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Nene Shows Wizards Impact Of His Skill, Health In Franchise's First Playoff Win Since 2008

CHICAGO – Inexperience promises to unravel and display flaws, these Washington Wizards listened to people tell them. All this talent up and down the roster, players with championship game moxie, and they still heard some couldn’t get over how their backcourt’s so young, how the veterans relied upon had broken down.

They listened to people pestering about how this postseason serves as the learning template for John Wall and Bradley Beal, and nothing more. On his walk out of the interview room on Sunday night, out of a convincing 24 points on an array of jump shots and post moves in the Wizards’ 102-93 Game 1 win over the Bulls, Nene let out a laugh, smiling about the perception of him and Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Al Harrington, succumbing to this first-round series as an educational tool for Wall, Beal and Washington’s youth.

Nene had lost sleep Saturday night, tossing and turning about the challenges that the Bulls presented. So you mean to tell him Chicago is heavy favorites in the series, and Nene shakes his head and asserts: I kill hours overnight worrying about my job, and we all must inherit the same urgency.

Seven made jump shots, four finishes in the paint, and Nene absolutely shredded the Bulls and outmuscled and outmatched Joakim Noah. For all of Wall’s talent, Beal’s purity on the jump shot and the balanced cast around them, no one commands the need to be utilized – no one requires the defensive crowd – quite like Nene. When he’s double-teamed, the passes swing to perimeter shooters. When the help fails to arrive, Nene goes to work.

“We never had a confident vet like Nene,” Wall told RealGM.

“Nene can come up with games like this when he’s rolling,” Gortat said. “Very talented, so dominant, so big – not many people in this league can match his strength and his skill.”

Production born out of his skill and strength never has been Nene’s issue, and his offensive grace and defensive hands – areas Tom Thibodeau marveled about – gave him All-Star potential with the Denver Nuggets. His ability to withstand a full season and stay effective into April became problematic, and this year some of his coaches quietly wondered about his capacity to contribute upon a return, wondered whether relying on his comeback was simply a wish.

Except Nene never endured a setback in his seven-week recovery from the knee injury, and teammates knew his desperate disposition would flow within him in those last four regular season games played. “He gives us our edge,” one Wizards staffer said. Wall and Beal dominate touches in Randy Wittman’s offense, and rightfully so, but they continued affirming Nene in huddles to stay aggressive and understood the sharpness in his mid-range jumper and post-up game.

The Wizards held their two most successful practices of the season leading up to Game 1, players said, pushing one another to maintain stamina. They had remembered giving away late leads throughout the season and punctuating losses with indecisive shot selection and passing.

Sunday night had shown Washington grasping control of themselves and the early part of this series, a victory despite the Bulls’ 13-point lead in the third quarter and through nearly eight minutes of the fourth. “We lost a lot of games at the end, but this time we played like an experienced team,” said Gortat, who supported Nene with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

He knows this, too: “We can win against anybody, but also we can lose against anybody.”

Thibodeau has imprinted his genius all over the Bulls’ season, and adjustments, film study and his grueling practices loom. One of his first messages Monday, and one he delivered Sunday? “Stop giving the 15-footer,” Thibodeau would tell his players as Nene drained jumper after jumper after jumper.

Noah played with a heart that had tended to the death of a close friend and mentor just days ago, and it’s unclear how much the event – much less the travel – had impacted him from New York on Thursday to Bulls practice Saturday. These Bulls had gone on a second half tear once Noah became a nightly threat for a triple-double, and so his 10-point, 10-rebound, four-assist performance Sunday left a desire for more.

Especially given Nene’s ferocity to bump and bruise bodies with Noah, his comfort with the ball in the high or low post. His fuel to delve deep into his repertoire – fadeaway jumpers, face-up shots, hooks – and those 35 minutes on that body left team officials nodding.

