numbers may remain steadily impressive over the coming years, but he can still grow and develop in subtle ways as he matures. Kidd, a dynamic triple-double threat in his own playing days, will be responsible for overseeing Doncic’s growth.

"My job is to give him answers to the test," Kidd said of Doncic. "His imagination is at the highest level, which is a great thing to be a part of. I (as a young player) tried a lot of things, and I know I drove a lot of my coaches crazy. I won't get mad because I've been in those shoes."

Do the pieces fit?

With a .362 usage rate last season, Doncic shouldered the largest offensive burden of any player in the league. Kidd has already said publicly that the superstar will need more help from his team-mates going forward.

"Not having to bring the ball up every time and start the play," Kidd said. "When you look at the fourth quarter, he wears down at times."

Further evidence that Doncic will need more help is that he has exploded for more than 40 points in five of his 13 career playoff games, yet the Mavericks are just 2-3 in those games.

Kristaps Porzingis has been tabbed as the second option in Dallas but could end up in trade rumours sooner rather than later after a flaccid playoff performance, averaging just 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

Despite largely considered a disappointment for not recapturing his peak form, Porzingis still plays an important role as a floor spacer on offense while defending bigger players. And while his numbers fall short of what is expected of a second option, his presence on the court makes Doncic better.

Porzingis spaces the floor and gives Doncic room to penetrate opposing defenses, allowing him to be more efficient while both scoring and assisting, while also shooting much better from any range with Porzingis on the court compared to when he sits.

Dallas' depth got worse last offseason with a disastrous trade that sent Seth Curry to the Philadelphia 76ers for Josh Richardson, who has failed to live up to his reputation as a defender and who is yet to match his 17-4-4 averages from his breakout season with Miami in 2018-19.

After a disappointing regular season, Richardson played just 13.4 minutes per game in the Mavs' first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, averaging 4.9 points and shooting under 40 percent.

Curry, meanwhile, exploded in the postseason for Philadelphia, averaging 18.8 points and connecting on over half of his three-pointers on 6.8 attempts per game.

Richardson's defensive prowess also appears to be a farse, as the Mavericks allowed 113.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the court last season and only 107.7 with him on the bench.

Richardson appears to be a failed experiment, and Dallas will need to look elsewhere to find something resembling a third star.

Evolution or Revolution? Verdict: Evolution

The organisation has already undergone a massive transformation by ousting their longtime general manager and head coach in favour of a new direction, so it is fair to say that anything resembling a "revolution" has already taken place in the front office.

The Mavs' roster is far from a finished product, however, and Harrison will need to hit the ground running in his first general manager job. Dallas did not own the rights to any of its picks in the NBA draft, so he will have already assessed the need to look elsewhere to upgrade the roster around his young superstar.

The postseason failures and frequent injuries of Porzingis could lead the Mavs to the trade market, but opposing teams have also seen those weaknesses and have adjusted their assessments of him as well. Dallas may be better served by displaying some patience with a player who is still only 25 and has averaged over 20 points per game in three straight campaigns.

Milwaukee's 2021 title demonstrated that teams can still build patiently while developing players and Dallas may be one acquisition away – as the Bucks were with Jrue Holiday – from becoming contenders once again.

Russell Westbrook is preparing for life on a fourth different team in as many years, with LeBron James welcoming his new running mate to the Los Angeles Lakers following a blockbuster trade.

The Lakers overshadowed the NBA Draft by completing a deal to get Westbrook from the Washington Wizards, who receive Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in return.

The Wizards also got the 22nd pick in Thursday's first round – Isaiah Jackson was taken at that slot, then traded to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for point guard Aaron Holiday – while the Lakers gained two second-round selections in future drafts, according to reports.

For Westbrook, it means yet another fresh start. The 32-year-old ended his long association with the Oklahoma City Thunder when reuniting with James Harden at the Houston Rockets in 2019, only to then leave for Washington a year later.

Despite only spending one season with the Wizards, Westbrook declared his appreciation for all connected with the franchise in an Instagram post after news of the deal had emerged.

"Thank you DC! You welcomed my family and I with open arms from day one," he wrote.

"Everyone from the front office to the training staff, the coaches, my team-mates, and the fans. I’m grateful y'all took a chance on me and supported me every step of the way.

"I'm blessed to have been a part of such a stand-up organisation. It didn't take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organisation. Thank you."

LeBron, meanwhile, used his Instagram account to put up a picture of himself and fellow Lakers star Anthony Davis standing either side of the team's latest recruit, along with the caption "Brodie", which is Westbrook's nickname.

The addition is a move aimed at getting the 2019-20 NBA champions back into contention. The title defence did not go to plan last term, long-term injuries to their two stars leading to a struggle just to make the postseason. While they did qualify, the holders were knocked out in the first round by the Phoenix Suns.

As for Westbrook, his year with the Wizards included a key role in a late charge to make the playoffs via the play-in tournament, though they were beaten 4-1 in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers, after which it was announced head coach Scott Brooks would be leaving his role.

Westbrook had broken an NBA record that had stood for 47 years during the regular season, moving beyond Oscar Robertson to top the list for career triple-double games.

He led the league for assists with 11.7 per game, as well as shooting 31.5 per cent from three-point range - his best return from deep sine the 2016-17 season. It will be fascinating to see how he fits into the Lakers' current roster, though it remains to be seen if they are finished making offseason moves just yet, considering free agency is around the corner.

There was speculation L.A. were also in negotiations to bring in Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings. The 28-year-old would add some much-needed outside scoring, seen as he is a career 40.6 per cent shooter from deep.

The Lakers finished at 35.4 per cent as a team from three-point range, ranking them 21st in the entire league. Caldwell-Pope was one of their more successful players when it came to taking aim from distance, finishing up at 41.0 per cent, but he has been moved on in order to add a new playmaking presence.

Westbrook, who is from California and played at UCLA during his college career, will earn $44.2million in 2021-22, then has a player option worth $47m for the following year.

Jack Grealish could soon be a Manchester City player.

The Premier League champions have long been linked with the Aston Villa captain who, along with Tottenham talisman Harry Kane, reportedly represents City's top target as Pep Guardiola looks to add further creativity to an attacking unit which is already the envy of European football.

On Friday, reports emerged that City had lodged a £100million bid for the 25-year-old, who helped England reach the final of Euro 2020 earlier this month.

City and Villa both refused to comment on the rumours. 

As speculation continues, Stats Perform has assessed what Grealish could bring to City, should the deal – which would be a Premier League record – go through.

 

THE NUMBERS

Grealish played 26 times in the league last season, missing 12 games towards the end of the campaign due to a shin injury.

He scored six times, adding 10 assists. His 70 chances created from open play was 26 more than any other Villa player, and only seven shy of Bruno Fernandes' league-leading 77.

When counting chances created in total, including from set plays, Grealish (81) ranked third in the league, behind Mason Mount (87) and Fernandes (95), though they played 10 and 11 games more than the Villa captain respectively.

Grealish outscored his expected goals tally of 4.65, while only Harry Kane (14), Kevin De Bruyne (12) and Fernandes (12) supplied more assists.

The playmaker, who often played on the left flank for Villa, attempted 110 dribbles, tallying up a success rate of 59.09 per cent, the seventh-best out of Premier League players to attempt 100 or more dribbles.

 

HOW HE COULD FIT IN

Capable of playing centrally or wide, Grealish will add another high-quality, versatile option to Guardiola's already packed squad. His 81 chances created leads the way out of City and Villa players from last term, with De Bruyne (80) a close second.

No Villa or City player attempted or completed more dribbles than Grealish, whose ability to carry the ball into dangerous positions and then release a timely pass will surely be a big draw for Guardiola, though he will want sharp, snappy passing to be brought into the midfielder's game.

Based on City's current options, Grealish would likely be competing with De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez – though several of those players have been linked with moves away – for a place in the team, either as a central midfielder or a wide attacker in the champions' preferred 4-3-3 system.

Of those players, only De Bruyne played more passes, including crosses, into the penalty area – the Belgium star doing so on 239 occasions – than Grealish. However, he was some 90 ahead, while playing one game less.

