The Halfway MVP

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The Halfway MVP

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Were officially halfway through the season, and I know what everyones thinking:

Hey, who was the Celtics first half MVP?

So I ranked the candidates 1-15.

But well count them down in reverse order:

15. Jermaine ONeal

Last weekend, I finally saw Grown Ups.

I knew it was a risky decision, considering the movie (if you dont remember, it's the one with Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and friends that invaded last years NBA Finals) was panned by critics, and multiple friends had already told me not to see it, and I couldnt even laugh at the trailer. But still, there was a part of me that wanted to give it a chance.

Maybe it wont be great, I thought, but those guys are still pretty funny, it cant be that bad.

Naturally, it was.

Everything that everyone had said about it was true. It was awful.

But even though I wanted to get upset, I knew I couldnt. After all, it was my own fault for believing my experience would be any different. All the evidence was there. I chose to ignore it. Id been duped by my own optimism, and now I was paying the price.

So I sat through the movie, a little disappointed, but not at all surprised. In reality, it was exactly what it was supposed to be.

Anyway, enough about that.

Lets talk Jermaine ONeal.

Heres the one number that still gives me a glimmer of hope for JOs season:

PJ Brown only averaged 13.6 minutes a game in the 2008 playoffs.

Thats it. And PJ was a huge part of that run. So, if ONeal is just healthy enough to give them that this spring, he can still have an impact. Maybe some nights its only five minutes, maybe some nights its 25, but if he can just give them 14 minutes a game, then . . . who knows?

Either way, considering how much hes being paid and how much hes given so far, no one falls lower than JO on this list, and thats disappointing,

But is it really much of a surprise?

14. Kendrick Perkins

Ill say this for Perkins: He loves being a part of this team.

Have you ever seen an injured player more involved than Perks been over the first few months?

Its funny, considering how introverted he was earlier in his career, but in a weird way Perks almost taken over for Scalabrine as the inactive ambassador to the fans. Hes on the radio. Hes on TV. Hes riding the T. Hes a regular at community events. While most players who suffer an injury like his (or even one far less severe) fall off the planet, Perkins has been with the Cs almost every step of the way and seems to be making the best out of what must be a very frustrating situation.

Between the injury (and the frustration that comes with it), the presence of Shaq (which could have been an issue but hasnt been yet), and the pressures of a contract year (he hits the open market in July), Perk had plenty of legitimate reasons to take a selfish turn this season. But hes taken all that potentially negative energy and just run the other way. (Hopefully with his brace on.)

13. Avery Bradley

I wont call this a lost season for Bradley, because this is about what everyone expected. The Celtics drafted him knowing that his rookie season would play out mostly behind the scenes, on the practice court, or up in Maine. And while Im sure well catch another glimpse or two before the seasons over, theres no reason to be concerned if he doesnt blow you away.

Hes not supposed to yet.

12. Delonte West

It was only five games, but you could see it. You could see how much he helps the second unit. You could see how much he helps Rondo. You could see how much better and more complete the Celtics are with Delonte West coming off the bench.

Now you just have to see it again. So when will that be?

Well, if you listen to Delonte, he should have been back a month ago. In fact, hes deemed himself two weeks away, every two weeks for the last eight weeks. But in reality, it seems more like mid- to late February. When the injury first happened they said three months (and Februarys three months). Dr. Wests the only one whos messed with the timetable sense.

11. Luke Harangody

Little known fact: The Celtics have never lost a game in which Luke Harangody registers a double-double.

10. Von Wafer

Here are five words I never thought Id type:

I dont mind Von Wafer.

And while I dont know how much hell play once Delontes back, I wouldnt be surprised if the Cs found a small role for him.

Im just typing out loud, but lets say Nate Robinson falls into a funk for a few games. Why couldnt Doc throw a WestWafer backcourt out there for a few minutes a night? As long as they dont start playing one-on-one against each other, it might actually work.

Wafers a little like a poor mans Ricky Davis. You might not always love the way he does things, but from time to time he can still get it done. He can get to the hoop. He can create his own offense. He can score in bunches. Hes brings a ton of energy and is athletic enough to play some decent defense when he wants to.

Im not trying to get crazy here. I understand that this is still Von Wafer were talking about. But you can do a lot worse at the end of your bench.