So there Nene was meeting his wife and walking out of the United Center on Sunday, from a mean demeanor on the court, delivering a hard foul on Jimmy Butler, to someone joyous to celebrate a holiday here. “To play on Easter Day is a double blessing,” Nene said.

Nene tossed and turned for hours trying to sleep, anxious about a franchise’s first postseason berth in seven years, and all Nene, Gortat and Ariza could do was smile about a supposed field trip here to learn. Everywhere around the Wizards, everyone knows Nene is capable of these big nights. Twenty-four points, eight rebounds and three assists, force, skill and a 1-0 series lead.

10-Year NBA Win Rank Snapshot

A 10-year season-by-season Win Rank snapshot for an NBA franchise creates an insightful visual narrative.

Toronto Raptors: The quick rise of the 06-07 season ended up becoming an aberration of the Bryan Colangelo/Chris Bosh tenure. The Raptors were never able to become a contender with that roster and they have begun their climb all the way up to 11th this season without a franchise superstar, making Masai Ujiri’s job more difficult and more intriguing.

Brooklyn Nets: The Jason Kidd and Vince Carter trades set the Nets rapidly down to the bottom of the NBA and a costly roster around Deron Williams has brought them back into the top half. A continuation of their M-shaped trajectory is probable due to the nature of constructing a roster via trades and free agency instead of the draft.

New York Knicks: The Knicks haven’t had a top-5 finish since 96-97 and only did the arrivals of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony brought the Knicks out of the twenties, where they’d been in all but one season since 2002. Re-signing Carmelo probably puts them on the M-shaped path of the Nets, while pulling together a better draft pick and multiple max contract slots in 2015 would almost certainly lead to a more sustainable way forward.

Boston Celtics: Since he’s done it before, Danny Ainge appears to again be quickly letting the Celtics get very bad with the hope of getting very good in very quick fashion. The Celtics nearly snuck into The Finals in 2012 despite finishing 10th in the NBA in the lockout-shortened season, but the fairly consistent decline of Pierce/Garnett/Allen is clear in this graph.

Philadelphia 76ers: Sam Hinkie inherited a team visibly on the NBA’s infamous mediocrity treadmill and the decision to begin a full-blown rebuild makes more sense in how badly the previous models were working. The 76ers have had just two top-10 finish since 90-91, as both the Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson eras were unsuccessful in building workable title contenders around future of Hall of Famers.

Indiana Pacers: On the mediocrity treadmill coming out of the Jermaine O’Neal/Ron Artest era, the Pacers very unexpected entered the NBA’s elite with the rise of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, two players not expected to become this good going into the draft.

Chicago Bulls: Squandering their position coming out of the Eddy Curry trade with the Ben Wallace signing and the preference of Tyrus Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge or Brandon Roy in the short-term, the Bulls shot back up to the NBA’s best with the lottery win for Derrick Rose along with the decision to hire Tom Thibodeau. The Joakim Noah part of the Curry trade is what saved the Bulls from crashing back to the NBA’s bottom third following Rose’s injuries.

Cleveland Cavaliers: The departure of LeBron James in 2010 serves as the first of several L-shaped dives. The Cavaliers’ drop from 7th to 13th after they reached The Finals in 2007 was a stronger indication of the limitations around LeBron in hindsight than we realized when they had the best record in the NBA in 08-09 and 09-10. Despite drafting first overall twice in three seasons and fourth in two of them, there is a lot of work on the roster that needs to be done before they return to the top half of the NBA.

Detroit Pistons: The Pistons were good and then they weren’t very quickly, dropping from 2nd in 07-08 to 17th in 08-09 with the Iverson for Chauncey Billups trading proving disastrous in the short-term that season and the signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva with the created cap space mimicking the result in the long-term.

Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have been moderately up but mostly down since Don Nelson’s departure in the late eighties. With just one top-10 finish since 1989, the Bucks have been consistently average until this 15-win season.

