The Los Angeles Lakers are set to add another former MVP, as several media outlets reported they will acquire Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in a draft-night blockbuster. 

In return for Westbrook and second-round picks in 2024 and 2028, the Lakers reportedly are sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the 22nd overall pick in Thursday's draft to Washington. 

While the deal cannot be officially completed until August 6, when the salary cap for next season is set, commissioner Adam Silver announced the portion involving the draft pick from the podium on Thursday. 

With the 22nd pick that was part of the trade, the Lakers selected Isaiah Jackson from Kentucky and sent him to Indiana as part of a separate deal between the Indiana Pacers and Wizards that reportedly will net Washington Aaron Holiday and the number 31 pick.

But Los Angeles native and former UCLA star Westbrook was the man everyone was talking about on Thursday. 

After one season with Washington, Westbrook will head west to join LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff loss a year after winning the NBA title. 

The move will cost LA, who will owe their new star trio a combined $121million next season. 

But the Lakers will be hoping for big things from the nine-time All-Star Westbrook, who was the league's MVP in 2016-17 while playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder and turns 33 in November. 

Westbrook averaged 22.2 points and a career-high 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds in 65 regular-season games last season, recording triple-doubles in 38 of them.

Along the way, he broke Oscar Robertson's long-standing record of 181 career triple-doubles, finishing the season with 184. 

From Washington's perspective, moving on from Westbrook frees up money to keep Bradley Beal as the team's centerpiece moving forward as he enters the final year of his contract. 

The Wizards also added some supporting pieces in the deal, as Harrell averaged 13.5 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Lakers last season, while Kuzma contributed 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and Caldwell-Pope 9.7 points. 

 

 

 

In the end, there really was no suspense. The Detroit Pistons made the expected move, taking Cade Cunningham with the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday. 

The Houston Rockets followed up by selecting Jalen Green second overall and the Cleveland Cavaliers took Evan Mobley third. 

Though everyone had predicted for months that Cunningham would be the top pick, he still had to take time to collect himself after NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name. 

"It's still crazy to be in the moment," Cunningham told ESPN. "Words can't really describe the emotions. ... I'm just so happy to be here and I'm ready to see what I can do at the next level."

The 19-year-old Cunningham starred in his only season at Oklahoma State, earning consensus All-America honours after averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

At 6-foot-8, he looks like a forward but plays like a guard and is comfortable creating shots for his team-mates and scoring on his own. 

Green, 19, skipped college to go straight to the NBA G League Ignite developmental team. The 6-foot-6 guard is a natural scorer who should provide the Rockets and immediate boost on the offensive end. 

Mobley, 20, is known for his two-way abilities, excelling on offence and defence in his lone season at Southern California. The 7-footer averaged 16.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks for the Trojans. 

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.

Luka Doncic is breaking new ground with his performances for Slovenia at the Olympic Games, according to Japan coach Julio Lamas.

Slovenia have two wins from two in Pool C, with Doncic dominating against both Argentina and, on Thursday, hosts Japan.

The Dallas Mavericks superstar had 48 points on his Games debut and added 25 more in the 116-81 defeat of Japan, as well as seven rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and two steals.

These performances follow on from another outstanding NBA season, in which Doncic scored 27.7 points per game in the regular season – sixth-most in the league – and improved further in the playoffs.

Doncic's only two postseason series to date have been defeats to the Los Angeles Clippers, but he has now averaged 33.5 points in 13 games – no player in the history of the NBA has scored more per game in 13 career playoff games or more.

The 22-year-old's immense talent has translated superbly to the international stage, too, with Lamas describing Slovenia as "a very complete team with one amazing player". They have won all 15 games he has played for his country in all competitions.

"Doncic is one of the best four or five players in the world right now, even in the NBA," Lamas said.

"But he plays very comfortable in FIBA with the spaces and the rules – he dominates, too. Some other NBA players feel uncomfortable sometimes in FIBA. He is not.

"It's not easy to have a plan [against Doncic] because he is excellent in all the game situations. He can score driving, shooting or post-up and he creates the game for all the other players.

"I don't see in the last 30 years one player dominate the game like he has in this tournament.

"It's not nice [to face Doncic]. When you lose, you're never happy. But I think it's a good experience to play one time against him. I will remember."

Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez, the last man to attempt to halt Doncic, described him as "the best player in the world", and his Slovenia team-mates agreed after another show of strength.

"He's our leader," said Jaka Blazic. "For me, he's the best player at the Olympics and also in the world. We just follow him, everybody knows his role and that's important in a winning team."