9. Semih Erden

In my book (yes, I keep a book), Semihs still the surprise of the season. Granted, its easy to surpass expectations when there arent any to begin with, but theres no doubt this kid can play.

Once Perks back, and if JO ever gets back, Semih might fully disappear. But hes still done enough especially considering JOs no-show to make his rookie season a successful one. He still accomplished far more than anyone outside of Turkey (or maybe Danny Ainges office) could have imagined.

8. Nate Robinson

When the season started, it seemed like Robinson may have figured things out a little. He came into camp with a better perspective, and after a half-season of learning how the Celtics worked, it looked like he might find a real solid role with the Cs.

And he has. But he just has a hard time staying in character. The good Nate Robinson is better than ever. But bad Nate still exists, and when he comes out, things can get out of hand pretty quickly I think he once might have even killed a guy with a trident.

This might not be a fair time to rank Robinson, seeing that hes in the midst of the worst month of his season. In retrospect, he has had a few solid stretches and did fill in admirably when Rondo was hurt (although the Cs were only 7-4 when Nate started). But the fact is that hes still looking for that permanent consistency, or at least less drastic inconsistencies.

7. Shaquille ONeal

There have been times this season where I could have had Shaq as high as four, others when he wouldve been down in the double digits playing Bouree with Jermaine. But in the end, I guess thats what we expected from Shaq.

We know he cant do it every night, but were not expecting that. We know there will be nights where hes diving across the floor and putting up double-doubles; we know there will be nights where hes like Eh, Im not feeling it and then picks up five fouls in six minutes. But at this point Im far more encouraged by the double-doubles than I am worried about the nights off. As long his bodys right for the playoffs, hes proven that he can still make a difference even if its just in spurts.

In the meantime, No. 7 is fair. And I think the Celtics will take that.

6. Marquis Daniels

Well have to see what happens with his ankle, but as of now, Marquis Daniels is the only Celtic to come off the bench for all 41 games this season. But its not just that Daniels is playing in these games. After all, he played in plenty of games last year without making the slightest difference. Last year, he suffered a thumb injury in December and never made a difference again. He was completely out of whack.

No one could ever quite peg what it was that was holding him back, but needless to say, its gone; the Marquis Daniels the Celtics have this year is the one they were anticipating for the last two. He makes everyone on that second unit better, and not by doing anything extraordinary. He does it just by being himself, and the Cs are thankful to have him back.

5. Glen Davis

When Kevin Garnett went down with his upper lower rightish leg muscle strain, the Celtics not only lost their emotional leader and defensive cornerstone, they also lost their sixth man. With Garnett out, Big Baby struggled with the pressure of trying to fill KGs shoes, and as a result got away from the kind of ball that had made him an early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. But now that KGs back, and Davis can put the Ticket Stub on the shelf and return to plain old, board-crashing, charging-taking, drain-a-jumper-if-youre-open Big Baby, well be quickly reminded of why he deserves the No. 5 spot.

4. Rajon Rondo

Rondos the most important player on this team. On any given night, no one has the ability to affect the flow, tempo and outcome of a game quite like he does and that will be the case straight through the playoffs.

But if were talking first half MVP, you cant give it to a guy who missed more than a quarter of the games even if he still has more assists than the next three players combined.

But anyway, enough of me trying to defend an imaginary MVP award, and on to something important: Have you notice Rondos jumper lately?

Theres something about it that just looks a little more fluid; maybe just a little more confident. I watch it now, and . . . it actually looks like a jump shot. And he hasnt been ashamed to bring it out.

I always wondered what it would take for Rondo to finally realize how much a jumper and not even from three-point range; just 15-17 feet could expand his game. I thought it might not happen until he was older, lost some of his speed and couldnt get around guys quite as easily as he once did. Because otherwise, why bother? Why develop a jumper when you can get to the hoop whenever you want, regardless? And dont forget that Rondo can be a little stubborn. He loves to show people he can do it his way; and his way was to become an All-Star point guard without having a jump shot. And he did that.

But now, with all the injuries, I wonder if Rondo isnt starting to realize, Hmm, maybe if I take a jumper, theres less chance of a 6-10, 250-pound monster pile-driving me into the court. And I dont think that would be a bad train of thought.