Grealish's shot count of 50 ranked him fifth out of those seven players, with his shot conversion rate of 12 per cent also the fifth-best.

De Bruyne (7.4 per cent from 80) and Silva (7.14 per cent from 28) had a lower conversion percentage, though logic would suggest Grealish will have more opportunities to shoot in a City team that managed 599 attempts last season, 79 more than Villa's total.

 

HOW WOULD VILLA MANAGE?

Should Villa collect £100m, they would be well placed to reinvest, but there is no doubt Grealish would be a huge miss for Dean Smith's team.

Villa have gone some way to mitigating the damage a potential transfer would cause, with Emiliano Buendia – a creative fulcrum for Norwich City last season – arriving earlier in the transfer window.

Ashley Young has made a return to Villa Park on a free transfer from Serie A champions Inter, while Villa also made several bids for Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe before the 20-year-old signed a new deal with the Gunners.

Leon Bailey, Bayer Leverkusen's flying winger, has also been linked. The Jamaica international scored 15 goals and provided 10 assists in 40 appearances last season, and his arrival would certainly soften the blow somewhat, though there is a chance he may need time to adapt from the Bundesliga.

Bailey created 63 chances in total, with 11 of these classed as "big chances" – Grealish, by comparison, created 14 big opportunities in league football in 2020-21.

While Villa would certainly have to adapt, the options they could pursue with £100m to spend would present an opportunity for significant upgrades elsewhere in the squad as Smith looks to push for European qualification.

City, meanwhile, would be bringing in one of English football's best talents, with Grealish having the opportunity to head into his prime years at one of Europe's biggest clubs.

These have been some tough months for the grand old city of Liverpool, the men in red losing a Premier League title first and then the waterfront being stripped of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

The cause of the latter bitter blow might be boiled down to a rush to regenerate. United Nations cultural blazers were ultimately at odds with city chiefs over the merit in complementing an elegant Victorian window on the world with shiny towers, sharp-angled business premises and apartment buildings. There's an arena too, and, perhaps the straw that broke the camel's back, a gleaming new stadium for Everton.

Goodison is going, and perhaps UNESCO is privately upset to see another of Archibald Leitch's greatest hits bite the dust.

Quite what has gone wrong at Liverpool Football Club is far from as easily deciphered, and if we were to ignore the wild journey that has led to where they stand today, perhaps there would be no real cause for worry in the first place.

Third in the Premier League last season means the Champions League awaits the Reds in 2021-22. And third after first place in 2020-21 does not sound like the worst of outcomes, a solid enough follow-up season, if just a touch deflating. Owners Fenway Sports Group will know another truckload of UEFA coinage is heading for the bank vaults, and Jurgen Klopp has been able to carry out a tweak or two to his squad, with more surely to come.

Yet with four weeks of last season remaining, Klopp's team were toiling in sixth place, the manager showing signs of feeling pressure as his team scrambled for the form that would conceal the imperfections of the previous eight months.

Ahead of the new campaign, Stats Perform looks at how Liverpool, with a long-awaited championship now long out of their system, could evolve as they bid to close the gap to the Manchester giants, United and City.


RED PERIL, OR RED HERRING?

With a little hindsight, might the drama that encircled Liverpool last season have been overblown? Anyone can lose 7-2 at Aston Villa, right?

And six consecutive home defeats... well, that occasionally happens to the best teams, doesn't it? Were three of those Anfield raiders – Brighton and Hove Albion, Burnley and Fulham – perhaps better sides than our memories recall?

Weren't Everton due a win on the other side of Stanley Park?

And above all, didn't it seem like Klopp essentially had the situation under control?

Sorry to come across all 2 Unlimited, but no, no, no-no, no-no.

Liverpool are coming off a honker of a season that they rescued rather too easily as their nearest top-four rivals waved them through. Wins over Southampton, Manchester United, West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace in May papered over quite substantial cracks.

"In the harder moments you can show the most and we really stuck together all the time," Klopp said.


WHAT MADE THE NEAR-INVINCIBLES SO FALLIBLE?

The injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are an obvious but credible answer here. Klopp took flak for not having top-class back-up to his back-up defenders, and when captain Jordan Henderson suffered a groin injury in the Everton defeat in February that was his season over too.

A strong spine turned, if not to jelly, then to something suddenly highly penetrable.

Opta data shows Liverpool gained 19 points from a losing position last season, just as they did when landing their first Premier League title in the 2019-20 campaign.

That looks admirable, and only Manchester United (31 points) and Leicester City (20) hauled back as many from being in deficit, but Liverpool also dropped 15 points from a winning position, when in the title year they let just five slip away in such a circumstance.

In the Premier League, Liverpool's players were involved in 3,736 duels in 2019-20 and a near-identical 3,729 in 2020-21. (Opta defines a duel as a 50-50 contest for the ball.)

But tellingly, Liverpool's success rate in such duels slipped from 50.55 per cent in the championship-winning campaign to 47.78 per cent.

And if that sounds like a small dip, consider that only two teams in the past two Premier League seasons have won a lower percentage of duels across a season: Bournemouth in 2019-20 with a 47.69 per cent rate, and Sheffield United with 46.55 in 2020-21. Both those sides were relegated.

It feels telling, and Klopp will want the pendulum to swing back above 50 per cent in the new campaign. Marginal gains in this area can have an enormous impact.

Mid-table Everton (52.92 per cent) and Aston Villa (52.58) led the way last season, and both had spells where they threatened to snatch a top-six place, while champions Manchester City were third, followed by Leicester and Manchester United.


NAME NAMES!

Among defenders, only Leeds United's Luke Ayling (279) made more ball recoveries than Andy Robertson (229) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (258).

There, that's a good thing.

Less good: among defenders who played at least five games, Liverpool's Alexander-Arnold (25.49 times), Neco Williams (23.59) and Robertson (20.39) stood first, second and fourth on the list of Premier League players who lost the ball the most often per 90 minutes.

Rhys Williams, who like namesake Neco had more opportunities in the top flight than he might have anticipated, achieved the Premier League's highest duel success rate among all defenders (76 per cent from nine appearances; 38 of 50 duels).

That sounds promising for the future, and Nat Phillips was another game stand-in, winning a defender's league-high 7.92 duels per 90 minutes.

Phillips stood sixth on the list of the most duels contested per 90 minutes by a defender too (13.05), and here's a statistic that won't have passed Klopp by: Liverpool won 11, drew two and lost only two games when Phillips started in the Premier League.

That is a massive 73.3 per cent win rate, and they went 9-7-7 without him (39.1 per cent win rate).

The 24-year-old was the Reds' player of the month for March, and perhaps Klopp would do well to keep him around the first team, even with Matip, Van Dijk and Gomez back for the new term.


A SOFT CENTRE?

Thiago Alcantara's first season with Liverpool proved largely anticlimactic and Klopp will expect more from the Spaniard in the new campaign. Goodness knows, with Georginio Wijnaldum now at Paris Saint-Germain, Klopp needs to find something extra in midfield, which has begun to look increasingly like the team's problem area.

Liverpool were hindered last season by losing Fabinho to a central defensive role at times, and it seems imperative Klopp has the Brazilian and Thiago forging an alliance in the coming months.

In the 21 games where skipper Henderson featured, he made 8.86 ball recoveries per 90 minutes, which put him fifth overall among midfielders and top among the squad's engine-room stars.

Henderson, playing the role of disruptor and creator, also attempted the most throughballs of any Liverpool midfielder (averaging 0.21 such passes per 90 minutes) and Klopp must long for a genuine playmaker who might get closer to the numbers posted by the likes of City's Kevin De Bruyne (0.58 per 90 minutes), United's Bruno Fernandes (0.35) or even Everton's James Rodriguez (0.41).

Liverpool did not have a midfielder in the top 20 for open-play goal assists per 90 minutes among those to have played at least 15 games, with Curtis Jones having 0.15 per 90 to sit in a tie for 21st on the list. When the assists from the flying full-backs dry up, as they rather did in the league last season, Liverpool need to do better in midfield.