Zoran Dragic, who played with Doncic's father Sasa for Slovan, added: "It's crazy, because when I was playing I was playing with his father, too, he was like six, seven years old, and now he's one of the best players in the world.

"I'm happy that I can witness and play with him. He's such an awesome guy and, especially, it's so easy to play with him because he is just an unbelievable person and basketball player. We can be all happy that he's Slovenian."

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.

"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.

The Memphis Grizzlies are trading up to the 10th pick in Thursday's NBA Draft but must give up Jonas Valanciunas to the New Orleans Pelicans while taking Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe in return.

ESPN reported the Grizzlies were finalising a deal on Monday that would see them trade selections 17 and 51 for the Pels' 10 and 40 as well as a top-10 protected 2022 pick via the Los Angeles Lakers.

Lithuanian center Valanciunas leaves Memphis after two and a half years, having been the team's third scorer in 2020-21 with 17.1 points per game behind Ja Morant (19.1) and Dillon Brooks (17.2).

He also averaged 12.5 rebounds but heads to New Orleans, where he will be expected to create space for Zion Williamson.

It means another offseason of flux for the Pels, who selected Williamson with the first overall pick in 2019 as former number one selection Anthony Davis left for the Lakers.

The team have so far struggled to surround Williamson with the right talent, although he was an All-Star last season with 27.0 points – the eighth-most in the league.

Adams and Bledsoe arrived in 2020 as another star performer departed, this time Jrue Holiday in a four-team trade. Holiday won the title last week with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Adams contributed only 7.6 points per game and struggled to work in tandem with Williamson, while Bledsoe's 12.2 points made for his worst scoring season since 2012-13.

Crucially, the pair were set to count for more than 21 per cent of the Pels' cap in 2021-22.

New Orleans now have the flexibility to make an offer to Lonzo Ball or to eye up other free agents, including linked Toronto Raptors great Kyle Lowry.

The Grizzlies instead take on Adams' $17.1million and Bledsoe's $18.1m, but they do also now get a look at a top-10 pick in a talented draft class.

From trailblazer Luc Longley and his trophy-laden time alongside Michael Jordan in Chicago, to Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova and Ben Simmons. There has been a healthy contingent of Australian stars gracing the NBA.

Adelaide 36ers sensation Josh Giddey is set to join the growing list of Australians in the league when the 2021 NBA Draft takes place at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday.

After reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball was taken by the Charlotte Hornets with the third pick of the 2020 Draft, a player from the NBL is projected to hear their name called early for the second consecutive year.

Giddey has emerged as a potential lottery pick and could be drafted anywhere between the seventh and 14th selections following his exploits for the 36ers.

The 18-year-old playmaker caught the eye of NBA executives in a season which saw him crowned the NBL's Rookie of the Year after leading the league with 7.6 assists per game, while averaging 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in 28 appearances.

Regarded as the best Australian prospect since three-time All-Star Simmons was drafted first by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016, 36ers head coach Conner Henry hailed the Melbourne-born point guard.

"It's really been a rewarding experience for me as a coach," Henry told Stats Perform. "It's the first time I've had the opportunity to coach an elite talent at such a young age.

"I didn't really know what I exactly had coming in. I had seen Josh on film and in the Chicago camp a year earlier, when he was just a young, fairly tall, skinny kid who didn't play all that well. Carried himself confidently. You could see he played at a pace and made others around him better, but it wasn't like he stood out.

"Then you fast forward five-and-a-half/six months, he walks in and is two inches taller, 15kg heavier and he has really started to grow into his body. Then I knew I had something pretty special.

"It became pretty evident after a month and a half that he was going to be able to play - and play at a high level against grown men. As we went down that path with him, we were able to keep throwing more and more systems at him. He was very open to listening, to understanding what we're trying to put in play.

"Having played the position before, I was able to talk to him about angles. 'Do you see this window of an opportunity here when you turn a corner', 'how do you read the floor initially when you rebound the ball and pushing out on the break', these little things. I think he was well ahead of me already when I brought those things up. Really rewarding to see his growth and confidence grow daily."

Since 2012, Giddey's assists per game figure is only second to Cairns Taipans point guard Scott Machado – who averaged 7.6 in 2019-20.

 

"Every player when they reach a certain level of recognition or professional ranks, they're always the best of the best as they keep going in advancing on their path. Josh wasn't satisfied. He was always pushing forward and trying to get better, always trying to connect with his team-mates and that's his greatest strength because he makes everyone around him better," Henry said.