Rondo broke down at the end of last season, and he was already breaking down a quarter of the way through this season. If he can finally stay focused on becoming more of a consistent shooter, than not only will his game get better, but it might also help him stay stronger.

In the meantime, I guess 13.2 assists a game isnt bad.

3. Kevin Garnett

If Rondos the most important player on this team, then KGs a close second. And if I run this column back at the end of the season, I wouldnt be surprised if KG makes the leap to No. 1.

What hes accomplished this year has been nothing short of amazing. If last season was about questioning whether we were witnessing the downfall of one of the NBAs all-time greatest players, this year has been about re-discovering how great he actually is.. And now that it appears that the muscle strain was nothing more than a little speed bump, he can get back to business.

But as great as hes been, he still missed more than 20 of the games, and Im a stickler for attendance. So, my first half MVP still came down to two other guys

2. Ray Allen

(Note: If you want to read my extended thoughts on Ray Allen, I devoted a whole column to him here)

I was reading through my season preview last night and came across this section, which in retrospect looks pretty ridiculous. (The preview was a series of 18 questions and answers, this was No. 16)

16. Can Ray rebound?No, not rebound, rebound. I mean, rebound from what was his worst three-point shooting season since 1999. Obviously, you can do a lot worse than .363 from long range, but when you're talking about Ray Allen, you expect much better.And as we were reminded during the Finals, and as you knew long before you ever read this, the C's are a very different team when Ray gets comfy behind the arc.

OK, first of all, Im really sorry for using the word comfy. Second, I think its safe to say that Ray rebounded.

A year after posting his worst three-point shooting season since 1999, hes delivering the most efficient three-point shooting season of his career (.468). Hes also sporting the best field-goal percentage of his career (.513) and is playing more minutes and scoring more points a night than he did back in 2008.

He came in with the reputation as one of the deadliest, most clutch shooters in the game, and as only improved upon that rep since coming to town.

And he does it every night. Theres no one who the Celtics have leaned on more on a day-to-day basis on the way to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Well, maybe one other person.

1. Paul Pierce

Ray probably leads the team in late-game heroics this season although Pierce is still real close on that level but no ones willed the Celtics to more victories this season than the Captain.

As usual, its never been exceptionally flashy (unless you count that dunk in Toronto, which for Pierce is enough flash to last the whole season); workman-like is the best way to describe it. But over the course of this long season, no one has taken more potentially lazy, regular-season losses and turned them into wins like Pierce.

Like Allen, hes having the best year of his career from the field (.514) and is one-hundredth of a point behind his career best from three (.413). Hes leading the team in scoring for the 11th straight season, and despite the fact that KG is the teams most vocal onoff the court leader, and Rondo might be the most statistically impressive guy on that roster, Pierce has still maintained a quiet control of the situation.

Hes still the guy they lean on when it matters most, and still the guy capable of carrying the greatest load.

And hes also the first-half MVP

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

CSN Insiders notebook: Could Celtics pursue Bogut?

CSN Insiders notebook: Could Celtics pursue Bogut?

We’re back for another edition of the CSN Insiders notebook, the most comprehensive collection of trade rumors, team news, injurie updates and a wide range of league-related news sure to whet the appetite of any NBA fan. 

We begin this week jumping right into trade rumors. And as we’ve seen in recent years, the Boston Celtics continue to be one of the more popular teams whose name is often brought up in various trade scenarios. 

While there doesn’t appear to be anything imminent with the Celtics, it’s pretty clear that their greatest need at this point is a defensive-minded big man who can also rebound. 

So who should they target?

 

CELTICS PURSUE BOGUT?

As the February trade deadline draws near, the Boston Celtics are expected to take a close look at adding a defensive-minded, rebounding big man with Dallas’ Andrew Bogut likely to emerge as a target. 

The former No. 1 overall pick is the final year of a three-year, $36 million contract he signed with the Golden State Warriors in 2014.

He is due to make $11.027 million in this, the last season of the contract.

Dallas (4-15) has the worst record in the NBA and are likely to continue building for a post-Dirk Nowitzki with a high lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. Adding another first-round pick from Boston would benefit a squad that has to increase its quality depth going forward. Having another first-round pick can only enhance their roster.