MARGINAL PAINS

Liverpool had more big chances – where a player should reasonably be expected to score – than any other team in the Premier League last term. Being more clinical could have made it a very different season.

They only scored from 37.61 per cent of those 109 opportunities, however. Pep Guardiola's City stuck away 44.34 per cent of their 106 big chances and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United netted 45.74 per cent of their 94 such openings. The Manchester giants duly finished first and second.

Liverpool also had more passes into the final third (2,508) than any other side, so clearly they are doing a lot right, yet when their players see the whites of the opposition goalkeeper's eyes, their aim has not been as precise as would be ideal.

Their overall shot conversion percentage tumbled from 14.38 to 11.18 – from the league's highest rate in 2019-20 to only the 11th-ranked in the 2020-21 campaign.

Mohamed Salah scored 22 times with a shot conversion rate of 17.46 per cent, and Klopp would settle for a repeat of that in 2021-22, but Sadio Mane's form in front of goal has left a lot to be desired in the league.

Mane's conversion rate dipped from an impressive 23.38 per cent in the title campaign to a wholly underwhelming 11.7 per cent in the hangover season, with the addition of Diogo Jota to Liverpool's attacking ranks not proving perhaps the spur to the existing strike force that the manager might have expected.

Roberto Firmino's 9.09 per cent strike rate was tolerable in the championship year because so many others were banging goals in, but with those drying up by comparison in 2020-21, nine goals from a conversion rate of 10.84 was not what Doctor Klopp ordered.


BETTER CALL FOR SAUL?

Like just about every club, Liverpool have been hit hard financially by the coronavirus pandemic and it remains to be seen if there is a significant transfer kitty for Klopp, who has already invested by bringing in promising young French defender Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig.

Atletico Madrid's LaLiga-winning midfielder Saul Niguez is a rumoured target and would be a handy acquisition, but the Spaniard has also been linked with United.

Should Saul go to Old Trafford, joining Jadon Sancho and the expected addition of Raphael Varane to Solskjaer's ranks, then the team in red challenging City for supremacy next season would seem more likely to be the record 20-time English champions, and not Liverpool.

But the numbers here tell us that Klopp's team are perhaps not as far away from City as the 17-point gap from last season may suggest.

Just like a rock star's guitar, Klopp's heavy metal football only truly works when the tuning is right, and when the entire band is in sync.

Last season, Liverpool without Van Dijk were like Black Sabbath without Ozzy, Motorhead without Lemmy. They were not themselves but just about got away with it.

With the talismanic Dutchman and the inspirational Henderson over their injuries, there is just that nagging feeling that those treasured big hits could get another airing.

The Miami Heat faced a huge challenge when trying to improve on a season that finished with an NBA Finals appearance inside the bubble.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Heat seemed right at home in Orlando. Having finished up as the fifth seed, Miami fought its way through the Eastern Conference to be the last team standing, setting up a clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the end, a familiar face halted the unexpected but impressive title charge. LeBron James was a champion twice during his time with the franchise, but he helped mastermind their downfall in a series that went six games.

The next chapter saw several players on the Heat hampered by COVID-19 protocols and injury, yet Miami still finished up as the sixth seed at the end of the 2020-21 regular season. There was no extended playoff run this time, though, as they were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Now team president Pat Riley has some key decisions to make, despite the team not owning their first-round pick in the upcoming draft. So, does this roster need a complete overhaul, or just some minor tweaks to get back contending again?

The chosen two

Riley has never been afraid to push all his chips into the middle if he feels a player is worth the gamble. However, it appears he is ready to hold on when it comes to his two aces, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, describing them as a "great core" in his end-of-season media conference after losing to the Bucks.

Butler averaged 21.5 points per game in the regular season, a slight increase on his 2019-20 number (19.9). His three-point shot continues to be off (as in milk left in the fridge a week past its sell-by date off), but he feasts much closer to the basket. His average attempts in the restricted area finished up at 5.9, while he managed 3.9 in the paint (non-restricted area). It is surprising, then, to see his free throw attempts fall, though he set career-high marks for assists (7.1) and steals (2.08), showing his all-round value to Miami.

Adebayo too saw an increase in terms of his offensive production, going for 18.7 points per game in the regular season. The center's presence also helped Miami give up the fewest points in the paint (41.3 per game), while overall the team ranked fifth in terms of points against (108.0).

However, the Bucks stifled the duo on offense in the postseason, which has to be a cause for concern. Adebayo shot 45.6 per cent from the field while averaging just 3.3 free throw attempts, way down from the 6.1 from the previous playoffs.

Butler's struggles were even greater, as he shot 29.7 per cent from the field in four games, leading to an average of 14.5 points while playing 38.5 minutes. His plus/minus ended up at a ghastly -21 per game, the worst ranking of all 239 players to feature in the playoffs.

The 31-year-old is eligible for a contract extension during the offseason, which would be a maximum four-year deal potentially worth as much as $181million, and despite what happened against Milwaukee, the Heat seem ready to commit to the five-time All-Star. If Butler plays out the season under his current contract, he has a $37.6m player option for 2022-23.

With Adebayo locked in for the long term, Miami needs to identify exactly who can help them out, starting with those they already know...

 

Super Herro, or just an ordinary guy?

Tyler Herro was a playoff revelation in the bubble. Here was a young player ready to embrace the challenge, a shooter capable of knocking down big shots (he set a new record for 3-pointers by a rookie in the postseason), reaching double figures for points in all but one of his appearances.

His regular season numbers in 2020-21 improved (15.1 points compared to 13.5) despite a dip in production from beyond the arc – and amid ever-growing whispers about being traded. While the deadline passing silenced such speculation, it is likely to get louder again in the coming weeks.

"We'll figure it out with him, but what happened to him going down the stretch, I actually thought he got better as a player," Riley said, maintaining Herro is a "core player".

However, the former Kentucky Wildcat appears to be the major asset for any big deal, so the Heat must decide if what they saw in the past season – including in the playoffs, when the guard averaged just 9.3 points in four games – has made them consider selling on the 13th overall pick in 2019.

Decisions, decisions...

The Heat have an opportunity to create a major chunk of cap space by declining team options for two experienced veterans.

Goran Dragic can be retained at a cost of $19.44m, a number that feels high despite the significant contributions he has made in the past two seasons when playing big minutes, mostly when coming off the bench.

The 35-year-old saw a decrease in points and assists in the 2020-21 campaign (reverting toward the numbers he posted in 2018-19), while he was also restricted to 50 games during the regular season.

Likewise, Andre Iguodala’s declining impact may mean a cap number of $15 million is too much for the Heat to contemplate paying a 37-year-old who averaged 4.3 points per game in both the regular and postseason combined, despite whatever intangibles he may bring to the team.

Then there is the Victor Oladipo conundrum. Miami gave up Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 pick swap to get the two-time All-Star from Houston ahead of the deadline. The deadline acquisition played all of four games before suffering a right quadriceps injury that required season-ending surgery.

Now, Oladipo is a free agent with an uncertain future. It is not known when he will return to the court – there were initial reports he may not play at all next season – with the Heat left to make a judgment call based on all 111 minutes of action he played for them. Good luck with that, Pat. Since averaging 23.1 points in 2017-18 for the Pacers, Oladipo has played in 88 regular season games.

They do have far more information and experience when it comes to two other players who are set to hit the market in free agency, though.

 

Show them the money!

Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn are about to get paid – but will it be Miami who coughs up to keep them?

Both have excelled at times for the Heat after going undrafted out of college, with the team benefiting from signing the pair on cut-price terms. The low-risk moves paid off spectacularly, but now comes the financial backlash.

Nunn posted relatively similar numbers in his second season following an impressive rookie year, even improving slightly from 3-point range (38.1 per cent compared to 35.0 per cent) and in terms of steals (0.93 from 0.84).

Set to be a restricted free agent, the guard could be set to receive offers around $15m per season, according to reports. That number may well make the Heat decide to pass, considering the league-wide depth at the position.

Robinson's situation is the same in terms of his contract situation, but his outlook appears even rosier than Nunn’s. A career 42.3 per cent shooter from deep, he was the fastest player to 500 three-pointers in terms of games played, reaching the milestone in just 152 outings. To put that achievement into context, Stephen Curry did so in 221 games, while Damian Lillard achieved it in 199.