"His offensive game will continue to grow; he will be able to score more and he is going to become a very good three-point shooter eventually - the mechanics are sound. The release off the hand has improved, he is under the ball more, the rotation has improved and it will only get better.

"At the end of the day, his true strength is his size, his feel for the game and ability to find his team-mates."

While Giddey only shot 43 per cent from the field, the teenager – who was surprisingly overlooked for Australia's Olympic Games squad – frequently demonstrated his playmaking ability, athleticism and high basketball IQ under Henry's guidance in Adelaide.

Henry – a former assistant with the Orlando Magic, having played for the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings in the NBA – likened Giddey to fellow Australian and sharp-shooter Joe Ingles.

Ingles has become an integral part of the Utah Jazz franchise since his arrival in 2014, ranking fifth in three-point percentage (45.1 – a career high) last season.

"He'll get to a point where he will have to play harder as he matures physically," Henry said of Giddey. "He won't be able to take periodic breaks in the game and that can be managed minutes wise of course. He will have to be switched on at both ends, even more so than he was with us.

"Even at 18, he was very good but there were moments when at both ends of the floor where either we had to teach or correct him on things. He'll be fine, he will be surrounded by fantastic coaches who will push him. He likes to be pushed as a player. He will have to improve on the defensive end. I think he will become a good defender.

"I look at some of the Aussies in the league right now, Ingles isn't this elite athlete that is running up and down, high flying and dunking on people. Josh is that similar kind of Ingles body type. Plays at a good, sound speed, has good strength, uses his length wisely on both ends of the floor and Josh will get better and better in that part of the game in how to adjust and play both offensively and defensively."

Henry added: "Josh has been used to be playing in FIBA rules. Now he will be playing in NBA rules. With the defensive rules in place with the NBA, you can't pack the paint like you can in FIBA, where you can really load up. That, coupled with the ability of the offensive players to have more freedom of movement, where in FIBA it's quite physical.

"In the NBL, freedom of movement can be impeded quite a bit with a hand check, body check or hold. Josh is going to have even more success in the pick-and-roll game at the NBA level. He had very good success with us.

"I think his height, ability to see the floor and ability to make team-mates better, in the NBA rules, are only going to compliment his game and help him grow."

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.

After waiting half a century for a title, Milwaukee Bucks fans turned out by the thousands on Thursday to celebrate their team's NBA championship. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest of Milwaukee's players and staff received a hero's welcome as they paraded through the city atop busses and trucks.

Two days after closing out the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals for their first championship since 1971, the Bucks and their fans did not appear to have returned to earth. 

"Milwaukee, we did it, baby! We did it!" Antetokounmpo told the adoring crowd. "This is our city, man. We did it. It's unbelievable." 

Earlier, Antetokounmpo looked overwhelmed as thousands chanted "MVP!" while his bus rolled down the parade route.

"I'm proud of my team-mates, proud of the whole organisation for everything we did all year," Antetokounmpo said.

"We put in extremely unbelievable work, we believed in ourselves, we went out there ready to compete, and right now I'm extremely happy. I still can't believe this is happening, but I'm trying to be in the moment, trying to enjoy it as much as possible with you guys, with my team-mates, and with everybody." 

While Milwaukee's fans had waited a lifetime for a title, the players realised lifelong dreams as well.

None of them had previously won an NBA championship, and some, like Middleton, had lived the other end of the spectrum. 

His first season with the Bucks was 2013-14, when they went a league-worst 15-67. 

"It's just been a long time coming," Middleton said. "I've been here eight years, struggled, been through a lot of ups and downs, but we finally got the job done, for sure." 

That they did, despite losing the first two games of the Finals to the Suns - just as they had to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before rallying to win in seven games. 

"Each time we were down 0-2, all we did was get closer," Middleton said. "Some teams separate, some teams point fingers. We never pointed fingers, we never quit on each other. All we did was come closer and find a way to try and figure it out." 

The New Orleans Pelicans have appointed former Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green as their new head coach.

Green's appointment was delayed due to his commitments with Phoenix, who made it to the NBA Finals before Giannis Antetokounmpo ended their hopes to claim Milwaukee Bucks' first title since 1971.

Before joining the 2021 Western Conference champions, Green enjoyed a three-year spell at the Golden State Warriors, where he worked as an assistant coach under Steve Kerr as they won back-to-back NBA Championships in 2017 and 2018.

Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin praised Green for his "tireless work ethic and authenticity of character" as he announced the new head coach on Thursday.

"He brings a vast amount of basketball knowledge and experience to our team as both a coach and former player, along with exceptional leadership qualities and an innate ability to connect with players, staff and fans alike," Griffin said.

"We could not be more excited to welcome Willie and his family to New Orleans."

Green spent 12 years as a player in the NBA and appeared in 731 regular season games between 2003-15, reaching the playoffs seven times.

In his previous role with Phoenix, the Suns' defensive coordinator oversaw the NBA's sixth-best defensive rating, while he worked as head coach for the NBA Summer League in 2019, where he managed a 3-1 record in Las Vegas.

"I want to thank Mrs. Benson [Pelicans governor], David Griffin and the entire Pelicans organisation for having faith in me to lead this talented group of players moving forward," Green added.

"It's a blessing and an honour to get this opportunity in a special place like New Orleans. I look forward to getting to work and immersing myself and my family into the local community."

Green takes over from Stan Van Gundy, who mutually agreed to leave the Pelicans despite spending just the one year in charge.

Van Gundy's side disappointed last campaign as they went 31-41 to quash any playoffs hopes they may have had at the start of the year.

Green, who becomes the third-youngest coach in the NBA, may now look to build his team around first-round NBA 2019 Draft pick Zion Williamson, who has endured a tumultuous start to life in New Orleans.

 

France are expecting the United States to come out firing when the men's basketball competition at the Tokyo Olympics begins.

Team USA are favourites to win a fourth consecutive gold at the Games despite losing two exhibition games in a mixed build-up period to the tournament.

They open their Group A campaign against France in Saitama on Sunday.

France defeated the Americans in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals and head coach Vincent Collet expects that to be on the minds of their opponents.

He said: "We also know that they want to beat us because two years ago we did it in China - so we know what to expect."

Collet is aware that France's Olympics fate is unlikely to be determined by their group game with the USA, even if it is an occasion to savour.

Asked if it was an advantage to play USA first, he said: "I don't know. It's always a very tough game. It's a special game, but for us it’s just the beginning of the competition.

"I would hope that we play a good game but whatever happens we will need to beat the Czech Republic in the second one, which is probably even more important.

"The preparation has been up and down. We didn't have a couple of players until last week so it has hurt the preparation a little bit."

Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier are two of the five NBA players in the 12-man France roster.

Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green and Devin Booker are among the leading names playing for the USA.

Matthew Dellavedova is clear Australia have come to Tokyo with the objective of dethroning the United States and claiming the Olympic gold medal in basketball.

Winners of the last three golds, the USA are strong favourites to make it four in a row, though Australia and Spain are among the teams who should provide competition.

Team USA had a far-from-ideal Olympics preparation, losing to Australia in an exhibition game as well as suffering a defeat to Nigeria, while they have also lost some key players to withdrawals.

Kevin Durant said this week the main rivals of USA will go into the Games confident of producing an upset and that their star-studded roster has had "a slap in the face".

While Dellavedova is aware of the scale of the task to beat USA in competitive action, he is clear about the target Australia have set.

Australia lost to Spain in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals and also fell at the last-four stage at Rio 2016, so the former NBA champion wants to take the last steps to glory.

"The bar has been set since before Rio 2016 and the goal has not changed," former Cleveland Cavaliers man Dellavedova said.

"We know we have come up short in Rio and in China [at the World Cup] but the goal is the same.

"We want the gold medal, and we know how tough it is going to be.

"I thought we had a good week [of exhibition games] but you don't really know until you play anyone else. It's still early.

"There's a lot of things we've got to get better at, but incorporating the new guys in, it's been a lot of fun. They've fitted right in, brought a lot of energy and it's been good."

Head coach Nick Kay also goes into the Olympics full of ambition.

He said: "We're here to win. We want to win a gold. It's something that's been eluding us for a long time now and we want to do it, not just for our group but all the Boomers and Australian players that have been there before.

"We have got to stick together, that's our big thing right now. We have got to play hard each possession and do all those little things that make our Boomer culture special."

Nigeria, who also beat USA in a warm-up game, are Australia's first opponents on Sunday.

"I think they've shown a lot," Dellavedova said about Nigeria.

"They've got a lot of great players. Obviously they beat USA earlier in the week. Athletic, aggressive on defence, I think they made 20 or more threes against the US.

"They were really shooting the ball and moving it. It’s going to be tough, and we're going to have to be ready right from the start of the game."

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