Boston could offer the Mavericks Amir Johnson (he makes $12 million this season) straight-up for Bogut, but would likely have to include a future first round pick that would not be Boston’s 2017 pick which they have the option of swapping for Brooklyn’s first-round pick which is likely to be in the lottery (top-14).

For the Celtics, giving up Johnson and a future first-round pick is a small price to pay for a physical, defensive-minded rebounder who would provide a different brand of rim protection than Johnson who like Bogut, will also be a free agent this summer.

In addition, he gives Boston a legit physical banger in the middle which they current do not have.

While no deal is imminent, but both sides would appear to come out getting great value if this deal were to completed prior to the February trade deadline. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

 

PHILLY PLANS TO GO SUPER-SIZED AT POINT GUARD

The Sixers have big plans for Ben Simmons when he returns from a Jones fracture in his right foot.

Big as in, 6-foot-10 point guard big.

Yes, Brett Brown said this week the Sixers intend to utilize Simmons at the one spot on both offense and defense.

That role has been in flux all season as Jerryd Bayless, originally signed this offseason to be the starting point guard, only has played three games because of left wrist soreness. Sergio Rodriguez has stepped into the starting spot in his first season back from Spain.

Ball handling and court vision are two of Simmons’ biggest strengths. During Summer League he demonstrated how he could use his size to grab the rebound and then push the ball on the fast-break. The Sixers believe his stature will cause mismatches with defenders.

On the opposite end of the floor, Simmons will be tasked with stopping some of the league’s craftiest and quickest. He will have to counter his opponents using their smaller size as an advantage. Simmons already has been studying game film, including that of Chris Paul, to prepare.

“I think it is a hundred percent me realizing what we have,” Brown said recently. “Understanding that Jerryd Bayless could comfortably play a two, to talking with Ben more, to understanding the opportunity that we have to try this and to grow this. This is something that I’d think would be a mistake if we didn’t try it. I think the more I studied him and studied film and talked with him — I spent a lot of time with him since his injury — the more comfortable I feel, like this is the right path.” – by Jessica Camerato

 

HIP INJURY LIMITS MILLSAP AS HAWKS STRUGGLE

A left hip injury to Paul Millsap has slowed down the Hawks, who were .500 entering the weekend, and they’re trying to make it having used Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Muscala in the starting lineup in his place. 

The winner of the Southeast Division the least two seasons, the Hawks have lost nine of 10 games. – by J. Michael

 

VUCEVIC OFF THE BENCH NOW, OUT OF O-TOWN SOON?

Nikola Vucevic is out of the starting lineup in Orlando, which has one of the league’s most disjointed offenses.

In his first four games off the bench, Vucevic is averaging 13.8 points, 12 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 blocks.

Is this a permanent role for Vucevic and will this ultimately lead to one of the Magic’s bigs being put on the trading block?

Bismack Biyombo, Orlando’s biggest free-agent acquisition this summer, has taken the starting job at center. His arrival instantly made such a scenario with Vucevic on the table. – by J. Michael

 

BLAZERS AMONG TEAMS INTERESTED IN NOEL

 Portland’s defense has been among the NBA’s worst most of this season, so the idea that they’re interested in adding a big man whose strength lies in his defense really isn’t all that surprising. That’s why the Blazers reportedly being interested in acquiring the 6-foot-11 Nerlens Noel from Philadelphia makes sense. He had surgery on his left knee last month and has not played in a single game this season but is making progress. He was recently assigned to the Sixers’ D-League affiliate as part of his rehabilitation from the injury. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

 

WARRIORS TAKE BARKLEY CRITICISM IN STRIDE

TNT analyst Charles Barkley’s fixation on the Warriors and their style of play has lingered on for nearly a decade, through four coaches, with no sign of abating.

In his most recent salvo, Barkley said the Warriors were playing “little girly basketball,” which amused some but outraged many who couldn’t help but see it as a knock on females.

The Warriors, for their part, shrug off everything Barkley says and does, considering it more entertaining than informative. No one shrugs harder than coach Steve Kerr, a former TNT colleague, who carefully offered to educate Barkley.

“I still believe you have to be strong defensively to win,” Kerr said. “That’s an area where people who follow the game know we were No. 1 in the league in defense the year we won the championship (2015) and we were No. 4 or 5 (actually No. 3) last year, when we came within a minute or so of winning the championship.”