Evolution or Revolution? Verdict: Evolution

Riley has already made clear the focus in the offseason is adding the necessary parts to bring the best out of Butler and Adebayo, rather than looking to move either of them on in a blockbuster trade.

Miami finished with a 55.6 winning percentage despite the constant rotations forced on coach Erik Spoelstra due to a myriad of absences, plus the acquisition of Oladipo that was made with a focus on another deep playoff run failed to pan out through no fault of their own.

There were links with Kyle Lowry at the time of the deadline too, and the point guard could be a target again.

Miami could also explore sign-and-trade deals to make sure they get something in return for those they are willing to let move on. Whatever happens with those restricted free agents, it seems probable there will be a much-changed roster come the start of the next campaign.

A front-court partner for Adebayo who offers an outside shooting threat would be most helpful, as would a playmaking presence at point guard, particularly if both Nunn and Dragic are not to return.

Riley made clear he is ready to "roll forward" with the team himself, showing no signs of slowing down in his desire to reconstruct a roster at 76. No matter his age, it is all about a win-now mentality with him at the helm.

The Golden State Warriors' 2020-21 season ended in heartbreaking fashion, but you might not know that reading head coach Steve Kerr's most recent comments.

Golden State rode an MVP calibre season from Stephen Curry to eighth spot in the Western Conference and a place in the play-in tournament.

Yet that was where it all fell apart.

They missed out on the seventh seed as a miracle LeBron James three-pointer helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a dramatic victory, and the Warriors were then outplayed by the Memphis Grizzlies in the final play-in game to ensure they would be watching the postseason from home.

Despite that bitter end, Kerr was left extremely encouraged after seeing his team win 16 of their last 22 regular-season games despite playing a second successive season without Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson, who suffered a torn Achilles before the campaign.

"I'm really excited. I feel like we got our mojo back at the end of the year," Kerr told The Athletic. 

"The offseason has been productive in terms of Klay now breaking through. He's on the court, he's running, he's feeling really good. I talked to him last week. He's just in a completely different mindset. The light's at the end of the tunnel.

"Steph and Draymond [Green] are both in a great place after that close to the season, feeling like they are on top of their games. Andrew [Wiggins] had a really good season for us. Jordan Poole emerged. Juan [Toscano-Anderson] has turned himself into a rotation player, perfect for our style.

"Now we get a training camp with James [Wiseman], a whole season of development, plus [picks] seven and 14 in a deep draft."

However, Kerr's excitement for the new season being vindicated hinges on what they do with those picks and how they stack the roster to help the core of Curry, Thompson and Green contend for at least one more championship.

Use those prime draft selections and continue to develop Wiseman with a view to building sustainable long-term success, or trade the picks and young assets for another star? It's truly a case of evolution or revolution for the Warriors this offseason and, with Kerr in Japan with Team USA, he won't be in the building to influence the final call.

Curry cooks up a storm

Curry's was a season that merited more than the five first-place votes he received in the MVP race.

His points per game average of 32 was the highest of his career, topping the 30.1 ppg he produced in 2015-16 when Curry was named unanimous MVP and the Warriors broke the single-season wins record by going 73-9.

Per 100 possessions, Curry's ppg of 32.1 was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9) as he continued to embellish his resume as the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry's 5.3 three-pointers made per game was a league record, the 2020-21 season his third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He remains the only player to achieve the feat even once.

He had seven games with 40 plus points and at least 10 threes last season. No other player has registered more than three such performances in their career.

Becoming the first player to post three 50-point games in a season aged 32 or older and producing a scoring average that was the highest by a player of that age in league history, Curry is clearly showing no signs of slowing down.

Still, his usage rate of 34.8 per cent is probably not sustainable for the long term, but if the Warriors are to allow Curry more rest in 2021-22, they must solve the problem of what happens when he comes off the floor.

A damaging drop-off

The most dramatic illustration of the Warriors' struggles without Curry came back in April. With Curry and Green each on the sideline, they were thrashed 130-77 by the Toronto Raptors.

The 53-point reverse was the second-largest defeat in franchise history, though it can be argued it was a necessary low point for Golden State. The Warriors subsequently lost to the Atlanta Hawks before embarking on that 16-6 surge.

And the numbers from across the season paint a telling picture of Curry's importance to the Warriors' cause.

With him on the court, the Warriors scored 112.8 points per 100 possessions, compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor, while their effective field goal percentage dropped from 57.1 to 51.6.

The Warriors effectively lost 8.8 points per 100 possessions when Curry was absent. Their point differential was plus-4.3 with him on the court compared to minus-4.5 when he played the role of spectator.

 

Ensuring that disparity is not as severe in 2021-22 will be a key focus of the Warriors' offseason, yet there were still some encouraging performances from those not named Curry to build hope that Golden State can contend to go deep into the postseason again.

Andrew Wiggins set career-highs in field goal percentage (47.7) and three-point shooting (38 per cent) while Jordan Poole established himself as a productive option off the bench, shooting 42.2 per cent over those final 22 games.

Perhaps the best find of the season was Bay Area native Juan Toscano-Anderson who, having been signed to a two-way contract in December, saw that converted to a full-time deal in May.

Toscano-Anderson was seventh in effective field goal percentage (66.7) and eighth in true shooting percentage (67.6), deservedly earning a spot in the frontcourt rotation. Yet, for all the positives that emerged as the Warriors got hot late in the campaign, their ability to take a step towards vying for the title may be contingent on what they decide to do with last year's most high-profile addition.

The Wiseman conundrum

The Warriors have the capital to stack the deck in Curry's favour with the addition of either seasoned pros or promising prospects. They were one of the winners of the NBA lottery as the top-three protected pick the Minnesota Timberwolves sent them in the Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell trade became the seventh selection in this year's draft.

That gives them the flexibility to pursue a trade for more experienced help, but whether they go down that avenue depends on what the Warriors elect to do with Wiseman, whom they took second overall in 2020 despite him having only three games of collegiate experience.

And they were not granted a full season's evidence to aid their decision about the 20-year-old center as a meniscus injury brought his rookie campaign to a premature end.

There were signs that Wiseman could blossom into the athletic big man who can make a difference at both ends, with center long since a position of concern for the Warriors even at the height of their dynasty.

He posted double figures in points in 24 of his 39 games but a net rating of minus 10.1 spoke to a player who still needs time to acclimatise to the challenge of playing at the highest level.

That is no surprise given Wiseman's inexperience, and Kerr is hopeful he will make strides with the chance to get a full offseason under his belt, however, with the front office reportedly exploring trade options, will the Warriors have the patience to stick with him with potentially more immediate contributors available?

Golden State would surely have to include Wiseman in any potential blockbuster trade, with the Warriors mentioned as a potential destination for Oakland native Damian Lillard, the increasingly maligned Ben Simmons and Raptors star Pascal Siakam

Bradley Beal, whom Curry beat to the scoring title, is reportedly viewed as the Warriors' top option in a trade, but there have as yet been no signs that any deal is on the horizon.

After another year with no postseason play, Golden State's big three will want the talent around them to improve in a hurry but, if the Warriors do not identify a player whom they deem worthy of a price that includes Wiseman, they may need to be patient in awaiting the dividends a player of his obvious physical gifts can deliver.

Verdict: Evolution

The Warriors are the team to watch in the draft as reports of trade discussions continue to swirl.

Despite being flush with capital, it is appearing more and more likely that if they do send some of their resources to a rival, it will not be as part of a trade that changes the complexion of the league.

Instead, the more feasible outcome is that the Warriors do a deal to supplement the core that initially shook up the NBA in 2015 by jump-shooting their way to the title, rather than reshaping it with the addition of another star.

Myles Turner is said to have been the subject between the talks between the Warriors and the Indiana Pacers, and his arrival would give the Warriors a difference-making big on both ends of the floor.

Turner missed the final 18 games of last season with a sprained toe but still led the NBA with a block percentage of 8.8 and was seventh among centers that played a minimum of 25 games with an average of 1.5 made threes.