Miami Heat: The Shaquille O’Neal/Dwyane Wade run was always going to be a short one, but the speed of the fall exceeded expectations. Wade was trapped in mediocrity before the arrivals of LeBron and Bosh in 2010.

Washington Wizards: The supposed glory days of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler looks far more modest in hindsight with 12th-15th finishes in those four seasons before injuries hit. The Wizards have been on the Thunder Model since John Wall’s arrival, but they appear to be a James Harden short with Otto Porter being their final high pick before becoming a playoff team.

Charlotte Bobcats: The Bobcats were unable to parlay successive seasons of high picks into more than a team with the 15th best record in the NBA and improving beyond 16th this season will be equally challenging without a pick in this class.

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks escaped an eight-year run in the NBA’s cellar by jumping onto the mediocrity treadmill. Even as Danny Ferry as stripped significant portions of the roster, the Hawks have remained a playoff team somehow.

Orlando Magic: The Magic climbed steadily as Stan Van Gundy figured out how to construct a system around Dwight Howard, but they didn’t have enough young pieces to make it sustainable. When Howard was traded in 2012, the Magic predictably bottomed out altogether as part of the Thunder Model.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Brand/Cassell/Kaman run was a quick rise and fall for Mike Dunleavy, but winning the lottery in 2009 for Blake Griffin and trading for Chris Paul very quickly propelled the Clippers to the NBA’s elite strata with improvement each of their three seasons together.

Golden State Warriors: The 2007 and 2008 Warriors, built around Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and a young Monta Ellis, were high on entertainment but just slightly above average in wins. The Warriors missed the playoffs in 2008 and then fell back to the bottom third of the NBA when Davis left for the Clippers. A healthy Stephen Curry and a better overall roster gave the Warriors a quick climb to the NBA’s top-10 in each of the past two seasons.

Phoenix Suns: The first year of the graph coincides with the arrival of Steve Nash in which they had the best record in the NBA. The bounce back season in 09-10 from 13th to 5th was the final chance for Nash, as the departure oStoudemire that offseason sent them down to the bottom half.

Sacramento Kings:  The Kings were a top-8 team from 00-01 until 04-05 and this graph shows the quick fall to the bottom of the league where they have been stuck without winning a lottery to draft the type of franchise cornerstone that can turnaround the franchise.

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers have the most ‘what goes up must come down’ looking graph in the entire NBA. When Shaquille O’Neal was traded in 2004, they dropped to 21st, but quickly returned to 10th in 05-06 and the Pau Gasol trade/Andrew Bynum development made them elite again.

Oklahoma City Thunder: When the Thunder Model is referred to, this is what it looks like in terms of wins. The Ray Allen/Rashard Lewis Sonics fell swiftly from a great 04-05 season to 21st in 05-06 and Sam Presti put his foot on the drowning core. Three bad seasons followed for Kevin Durant, which is even more remarkably bad in hindsight considering how great he’s become, and then their meteoric rise to a perennial top-5 team.

Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers shot up from 24th to 16th to 7th with the Brandon Roy/LaMarcus Aldridge core before injuries derailed their chance at joining the elite. The Damian Lillard/Terry Stotts arrival prevented the Blazers from needing to bottom out and trade away Aldridge.

Minnesota Timberwolves: We’re missing the L-shape franchise player departure we have seen from other clubs since this graph doesn’t include the Wolves’ 03-04 season in which they finished 2nd in the NBA in wins. Kevin Love has brought the Wolves out of the very bottom of the NBA, but several bad drafts has the team weighed down to mediocrity.

Denver Nuggets: The departure of Carmelo didn’t hurt the Nuggets in the short-term, but the absence of an All-Star talent in this past injury-filled season exposed some of the roster construction issues.

Utah Jazz: The Jazz executed a quick rebuild out of the Malone/Stockton era around Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko, but they were a little short of ever reaching the top-5 despite making the 2007 Western Conference Finals. The Jazz fully embraced the youth movement this season by letting Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk.