Your move, Chuck. – by Monte Poole

 

WIZARDS’ MAHINMI (KNEE) IS BACK … SORT OF

The issue of Ian Mahinmi’s right knee has complicated the big picture for the Wizards as they try to find answers for their second unit.

After playing one game, his debut in his first season with the franchise this past week, Mahinmi has been a question mark each day going into Monday’s game with the Brooklyn Nets. He missed the first 14 games of the season because of surgery to remove cartilage in his left knee. 

His availability complicates any potential moves for the Wizards when teams become active in the trade market by mid-December. – by J. Michael

 

HILL CLIMBING LIST OF NBA’S MOST IMPROVED PLAYERS

The Utah Jazz are playing like a team poised for the playoffs after a four-year drought, and a big part of that optimism lies in the play of George Hill whose play thus far makes him a legit candidate for the league’s most improved player award. Typically this goes to a young player on the rise, not a 30-year-old veteran like Hill. But the numbers don’t lie. A career 11.5 points per game scorer, Hill is averaging 20.0 points per game this season. Figuring out what the change has been is simple: he’s making more shots. A 45.2 percent career shooter, Hill is making a career-high 52.4 percent of his shots which includes career highs in three-pointers taken (5.2 per game) and three-point percentage (.456). He continues to play like this and gets Utah into the postseason, look for Hill to emerge as one of the big winners next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

 

RAPTORS (STEAM) ROLLING OVER FOES

The Raptors head into the week having won six straight, which is a nice little win streak. But what makes their recent run of success so impressive is the dominant nature by which they are beating teams. 

During their streak, opponents have come up short by an astounding 23 points per game. That includes a 128-84 win over Atlanta, with the 44-point margin being the biggest win in franchise history. 

“Like I always say, it's clich√©, but it's a make or miss league," Toronto head coach Dwane Casey said after the record-setting victory.

And right now, they are making everyone on the schedule look inept. However, the one knock against them during their recent run has been the teams they have faced are not exactly among the elite of the NBA. That will change on Monday when they take on the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

 

RIVERS’ EJECTION A GOOD THING FOR THE CLIPPERS?

The Clippers went from fabulous to desperate to whole again in a matter of days, and maybe they got a spark from head coach Doc Rivers who was ejected after throwing a full tantrum in the first of two overtimes in a loss at Brooklyn.

Rivers was having a conversation with official Lauren Holtkamp when lead official Ken Mauer assessed a technical foul and then, another technical, which is automatic ejection.

“I don’t think an official that has nothing to do with the play, should be giving someone a tech,” Rivers said.

That was the third straight loss for LA, which immediately rebounded with wins at Cleveland and at New Orleans. – by Monte Poole

 

LEBRON: “HONEYMOON OVER” FOR CAVS

It appears now the Cleveland Cavaliers have some self-inflicted adversity after an early cruise through the start of the season, prompting LeBron James to go into full dad-mode after a 111-105 loss at the hands of the Chicago Bulls.

It’s the third straight loss for the champs and despite James’ Magic-like numbers, the Cavs have slipped into a little malaise right before the holiday season.

"We've got to get out of the honeymoon stage," James said Friday night. “"That's y'all's headline for tomorrow. I know y'all going to use it."

The night began with a spectacle, as James showed up to the United Center in Chicago wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey after losing a bet to Bulls guard Dwyane Wade from last month.

Walking the green mile in the bowels of the United Center would’ve been the headline if not for the Cavs’ inability to handle a charged-up Bulls team that went shot-for-shot with the Cavs—leading to LeBron’s postgame comments.

"You've got to play the game the right way," James continued. "You've got to battle every night like we ain't won nothing. Last year is last year, and after ring night, it's over with. Now it's a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night, and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over.” – by Vincent Goodwill

 

MOTIEJUNAS BROOKLYN-BOUND?

It looks like the

Donatas Motiejunas situation will be reaching a resolution. The Nets signed the restricted free agent to a four-year offer sheet, according to multiple reports.

The Rockets have until 11:59 p.m. on Monday (72 hours) to match the Nets’offer. They could consider doing so given the structure of the offer. ESPN.com reported it is only fully guaranteed for $5 million and would increase to $17.5 million if he earns his 2017-18 season option by a March 1 deadline.