In the draft, the reported urging from Curry, Thompson and Green for the organisation to get players who can help them now may force the Warriors to target more experienced rookies having gone young with Wiseman last year.

Oregon guard Chris Duarte is 24 and was named to the Pac-12's All-Defensive Team last season while finishing third in the conference with a field goal percentage of 53.2.

 

Davion Mitchell turns 23 in September and led the Big 12 in three-point shooting, converting on 44.7 per cent of his efforts from beyond the arc, and James Bouknight of UConn is thought to be in the mix as a younger shot-creator who was second in the Big East in 2020-21 with 23.7 points per 40 minutes.

The Warriors' front office is seemingly facing external and internal pressure to utilise their draft capital to land a premier player who can propel them back to the top of the Western Conference and firmly open the window for Curry, Thompson and Green to polish their resumes further.

Yet a team led by a player who has spent his Hall of Fame career redefining limits with his remarkable shooting range may find their trade possibilities restricted, and Curry and Warriors fans alike might have to reconcile themselves with an offseason that only slightly improves Golden State's odds of winning now but sets them up to stay relevant once his days of carrying their hopes are in the past.

Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland? How about both? The questions are the same as Real Madrid enter each transfer window. As in 2020, though, such queries are wholly unrealistic.

Prior to last season, which began just six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Madrid were not able to make a single first-team signing. Their most significant business was the €40million sale of Achraf Hakimi to Inter.

It is a similar story 12 months on, having failed to deliver silverware in front of an empty Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium. Free agent David Alaba is Los Blancos' sole recruit and even his arrival is offset by the departures of fellow centre-backs Sergio Ramos – at the end of his contract – and Raphael Varane – with a sale to Manchester United agreed for €50m.

Financial results earlier this month reported a loss in revenue of "close to €300m" due to the pandemic. A post-tax profit of €874,000 for 2020-21 was achieved due to "intense spending saving measures in all areas", read a statement, which added: "With regard to the economic situation, current forecasts indicate that the recovery from the pre-pandemic situation will not be immediate. In this context, the club will continue in the effort so far to contain spending."

One of the world's grandest clubs are doing things on the cheap. A change of coach was only initiated by Zinedine Zidane, whose replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, has been plucked from mid-table Everton – although Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri claimed this week he was offered the position.

Ancelotti has been here before, of course, having led Madrid to 'La Decima' in 2013-14 after a 12-year wait. How he raises the club again without this time breaking the world transfer record two months into the role is another question – one Stats Perform attempts to answer with the aid of Opta data.

Return of rapid Real?

Just as Ancelotti is returning to Madrid, so too is Gareth Bale. It was he who Madrid splashed out €100m on to inspire Ancelotti's first side to Champions League glory. Now he could be handed a starring role again.

The winger appeared to have no future under Zidane but will surely be the chief beneficiary if Ancelotti returns the team to the attacking approach he employed previously at the Santiago Bernabeu. Across his two seasons at the helm, Madrid scored 222 LaLiga goals – 22 more than across the past three campaigns combined now.

That would mean a significant shift, though. Zidane's men have not just scored fewer goals, they have moved at a slower pace. Madrid averaged 4.7 passes and 12.7 seconds per sequence in the league in 2020-21, with 662 open-play sequences of 10 passes or more. In 2013-14, with Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria leading a rapid forward line, Madrid's sequences typically lasted only 3.9 passes and 10.3 seconds, with just 475 10-plus pass sequences. Those numbers only marginally increased in Ancelotti's second season.

 

This change in style is also evidenced by Madrid's direct speed, having moved 1.93 metres upfield per second in 2013-14 but just 1.41 in an average sequence last term. Making the most of the attributes of Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria, that Madrid team had 122 direct attacks but only 112 build-up attacks – figures that have altered drastically in opposite directions to 87 and 165 respectively.

The football under Ancelotti was undoubtedly exciting and appeals again. Even as he was sacked in 2015, president Florentino Perez said: "The affection that the players and the fans have for Carlo is the same as the affection I myself have for him." Implementing that system again may not be entirely straightforward, though.

Ancelotti arrived in 2013 only a year removed from the 121-goal 2011-12 LaLiga campaign – the most Madrid have ever scored in a season. The Italian gave his superstars the freedom to play but did not need to reconfigure their approach. That tallies with the rest of a glittering career to date, which has chiefly seen him credited with man-managing big names rather than introducing the sort of tactical tweaks that might almost double a team's attacking output.

If that is Ancelotti's desire, though, between Bale, Vinicius Junior and Eden Hazard, Madrid should at least still have the players to tear through teams at pace. Indeed, getting Hazard fit and firing two years and four goals into his LaLiga career will be as crucial as rehabilitating Bale. The former Chelsea forward may put the famed 'diva whisperer' to the test, but Madrid cannot afford to have a €100m man not contributing.

Age is against Ancelotti

Madrid's play without the ball has also changed in the time Ancelotti has been away, and getting them to perform in this regard as they did during his first stint will be more difficult still. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro – Madrid's long-standing midfield trio – were on board when Ancelotti left the club six years ago. Modric will be 36 in September. Class and experience are on their side, but the energy of youth is not.

With Di Maria occupying a key role in the 4-2-3-1 formation and Modric finding his feet in Spain, Madrid pressed relentlessly in 2013-14. Opponents were allowed only 9.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) amid Los Blancos' 499 pressed sequences. As a result, Madrid's attacks started 42.3 metres upfield on average, boosted by their 179 high turnovers, of which 45 led to shots and nine to goals.

Even Ancelotti could not maintain these standards the following year, as Di Maria departed for the Premier League while a thigh injury restricted Modric to 16 games. Madrid regressed in every category.

In 2021, it is not that Madrid do not press, it is that they do not do so with the same intensity. There were 430 pressed sequences last term and still an impressive 178 high turnovers, but opponents were allowed 11.3 PPDA, with Madrid unable to harry at a comparable rate. It is unlikely that statistic improves as Kroos also moves through his thirties and yet more minutes are pumped into the legs of one of modern football's great midfields. The emergence of Federico Valverde – young and versatile – helps, but Ancelotti may well face the unenviable task of dismantling a unit he helped put together.

 

Alaba alters the complexion

To this point, with a former coach returning to guide the same players, Madrid's approach appears closer to devolution than evolution or revolution. The defence at least will ensure this team has a new sheen, albeit not one that necessarily improves Ancelotti's chances of success at home or abroad.

Alaba is a fine player with vast experience, six years younger than Ramos but with 10 Bundesliga titles and two Champions League triumphs to his name. It is a like-for-like change that makes sense, even with Ramos' emotional ties to the Bernabeu. However, asking Alaba to also replace Varane, the outgoing captain's stalwart defensive partner, feels like a tough ask.

Rather than settle into a new club in a new country alongside a World Cup winner – "Varane, of course, I would like to play with him," Alaba said as recently as last week – Madrid's sole signing seems set to be asked to perform the role of the senior man alongside Eder Militao, who has made just 23 LaLiga starts across two seasons.

Yet Militao crucially has attributes Alaba does not, with the converted full-back far less combative than the two departed defenders. At Bayern, in the Bundesliga last season, Alaba contested only 5.0 duels per 90 minutes – fewer than Varane (5.4), Ramos (6.4) and Militao (7.9) in LaLiga. He won just 55.4 per cent of those, another low as Varane (67.9 per cent) led the way.

Militao could then be tasked with getting tight to opposition forwards, but Alaba might find it tougher to avoid being picked on in the air. He contested a meagre 1.2 aerial duels per 90, down on 2.3 for Varane, 4.3 for Ramos and 5.2 for Militao. As Varane won a league-leading 76.0 per cent of these duels and Ramos came out on top in 63.8 per cent, opponents faced a scrap against either centre-back. Alaba's 51.4 per cent success rate shows why he tends to avoid such encounters.

An area of real strength for Madrid could now become a weakness. Only Sevilla (four) conceded fewer headed goals than Madrid (five) in the league last term, while Real Betis (five goals conceded) were the sole side to be tighter from set-pieces than Zidane's outfit (six). With Ramos and Varane marshalling the area, Madrid faced the fourth-fewest headed attempts (58). They are unlikely to rank as impressively again with 5ft 11in Alaba at the heart of the defence.