San Antonio Spurs: Extend this out to 89-90 and the graph is even more impressive. The Spurs have been 10th or better every season except of course 96-97 when David Robinson was injured. The Spurs have been a top-5 team in wins in 18 of those 25 seasons. The gold standard in every way.

Houston Rockets: The Thunder Model will continue to be more frequently imitated, but the Rockets Model will be interesting to study should Dwight Howard and James Harden reach The Finals in one of the next three seasons. The Rockets never dropped below the middle of the NBA coming out of the Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady era, but they were able to construct a well-balanced team around two of the top-10 players in the league.

Memphis Grizzlies: The L-shape appears again with the Gasol trade in 06-07, but the rise back up to the top-10 is quick due to the Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph acquisitions.

Dallas Mavericks: The Dirk Nowitzki/Mark Cuban partnership has only produced one title, but it looks a lot like a slightly lesser version of the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan Spurs. The drop from 5th to 14th and 17th following the championship was part of a short-term plan for a long-term rebuilding with the hopes of landing Howard and Williams, but they’ve successively pieced it back together with undervalued assets like Monta Ellis.

New Orleans Pelicans: Chris Paul gave the then-Hornets a rapid turnaround, yet it proved unsustainable with an uncertain ownership and injury issues. Anthony Davis gave the Pelicans the chance to replicate the Thunder Model, but Dell Demps has been instructed to accelerate the timeline with costly moves for Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans.

Breaking Down The Rookie Seasons Of The 2013 Lottery Class

In a society where patience has gone out the window and only instant gratification matters, the poor play of the 2013 rookie class has many ready to write them off entirely. But while there isn’t an Anthony Davis in the bunch, this year’s draft had plenty of good young players who, for a variety of reasons, were not ready to make an immediate impact in the NBA. With so many freshman and sophomores taken in the lottery, the draft is a long-term project anyway.

If you look at this year’s lottery as a whole, one thing stands out. If a team is good enough to contend for a playoff spot, it’s hard for a rookie to get minutes. If a team is bad enough to where they can afford to give rookie a bunch of minutes, he will be putting up inefficient numbers on a bad team. From a statistical perspective, it’s hard for a rookie to be impressive in either situation. Chalk it up as a learning experience for all these guys.

1) Anthony Bennett: Pretty much nothing has gone right for Bennett since he was the surprise No. 1 pick last June. The GM who drafted him has already been fired, while shoulder surgery in the offseason caused him to show up to training camp out of shape. It was hard for him to find minutes on a Cleveland team that thought it was contending for the playoffs, and when he got on the floor, he didn’t do much besides hoist up a lot of shots and play abysmal defense.

The first thing he needs to do is get in better shape, since there aren’t many 6’8 260 forwards in the NBA. He has the talent - in college, he showed a rare combination of explosiveness, ball-handling and shooting ability for a 6’8 guy. The biggest challenge for him is learning how to impact the game without having the ball in his hands. The Cavs guards aren’t moving the ball too much - if you are going to score, you had better rebound, run the floor and move off the ball.

2) Victor Oladipo: Oladipo had a solid rookie season for a Magic team that had nothing but time to develop him. Going forward, the question is whether they commit to developing him as a PG or move him off the ball. While he has the length and athleticism to swing between both guard positions, he averaged only 4.1 assists on 3.2 turnovers as a rookie, an indication of a player not comfortable creating offense for others. Who they draft with their two lottery picks in 2014 will say a lot.

3) Otto Porter: Like Bennett, Porter hit the trifecta for a rough rookie season. He was drafted to a team with playoff aspirations, he had multiple veterans ahead of him on the depth chart and he got injured in training camp. He essentially took a redshirt season as a rookie, which isn’t the worst thing for a 20-year old who needs to put some weight on his frame. Porter has plenty of skill, the question is whether there will be minutes and touches for him in Washington next season.