Motiejunas has been hampered by back problems, which included surgery for a ruptured disk in 2015. According to The Vertical, the offer sheet includes protections against such issues. 

Last season Motiejunas appeared in 37 games, averaging 6.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 14.8 minutes. – by Jessica Camerato

 

LAKERS WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE?

Though the Lakers so far have exceeded all reasonable expectations, they hit a wall last week in taking a 113-80 loss to Toronto that left power forward Julius Randle criticizing himself and his teammates.

“We played too soft,” Randle said.

They also played horribly, as that game is, according to the statistical folks at Elias, only the second time since the 1970-71 season that the Lakers shot below 35 percent for the field, below 60 percent from the line and committed at least 15 turnovers. – by Monte Poole.

 

COUSINS: I’M A KING, I’M GOOD

The Kings’ six-game road trip was reduced to five after a bizarre condensation issue in Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon. The NBA would like to squeeze the makeup game into Sacramento’s seven-game road trip in late January, but Sacramento wants no part of an eight-game swing with three sets of back-to-backs.

DeMarcus Cousins was grilled about his future during Sacramento's stop in Washington and then againFriday in Boston, but he has yet to break. “I’m a King, I’m good,” Cousins told reporters in Boston.

“Most of the rumors come from people that want me on their team,” Cousins added. “So, I’m not really bothered by that.”

Sacramento continues to struggle early in games, falling behind big in the first quarter and then fighting the rest of the night to recover. More often than not, it hasn’t worked, which is why the Kings sit at 7-12 on the season. – by James Ham

 

BULLS, BENCH SEARCHING FOR A SPARK

Speaking of a team in desperate need of something, anything, presenting the Chicago Bulls. Not only do they follow up an inspiring win over the Cavaliers with a 25-point loss to a three-win Dallas team, but there’s an SOS being sent out to their bench.

Perhaps Doug McDermott can be the one to bring this group off life support. McDermott has missed the last nine games with a concussion and only recently did he pass the next step of the concussion protocol to be cleared for contact practices, as he could be back to action later in the week.

With Nikola Mirotic shooting 28 percent from three and Isaiah Canaan at 30 percent, the Bulls have gotten off to a decent start without being a good 3-point shooting team—but it can’t last too long.

Presumably if McDermott doesn’t suffer a third concussion this season, that one quality he provides will be consistent enough to keep the Bulls’ stars from losing their minds with the inconsistency of their teammates. – by Vincent Goodwill

 

SUNS RUN HOT AND COLD … MOSTLY COLD ACTUALLY

When the Suns are hitting their perimeter shots, they’re tough to beat. Unfortunately for coach Earl Watson, the hot nights are few and far between and the Suns defense is ranked 28th in the league.

Brandon Knight is showing signs of life after a slow start. Still adjusting to his role off the bench, the 25-year-old point guard scored 14 points of his 23 points in a five minute first quarter burst in Wednesday night’s win over the Atlanta Hawks.  

After a breakout start to the season, T.J. Warren continues to miss games with a head injury. – by James Ham

 

YOU DA REAL MVP, RUSS

 Russell Westbrook just landed the Western Conference Player of the Month honors for November and he already has his hand out waiting for the NBA MVP trophy.

OKC’s Mr. Everything has posted four straight triple-doubles, giving him 46 for his career. He’s averaging a triple-double on the season and has the Thunder riding a four-game win streak. 

Westbrook and Co. welcomed back former head coach Scott Brooks Wednesday night and then sent him and his Wizards team home with a gut-wrenching overtime loss. – by James Ham

 

PISTONS AVOID SINKING IN JACKSON’S ABSENCE

Speaking of a return, the Pistons didn’t let their boat capsize without point guard Reggie Jackson being in action, and he’s slated to return Sunday, albeit on a minute restriction while he continues recovery from a knee injury that halted the start to his season.

The Pistons are now winners of three in a row after starting 8-10, and Jackson’s 19 points and six assists will be welcomed whenever he gets back to form, which could take a couple weeks.

“I woke up feeling pretty good so I was ready to get out here and compete with my teammates,” Jackson told reporters. “It was just getting confidence and continuing to sit down and make sure I felt comfortable where I was…the time is now.”