Madrid are unlikely to make the most of Alaba's versatility – well stocked at left-back but now short in the middle of the back line – yet his ability on the ball, honed in different roles, should at least help to keep Ancelotti's men on the front foot. Part of a dominant Bayern team, Alaba was involved in 4.6 shot-ending sequences and 0.7 goal-ending sequences per 90, having a bigger hand in such opportunities than Ramos (3.9 and 0.4) or Varane (2.9 and 0.3).

Being able to start attacks from the back plays into the idea Madrid should be set up to again thrill supporters under Ancelotti. Whether they can combine entertainment with results, as the 2013-14 team did so successfully, might be another matter.

"Trust the Process", but for how long?

That mantra – after tanking out and starting from the bottom eight years ago – has become synonymous with the team's culture and identity since former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie started a drastic rebuild of Philadelphia's roster and psyche in 2013.

The long-term vision, in pursuit of a first NBA championship since 1983, has delivered All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, however the 76ers have not progressed beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Doc Rivers was brought in to replace Brett Brown and deliver the long-awaited title, yet the same old issues and questions remain after the top-seeded 76ers were sensationally eliminated by the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round.

While Embiid narrowly missed out on the MVP award, Philadelphia's latest failure has only amplified pressure on shot-shy Simmons amid growing speculation over his future at Wells Fargo Center following a forgettable playoff campaign.

With president of basketball operations Daryl Morey tasked with turning the contenders into champions, will he blow it all up or run it back in 2021-22

Embiid excels but there's more to come from Philly's unofficial MVP

His own harshest critic, Embiid sets the bar high, demanding the absolute best from himself and the 76ers in pursuit of a coveted championship. A cornerstone of the franchise, the 27-year-old soared to new heights in 2020-21, leading Philly to their first Eastern Conference title since 2000-01.

A knee injury proved costly in the MVP race; he finished second to Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic. If he had featured in another 10-15 games, Embiid may have become the first 76ers player since Allen Iverson 20 years ago to be crowned Most Valuable Player. Accolade or not, there was no denying Embiid's impact on his team and the league last season.

Embiid's improvement was evident as he went from averaging 23.0 points per game in 2019-20 to 28.5 this time around. His +5.5 increase ranks sixth all-time among All-Star centers for largest increase in points per game from one season to the next, only behind Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain (+12.0 with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962), Jokic (+6.5 in 2021), David Robinson (+6.4 with the San Antonio Spurs in 1994), Los Angeles Lakers great Shaquille O'Neal (+5.9 with the Orlando Magic in 1994) and Patrick Ewing (+5.9 with the New York Knicks in 1990).

Embiid posted impressive numbers for field-goal percentage (51.3), three-point percentage (37.7 which increased to 39.0 in the playoffs) and free-throw percentage (85.9), as well averaging 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists (which improved to 3.4 in the postseason).

Only scoring leader Stephen Curry (32.0), Bradley Beal (31.3) and Damian Lillard (28.8) – all guards – averaged more points per game than Embiid.

 

The heart and soul of this Philly team, it is clear when Embiid steps onto the court. In 2020-21, the 76ers held a 45-17 win-loss record with their big man involved but that 72.6 winning percentage dropped to 50.0 without him as they slumped to 11-11.

Philadelphia regressed in almost every single category in Embiid's absence – points per game (115.4 to 110.2), field-goal percentage (48.6 to 46.1), three-point percentage (38.7 to 34.9), assists per game (24.3 to 22.7), blocks per game (6.3 to 6.0) and fast-break points (15.6 to 13.4). At the other end of the floor, rival teams benefited as their points per game (107.6 to 109.8), field-goal percentage (44.7 to 46.9), three-point percentage (36.7), rebounds per game (42.8 to 43.3) and points in the paint (45.4 to 47.9) all rose.

His exploits earned a fourth All-Star selection, with Embiid now eligible to sign a four-year, supermax extension after being selected to the All-NBA Second Team. While there has long been question marks over his health and fitness, his form merits a monster pay rise.

Worryingly for the rest of the league, Embiid is not a player who rests on his laurels. The Cameroonian is determined to deliver a title to the city of Brotherly Love.

"Losing, obviously, it's gonna take a toll on me, and it does and it's doing it, but it’s also on me," said Embiid after Philly's playoff exit. "I gotta be better. I gotta take another step when it comes to taking care of my body and my game as a whole, because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven't really seen."

How do you solve a problem like Ben Simmons?

"I love being in Philly. I love this organisation," Simmons said after he was subjected to boos by Philly fans after their Game 7 loss to the Hawks. "The fans are great, great people. I had a bad series. I expect that. It's Philly."

Former number one pick Simmons, however, may not have a choice on the matter amid intensifying trade talk.

The 24-year-old had no fourth-quarter field-goal attempts in his last four games of the playoffs. He is the only NBA player in the last 20 seasons to have four consecutive postseason games with no field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter during a season in which he was an All-Star.

Fresh off elimination, Rivers was asked if he thought Simmons could be a guard on a championship team, and he told reporters post-game: "I don't know the answer to that right now."

Since then, Rivers has said he wants the player to remain as the 76ers have a plan for the Australian star, who will skip the Olympic Games in Tokyo to focus on his skillset.

But after four seasons in the league, there has been no improvement from three-time All-Star Simmons in one fundamental area – shooting.

An elite defender and creator, debate around Simmons centres on his offence or lack thereof, with the 76ers handicapped by his unwillingness to shoot.

 

Simmons' field-goal percentage has regressed, dropping from 58.0 in 2019-20 to 55.7 this season – he only managed worse in his 2017-18 rookie campaign (54.5).

He averaged just 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It is the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career worst 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.

Then there is Simmons and free throws. He was exposed by rival teams as they regularly sent him to the line, with the Melbourne-born guard making just 25 of 73 shots in the 2020-21 playoffs. His 34.2 free-throw percentage is the lowest ever in a single postseason.

Simmons' unwillingness to shoot – he passed on a wide-open dunk during the closing stages against the Hawks, instead passing to Matisse Thybulle – who was fouled and made just one of the two free throws, irked Embiid.

"I'll be honest," Embiid said after the game. "I thought the turning point was when we - I don't know how to say it - but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw.

"We didn't get a good possession on the other end and Trae [Young] came back and he made a three and then from there down four, it's on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point."

Having reportedly considered the idea of using Simmons as part of a deal to prise James Harden from the Houston Rockets in January before the former MVP eventually joined the Brooklyn Nets, Morey has a decision to make with the 76ers in the win-now window.

Doc's Game 7 woes continue

Is Rivers the man to complete the process for the 76ers?

A proven winner with Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics, Rivers landed on his feet following his exit from the Los Angeles Clippers, named All-Star coach after guiding the 76ers to a 49-23 record atop the east, ahead of the star-studded Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.

With Doc on the sidelines, Embiid vaulted himself to within a whisker of the MVP as the 76ers clinched the easiest path to the Conference Finals. After a humiliating series sweep to the Celtics in the opening round inside the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort the previous year, things looked on the up for Philly.

 

However, it was an all too familiar story for Rivers. His team collapsed.

Rivers suffered a fourth consecutive Game 7 defeat to tie the longest streak ever by an NBA head coach, after former Sacramento Kings and Rockets coach Rick Adelman also lost four in a row from 2002 to 2009.

The 76ers blew an 18-point lead in Game 4 against the Hawks before surrendering a 26-point advantage at home to Atlanta in Game 5. That came after Doc's Clippers somehow squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in 2020.

"Listen, this team last year got swept in the first round. We had a chance to go to the Eastern finals. I'm not gonna make this into a negative year,” Rivers said.

Rivers has 29 losses with a chance to clinch a playoff series – the most defeats by a coach in NBA history. His 34.1 win percentage is the worst ever among coaches with 20-plus games.

The 59-year-old is under the microscope on the back of this latest failure, having not progressed past the second round of the playoffs since the 2012 postseason in Boston.