4) Cody Zeller: The unexpected emergence of Josh McRoberts consigned Zeller to a small role as a rookie, playing 17 minutes a game behind McRoberts and Al Jefferson upfront. Like most rookie big men, Zeller needs to put on weight in the off-season in order to survive in the NBA paint. His 73 percent mark from the free-throw line is a good sign - he needs to be an outside-in 7’0 who plays in the high post and uses the threat of the perimeter jumper to open up the drive.

5) Alex Len: Like a lot of the guys in this year’s draft, Len was the victim of his NBA team exceeding expectations as a rookie. Instead of playing for draft position, the Suns ended up in playoff contention until the last week of the season, leaving little time to develop a raw 20-year-old lottery pick. Len is big (7’1 255), athletic and reasonably skilled and he’s five years younger than Miles Plumlee, which tells you how patient you need to be with young centers.

6) Nerlens Noel: After tearing his ACL toward the end of his freshman season at Kentucky, Noel was never going to have a big rookie season in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers took him as a long-term project and kept him off the floor the entire season. Noel showed plenty of promise at Kentucky, but he was also incredibly skinny as well as very raw on the offense. Larry Sanders didn’t start turning the corner in the NBA until he was 24 and Noel is still only 20.

7) Ben McLemore: McLemore wasn’t in Kansas anymore as a rookie, as he went from a featured role in Bill Self’s offense to scraping for shots next to Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. He’s got the stroke and athleticism to be an excellent SG in the NBA, but he has a long way to go in terms of shot selection and not too many guys to learn from in Sacramento. Going forward, he needs to focus on defense and moving the ball and the shots will come (hopefully).

8) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: Caldwell-Pope got plenty of opportunities in the dumpster fire that was the Pistons season, but he didn’t do all that much with them. With Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith clogging up the paint, Caldwell-Pope had to serve as one of their main floor spacers and he shot only 30 percent from three-point territory. Like the rest of the Pistons, he would benefit from unwinding the logjam upfront and playing with more shooters around him.

9) Trey Burke: Burke broke his finger in the preseason and by the time he returned to the lineup, the Jazz season was essentially over. No rookie in this year’s class walked into more responsibility than Burke, who played 32 minutes a night in Utah and had the ball in his hands most of the time. He made the players around him better - averaging 5.6 assists on 1.9 turnovers as a rookie - he just needs more help on the offensive end from whoever Utah drafts this season.

10) CJ McCollum: Another lottery pick whose rookie season was short-circuited before it got a chance to get going. Damian Lillard and Mo Williams do everything McCollum does but better and the Trail Blazers were contending for a homecourt advantage in the playoffs for most of the season. Williams is likely gone in the off-season, but with Lillard entrenched in Portland, the question is whether McCollum is going to play next to him or be his backup.  

11) Michael Carter-Williams: One of the real surprises of this year’s rookie class, Carter-Williams had the 76ers flirting with respectability in the first few months of the season. Once they dumped Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner, leaving Thaddeus Young as the only proven NBA player in the rotation, things got real bad real quickly. No rookie was going to fix that mess and a 6’6 PG with his athleticism and floor vision has a bright future ahead of him.

12) Steven Adams: The Thunder drafted the 20-year-old Adams as a project, so the respectable numbers he gave them as a backup center were a pleasant surprise. He’s a genuinely massive human being with excellent athleticism who isn’t asked to do much on the offensive end. Of course, it also helps to be replacing Kendrick Perkins. Oklahoma City is a notoriously patient franchise - they are probably grooming Adams to be the starter when Perkins contract is up in 2015.

13) Kelly Olynyk: After a dominant showing in Summer League, Olynyk was hit with a taste of reality in the NBA. While he put up good offensive numbers and he rebounded the ball well coming off the bench, he was never really in contention for ROY. The question is how he fits with Jared Sullinger upfront - does Boston need two offensive-minded big men who can’t move their feet on defense? There may not be minutes for them both long-term.