While Ish Smith has done a more than admirable job filling the spot, one wonders if Jackson’s return will spark Andre Drummond to being more productive offensively. Drummond’s scoring and minutes are down from last year, and if Jackson can settle things as opposed to Drummond trying to force his own action, it’ll make Detroit the dangerous outfit many expected them to be going into the season. – by Vincent Goodwill

 

LEONARD KEEPS GETTING BETTER AND BETTER AND …

The Spurs have strung together 11 wins in their last 12 games and are once against considered a Western Conference power.

Kawhi Leonard continues to develop into the game’s best two-way player. He’s adding new elements to his game all the time. His 21-footer in the final 10 seconds against the Wizards on Friday night was clutch and sealed the win.  

San Antonio allocated Davis Bertans and Dejounte Murray to the Austin Spurs of the D-League for more seasoning on Saturday. Bertans has seen plenty of action for Gregg Popovich, including a start in his first 16 games with the club. His 45.5 percent shooting from long range has been a nice surprise.

Murray has a ton of potential, but he’s played just 46 total minutes for Pop. Taken with the 29th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the 20-year-old Murray needs all the playing time he can get with the Spurs minor league affiliate. – by James Ham

Celtics report card: Isaiah Thomas gets high marks

Celtics report card: Isaiah Thomas gets high marks

BOSTON -- The first quarter of the NBA season is about over for the Boston Celtics, a team that like so many in the league is far from a finished product.
 
When you look at where this team is versus where they could be if not for a slew of unfortunate injuries to key players, there’s a sense within the organization that they have weathered the early season storm and are in good shape going forward.
 
And while there’s plenty of fodder that would help explain away some of the team’s early season issues, the bottom line is the Celtics have been an inconsistent bunch at times regardless of who has been healthy enough to play.
 
Still, they Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season, third in the Eastern Conference and by all accounts are nowhere close to being as good as they should be this season. Which is why the evaluation of this team has to be about their sum parts as well as their individual success. 

And with this group returning so many key performers from a year ago along with adding Al Horford to the mix, expectations were realistically high.
 
So naturally, how close they have come to achieving those expectations is a factor in both their collective and individual grades as well.
 
Here’s a grade breakdown for the Celtics’ guards, wings and bigs at the quarter-way mark of the season.
 
GUARDS’ OVERALL GRADE: B
 
ISAIAH THOMAS: Showing last season’s all-star appearance was no fluke, Thomas has made a strong case to be considered among the top guards in the NBA. His 26.3 points per game ranks ninth in the league, and he’s at his best in the fourth quarter (his 7.9 points which trails only Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard) – a trait that often separates good players from great ones. He’s the star of this team, without question. GRADE: A-

AVERY BRADLEY: The season began with Avery Bradley putting together a legit campaign to be a first time all-star. He’s still playing at a relatively high level, but he’s no longer deeply entrenched in that conversation in part because the Celtics haven’t won more games and his numbers have tailed off. After averaging 18.5 points and 8.6 rebounds through the first 10 games, Bradley’s numbers since then have been 16.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. But to Bradley’s credit, this was yet another season in which he came back and showed tremendous growth in a specific facet of his game. That would be rebounding. The 6-foot-2 guard is currently the Celtics’ leader with 7.9 rebounds per game. GRADE: B
 
MARCUS SMART: He is the Celtics’ best defender not named Avery Bradley, and before his career is over he will be named to one of the NBA’s all-Defensive teams. His shot-making remains sporadic, although he has shown a knack for hitting big 3s late in games. Shooting struggles aside, his defense and much-improved playmaking have been good for the Celtics this season. GRADE: B- 
 
TERRY ROZIER: He was so impactful this summer and in training camp, it created expectations that he could easily slide in and fill the void left by Evan Turner who signed a four-year, $70 million deal with Portland during the offseason. Rozier has a ridiculously high assists-to-turnover ratio, but he doesn’t make as many impactful plays as the Celtics would like. The second-year guard hasn’t been bad out there, but the difference-making talent he showed earlier has not materialized yet. GRADE: B-
 
DEMETRIUS JACKSON: My initial thought was the sample size is too small to give Jackson a grade. But looking back at the three games he has played in for the Celtics as well as those stints in the D-League, Jackson has a bright future in this league. To his credit, he has made the most of his opportunities to play whether it’s with the Celtics or the Maine Red Claws. Still, he hasn’t done enough to knock any of the team’s more seasoned guards out of the rotation … yet. GRADE: B-