Verdict: Revolution

Morey and general manager Elton Brand have their work cut out this offseason, with Simmons' future at the top of the list.

Despite a horrendous playoff series, there is still plenty of value around Simmons. A host of teams are already reportedly circling, and there is a general consensus that it is time for player and franchise to go their separate ways.

Simmons could do with a change of scenery and the 76ers could use a legitimate shooter/scorer. Now it is up to Morey to weave his magic and supplement Embiid's MVP-calibre ability. Damian Lillard, perhaps? What about Bradley Beal?

Then there is Philadelphia's bench and depth. The 76ers ranked 13th in the NBA for points per game from their reserves (37.3). It remains to be seen whether the likes for Furkan Korkmaz will still be around come tip-off in 2021-22, so boosting the team's bench and three-point shooting is paramount if Philly are to get beyond the second round and complete the process.

Giannis Antetokounmpo bucked the trend of exclusively high draft picks winning NBA MVP before Nikola Jokic took it to an entirely different level this past season.

As the 41st overall selection in 2014, Jokic became by far the lowest draft pick ever to win the award, surpassing Antetokoumpo and Steve Nash, who were both chosen 15th overall. Prior to Jokic and Antetokoumpo, the previous 10 MVPs were won by players picked between first overall (LeBron James, Derrick Rose) and seventh (Stephen Curry).

Jokic's MVP serves to further illustrate that big-time NBA talent can be found lower in the draft, and while most second round and undrafted players may not win any MVPs, they can still become regulars that make major contributions in the right situations.

This year's draft class has an elite first tier with the likes of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs, yet it also boasts some solid depth, with potential gems lurking into the second round or later.

Here's a look at five players that could outperform pre-draft expectations:

KESSLER EDWARDS - Pepperdine

One look at Edwards' statistics during his three seasons at Pepperdine and improvement and versatility jump off the page. After averaging 10 points and 5.6 rebounds in his 2018-19 freshman season, Edwards went up to 13.8 with 7.5 boards the following year, followed by a breakout campaign with 17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and a career-best 49.1 field-goal percentage in 2020-21. That also included an 87.6 free-throw percentage that ranked among the best in the nation.

He earned first-team all-WCC honours and was named CBI Tournament MVP after Pepperdine defeated Coastal Carolina for the title. Edwards was one of six Division I players this past season to average at least 17 points and 6.5 rebounds while also making 45 three-pointers.

Edwards proved to be consistent from deep with a 38.7 percentage (148-for-378) during his time with the Waves, and any 6ft 8" player that can score, rebound and connect from long range will draw the interest of NBA teams. Add in Edwards' length and high-level defence and a first-round pick would seem to be a guarantee, but he's expected to drop into the second round or possibly go undrafted, mainly because he didn't play at a Power Six school and the long-held belief is that facing lesser competition in college is a detriment at the next level.

One of the knocks on Edwards is a funky hitch in his shot that makes him look as if he's almost shot-putting the ball toward the basket. Maybe a team could alter his shooting style at some point but that should not prevent him from being drafted.

Even if his offensive game fails to develop - and that seems unlikely - Edwards shouldn't have a problem guarding multiple positions in the NBA. He is quick enough to stick with smaller guards and forwards and is lanky enough to cope with bigger post players as well.

 A minimal contributor off the bench would likely be where Edwards finds himself early in his NBA career, but he has enough upside as an on-ball defender with a developing perimeter game to potentially excel as a starter or regular rotation player in time.

JEREMIAH ROBINSON-EARL - Villanova

Robinson-Earl only spent two seasons at Villanova but received plenty of accolades in his brief tenure with the Wildcats. He was named Big East Freshman of the Year in 2019-20 and captured co-Big East Player of the Year honours this past season, leading the team with 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds.

Jay Wright's program has produced a considerable amount of pro talent lately in Josh Hart, Saddiq Bey, Eric Paschall, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo, with Robinson-Earl having an excellent opportunity to continue the Wildcats' success in the NBA.

While he does not project as a future All-Star due to average athletic ability, Robinson-Earl can do a lot of different things well and is a smart player with intangibles that NBA teams love to have on their roster. There may be other players with higher upsides that get drafted in the second round, but Robinson-Earl can score, rebound, guard multiple positions and plays with a relentless motor.

A more refined offensive game and the ability to shoot from long range more consistently would make Robinson-Earl a more appealing prospect, but he does have a soft touch and a smooth release from mid-range. He is comfortable playing low in the post, does not shy away from the physical side of the game and has great court vision with a knack for making the right play.

Much in the way that Draymond Green - a second-round pick himself - is utilised by the Warriors, Robinson-Earl could eventually fill a similar role for a team that has stars occupying other positions on the court.

JOE WIESKAMP - Iowa

Every year there are a few players that get a huge boost from the draft combine and chief among that group this season is Wieskamp. Before an impressive showing in Chicago, the Iowa sharpshooter was facing the possibility of going undrafted despite a stellar college career.

He averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 rebounds this past season and led all players in three-point accuracy, making 49.5 percent (51-for-103) of his attempts in Big Ten play in earning all-conference second team honours. Wieskamp was the only Division I player in the nation to total at least 400 points, 200 rebounds 70 three-pointers and 25 steals. He also made five three-pointers in six games in 2020-21, second most of any player from a major conference.

More than ever, teams are putting a premium on perimeter shooting and Wieskamp is among the best available in that department, as evidenced by his 41.2 percentage (184-for-447) from deep during his time at Iowa. At 6ft 7", he can use his size to take advantage of smaller defenders that get switched onto him and his mechanics are near flawless with a high release.

One knock on Wieskamp is his relative inability to create his own shot but as a good athlete with surprising jumping ability, he should be able to overcome that with experience at the next level.

Wieskamp has the skills and ability to provide instant offense off the bench and is the perfect floor spacer for today's game. His pure shooting stroke, combined with rebounding and defensive ability should make him a valuable contributor in the NBA for years to come.

JOSH CHRISTOPHER - Arizona State

Christopher is the classic story of a player whose stock drops due to an injury. Limited to just 15 games in his only season for Arizona State in 2020-21, the 6-foot 5, 215-pound guard is a high-risk, high-reward pick that has NBA athleticism with the ability to excel at both ends of the court.

A likely first-round selection before injuries and COVID protocols ended his season in February, Christopher's value took a hit, and he could fall into the middle part of the second round. That range is often the perfect time to take a gamble on an athletic player with skills that match well in the NBA, even if other parts of his game need work.

Christopher had a few exceptional games in his one college season, including a 28-point, 11-for-17 performance against then-No. 3 Villanova on November 26 in the championship game of the Empire Classic. That 28-point display was tied for the most points allowed by the Wildcats all season. Christopher ended up averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals, and while he only shot 30.5 percent (18-for-59) from 3-point range, he did connect on 12-of-27 over his final seven games.

Guards with size that can get to the basket are always in demand and that's what Christopher does best. He is quick with excellent jumping ability and doesn't have a problem finishing through contact. Whether in transition or a half-court offense, Christopher is always a threat to soar to the hoop and create space for himself and his teammates. His defence may not be NBA-ready just yet, but his quickness and athleticism should in time make him a very good on-ball defender.

It's difficult to be a starting guard in today's pro game unless the 3-point shot is a big part of your arsenal and Christopher would need to work on that aspect of his game from the start. His mid-range shot is solid, but NBA defenders are far more difficult to overcome than those in college. He will also need to improve his shot selection and decision-making but that comes with experience and maturity.

AARON HENRY - Michigan State

Henry is arguably the best defender available in this class with his 6-foot 10 wingspan, instincts and versatility. His ability at that end of the court alone could make him a valuable piece, but he has the necessary skills to contribute on the offensive end as well.

Henry was named to the All-Big Ten third team after averaging 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks as a junior. He was the first Michigan State player to lead a team in points, rebounds and assists since assists were first recorded in 1975.

As the focal point, Henry basically dragged the Spartans into their 23rd straight NCAA Tournament with limited help from his team-mates this past season. Henry is excellent in the mid-range and his 3-point shot is better than he gets credit for. After shooting 9-for-43 (20 percent) from long range in the first 14 game of the 2020-21 season, Henry knocked down 39.5 percent (15-for-38) over the last 14 games.