14) Shabazz Muhammad - Like fellow rookie Gorgui Dieng, Muhammad spent most of his first season with the Timberwolves from the bench watching the playoff push. In the limited minutes he did get, Muhammad showed one thing did translate from his UCLA days - this is a guy who knows how to get his FGA’s. Per-36 minutes, he took 17 FGA’s and made them at a 46 percent clip. Muhammad may never be a great defender, but he’ll be getting buckets off the bench for a long time.

Expectations & Timelines: The Curry Warriors

The addition of Andre Iguodala looked a lot like Chicago's move for Ben Wallace on the surface, but the Warriors' timeline will remain dependent on how they remain in the 'deal flow' in constantly tinkering around Stephen Curry.

DeRozan Never Doubted Future With Raptors, Validated In Franchise Turnaround

DeMar DeRozan had to prove the organizationís old vision of him as a cornerstone, as an efficient guard and reliable leader. He needed to mature as a two-way, inside and out player. For DeRozan, the departure of Gay had been the precise sign. His stats couldnít be empty anymore.

Notes From The 2014 Nike Hoop Summit

Five bigs with radically divergent styles could conceivably become the top-five picks of the 2015 NBA Draft, though it was a big point guard that had the best individual performance at the Nike Hoop Summit.

Draft Report: Joel Embiid Of Kansas

Unless you have LeBron James or Kevin Durant, you're not getting anywhere without a good center. Joel Embiid is the one guy from this class who brings instant credibility to the team that drafts him.

Indiana's Hometown Floor General

The Pacers have known all along that they need George Hill, but that has never been more apparent than now. He wonít receive any votes for an individual award, unlike many of his teammates, but thatís just fine with Hill, who would rather blend into the surroundings than find himself at the forefront.

Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

I break out my lineup-based projections model to predict the 2014-15 season.

The Three-Team Race For Eighth

The Knicks, Hawks and Cavaliers in an intriguing three-team race for the eighth seed. Here is how they have managed to remain in the hunt in difficult seasons.

Scouting The McDonald's All-American Game

Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson, Jahlil Okafor and Myles Turner were on display in Chicago this weekend in what is shaping up to be an impressive freshman class.

Xavier Henry Elevates Game, Mind And Body In Redemptive Season With Lakers

For three seasons, Xavier Henry had been a meager part and less heralded talents rose above him in rotations. He was a five-star college recruit fleeting out of a role in the NBA.

Raptors' Late Game Offense Less Alpha, More Pack

The Raptors have taken 82 shots in a clutch situation, but not one player accounts for even a third of those attempts. The Raptors don't have an alpha dog, as they have a number of late-game options.

Counting Down To Four

Why Bo Ryan deserved a Final Four trip, Michigan St.'s poor half-court offense, and other thoughts as we set the field for the Final Four.

Sweet Sixteen Day 2

A comeback, classic announcers, Michigan St.'s new closer, and Alex Poythress highlight Day 2 of the Sweet Sixteen.

Sweet Sixteen Day 1

What it means to have a Cole Aldrich moment, Scott Drew's enigmatic coaching, UCLA's three point defense, and Aaron Gordon's promotional video highlight Day 1 of the Sweet Sixteen.

RealGM Interview: Tim Hardaway Jr.

Despite the disaster of their season, the Knicks can still carry two positives into the summer -- the addition of Phil Jackson to the front office and the play of Tim Hardaway, Jr.

Aquille Carr's Second Chance

Upon his release from the D-League, Aquille Carr started a purifying process around him, eliminating distractions and creating a gym regimen.

All Stars Must Pass

If Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker arenít scoring, they have a hard time impacting the game. While they were eliminated, Julius Randle is in the Sweet 16 thanks to his career-high six assists against Wichita State.

NCAA Tournament Day 4

North Carolina is never predictable, Stanford's perfect tournament lineup, UK vs Wichita St., and Joe Harris' sleep habits highlight Day 4 of the NCAA Tournament.

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