WINGS’ OVERALL GRADE: B-
 
JAE CROWDER:
This is one of the tougher players to grade (see Al Horford). I absolutely love the fact that Crowder is such a jack-of-all-trades kind of player who is all about helping teams win. But the fact that he has missed eight games has to be factored into his grade thus far. Aside from missing games with injuries, there’s a lot to love about Jae Crowder and his role on this team: B+

JONAS JEREBKO: Aside from Isaiah Thomas, Jerebko is probably the most improved player who was on the roster a year ago. He doesn’t take many shots, but when he does he makes them at a ridiculously high rate. And his overall effort defensively and on the boards has solidified a spot in Brad Stevens’ regular rotation. GRADE: B+
 
JAYLEN BROWN: There are always off-the-charts expectations when you’re a high draft pick, and Brown is no exception. But he joined a playoff-ready team which means getting on the floor as a rookie has not been easy. Brown has shown tremendous athleticism and a willingness to learn, but like most rookies he hasn’t been as consistent as he needs to be and does more thinking than just playing when he’s on the floor. But he has shown progress on that front of late.  GRADE: B-

GERALD GREEN: Having signed a veteran’s minimum contract at a time when the salary cap exploded should have been the first sign that Green wasn’t going to make much of an impact. He has a very simple job with this team and that’s to be an adequate defender and a shot-maker. Unfortunately, he has struggled on both fronts in his second tour of duty with the Celtics to the point where he has not played in eight of Boston’s last 11 games. GRADE: C-
 
JAMES YOUNG:
He barely beat out R.J. Hunter for the final roster spot and frankly, hasn’t done much since. From the time he arrived in Boston until now, there’s no question he’s a better player. But the former first round pick still hasn’t done enough to secure a spot in the rotation. And barring a couple injuries, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. GRADE: C-
 
BIGS’ OVERALL GRADE: C+
 

AL HORFORD: There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Boston signing Al Horford in the offseason. And to the surprise of many, the Celtics have been exceptional when he has played. But that’s the problem. He has missed half of the still-young season primarily due to a concussion. There’s an old saying that one’s availability can be their best ability. And with Horford missing so many games, those absences have to be factored into his grade thus far this season. GRADE: B+
 
AMIR JOHNSON: If there’s one player whose impact can’t be measured in statistics alone, it’s Johnson. His job is to defend at a high level, score once in a while, and grab a few rebounds when he’s not sealing off his man so that Avery Bradley and the rest of the team’s guards can come in and scoop them up. There’s no glory in what he’s tasked with doing other than the knowledge that it’s important to winning. And to some degree his impact on games is limited due to him playing limited minutes because of Boston’s desire to spread the floor with long-range shooters – something that’s definitely not a strength of Johnson’s game. GRADE: B-
 
KELLY OLYNYK: Olynyk missed the first six games while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. He has had some really impressive moments (19 points vs New York; 16 the following night at Indiana), but far too often he doesn’t make the most of what sets him apart from most players and that is being a 7-footer with legit 3-point shooting range. He has been solid, but he’s not having the kind of breakout year the Celtics could really benefit from this season. GRADE: B-
 
TYLER ZELLER: There were some who were surprised the Celtics signed Zeller to a 2-year, $16 million contract (team option on second year), but that’s actually below the going rate these days for a backup center. Zeller today isn’t all that different than he was when the Celtics acquired him via trade a couple years ago. And that’s kind of the problem. He’s looking to shoot the ball more facing up and from the perimeter, but that’s very much a work in progress. To his credit, he stays ready and when he does get a chance to play he usually gives good effort. But effort can only take you so far. GRADE: C
 
JORDAN MICKEY: Viewed by many (self-included) as a draft-night steal for the Celtics, Mickey’s growth has been OK but not great. He has great instincts defensively as a shot-blocker and his offensive game is definitely trending upwards. But he doesn’t do enough of the little things to get on the floor with consistency just yet, which is why his most recent D-League stint probably won’t be his last this season. But again, he still has legitimate upside and in time should get more opportunities to help. GRADE: C