While he is unlikely to wow anyone with his physical skills and is not yet a polished offensive player, Henry is more than capable of holding his own against NBA competition. His ball-handling, passing and shot creation are very good and his mid-range output compares favorably to current NBA players Khris Middleton and Jamal Murray when they were coming out of college.

A smart and unselfish player, Henry is an excellent value pick in the second round and projects as a rotation player in the NBA.

After a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference was followed by a first-round exit in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics decided it was time for change.

Danny Ainge, the long-time director of basketball operations, is out. Brad Stevens' reign as head coach is over too, though he has switched from orchestrating plays on the sideline to making deals in the front office. His replacement on the bench, Ime Udoka, is an experienced member of supporting casts who finally gets a chance to take on a lead role.

The revamp was not just restricted to team staff, either.

Kemba Walker – seen as a major addition in 2019 – was deemed expendable amid concerns over both his long-term health and salary number. The deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder came at a cost – Boston had to give up their first-round pick in this year's draft as a sweetener – but it may not be the final move for a franchise aiming to regain momentum.

For so long, the Celtics were viewed as a team on the rise. A plethora of burgeoning talents were allowed to develop under the highly rated Stevens, a graduate from the college system who steered them to the Eastern Conference Finals on three occasions between 2017 and 2020.

However, 2020-21 was undoubtedly a step back. A 36-36 record in the regular season, albeit amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, was a surprise. Losing to the Brooklyn Nets in five, however, was not. In fact, the only shock was that they managed to avoid being swept.

So what happens in the next chapter of the Celtics story? Stevens must work out the path for a team that, after playing the long game, has quickly been left behind by its rivals

Boston's double act offers hope

Capitalising on a plethora of draft picks stockpiled over time, the Celtics had sculpted a roster that appeared a step away from moving onto the next level. Major moves were made to try and tip the balance: Kyrie Irving appeared the perfect marriage only for the relationship to flame out, while Gordon Hayward endured a hugely unfortunate start and never completely recovered.

Walker has gone now too, leaving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the two fundamental pillars in place for Boston to build around.

Brown finished with a career-high 24.7 points per game at the end of the regular season, a figure aided by shooting 39.7 per cent from deep when averaging 7.1 three-pointers an outing. He attempted more shots in general, with his 19.2 field goals up from 15.6 in the previous campaign. There was also an upturn in assists as well.

However, a wrist injury meant he missed the series against the Nets. Tatum fought a lone hand, including a 50-point performance in Game 3. He became the third Celtic to reach a half-century in a regulation playoff game, joining a select group that also includes John Havlicek and Sam Jones.

Yet that stunning performance merely delayed the inevitable. In putting together a big three, the Nets had jumped the queue in the East. Boston were one of only two teams to have a pair of players finish in the top 20 for points per game in the regular season. The other? Brooklyn, of course.

Tatum averaged an impressive 26.8 points per 75 possessions to continue on an upward curve. Kevin Durant described the third overall pick in the 2017 draft as a "tough, tough cover" after trying to keep him quiet during the first-round matchup. Like Brown, the 23-year-old showed his all-round capabilities by setting career-high averages for points, rebounds and assists.

His usage rate of 30.8 per cent for every 75 possessions was both a sign of his growing status and also a by-product of an ever-changing cast around him. The Celtics used 37 different line-ups – only three teams topped that figure – as injuries and the added wrinkle of the NBA's COVID-19 protocols left Stevens consistently shuffling the deck on a nightly basis.

However, the absences should not paper over the cracks: Brown and Tatum - whose absence from an All-NBA team cost him $33million in his rookie extension – need help.

 

Moving on from Walker

Boston hoped Walker would be a multi-dimensional scoring guard who could also facilitate for others. The issue was he did not play nearly enough to merit holding on to that ideal any longer.

Walker was restricted to 43 appearances in the regular season, during which he averaged 19.3 points per game – his lowest total since 2014-15. The team was marginally better with him on the court – they scored at 113.2 points per 100 possessions, compared to 109.6 without – though played at a slightly higher pace when the former Charlotte Hornet was absent.

Taking into consideration the likelihood of the four-time All-Star utilising his player option for the 2022-23 season, there was over $73m left on his deal. Boston did get something in return from the Thunder, as a familiar face returned for a second spell (more on that later).

Walker's departure provides some cap relief, of course, but it also leaves a sizable hole in the roster. Marcus Smart appears the in-house option to start at point guard, yet he is heading into a contract year and is still yet to demonstrate how he can be relied upon for consistent offensive production.

His 14.2 points per 75 possessions ranked him 222nd in the league, although a player with a reputation for being a pest to opposing teams posted a defensive rating of 112.8, the highest of his NBA career. As he heads into his eighth season, Smart is a solid contributor capable of making plays without the ball, yet also someone opposing teams do not fear having possession in crunch time.

The same may well be said for Al Horford, even if the Celtics are not quite getting the same player who said farewell to Boston in 2019.

You can call me, Al

Life in Philadelphia did not pan out for Horford following his move in free agency two years ago, with him stuck as the odd man out in a crowded front court where Joel Embiid rules the roost. His time in Oklahoma was short-lived, but now he is back in familiar surroundings.

The 14-year veteran returns having become a more frequent three-point shooter since his first stint – his average of 5.4 attempts in 20 games for the Thunder was a career high, a stark contrast to the player who tried 18 shots from beyond the arc across his first six years in the league.

His playmaking abilities will help lighten the load on Brown and Tatum, while his experience should be invaluable to promising big Robert Williams, whose effective field goal percentage of 72.1 left him behind only DeAndre Jordan in the entire NBA.

Williams also showed he can be a presence on defense, with only five players averaging more blocked shots per game. The third-year center is a low usage, high-value finisher when close to the rim who is primed to take on a starting role.

In general, however, Boston's defensive numbers suffered a dip. Having ranked second in the category in 2019-20, giving up 107.3 points per outing, they fell outside the top 10 this term, their points against number finishing up at 111.2

The Celtics also have a decision to make over Evan Fournier, the trade-deadline addition who is now a free agent. Outside shooting is a must in the league, and the Frenchman was successful with 46.3 per cent of his three-point attempts in the regular season following his arrival from the Orlando Magic.

Last year's first-round selection Payton Pritchard, who shot 46.7 per cent when averaging 2.5 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, showed signs of promise, but Boston still needs more shooting depth.

 

Verdict: Evolution

The revolution may have already occurred in Boston. After over 600 games as the head coach, Stevens wasted no time in making an impact following his change of roles.

However, a full re-shaping of the team would require trading away one of the core pieces he has worked so closely with over recent years. Smart, who makes just over $14m on an expiring deal, appears the most trade-friendly asset: the Celtics know the clock is ticking.

Whether Smart sticks around or not, Boston needs more to aid their dynamic duo in Brown and Tatum. The cap situation suggests dipping a toe into the free agency waters, rather than diving right in. There is no point pinning too much faith on the draft process for help either, as their first-round selection is now sitting in the Thunder's treasure chest of picks.

Stevens will survey the landscape and acknowledge standing still is a risk. Brooklyn have their big three, Giannis Antetokounmpo is ensconced in the East with Milwaukee and the Atlanta Hawks have suddenly found their wings to make a run to the Conference Finals.

His final year saw Boston average 1.18 points per possession, behind only the Sacramento Kings, while their effective field goal percentage of 63.3 ranked fourth. There is much to like about this group, yet also a feeling that standing pat is a risk with few potential rewards.

If there is a shortcut to potentially becoming a title candidate, it could be in the form of a frustrated superstar ripe for picking off in a blockbuster trade. That, however, would require a change of mindset when it comes to how they have gone about team building in recent years.

Moving Walker was a fine start, but Stevens the GM has to get creative if Boston are to get back involved in the title race again, rather than just making up the playoff numbers.

It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

Randle raises the level

Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

 

On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

"That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

Julius just too important?

Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

 

Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

Big spenders or big savers

As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

A rare watching brief

The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

Verdict: Evolution

Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

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