New Team, Who Dis? NBA Players Ready to Thrive in New Situations
Changes of scenery do not pan out for everyone. These NBA players have no idea what're talking about.
Free agency offers the opportunity for its participants to suss out upgraded situations. Many will chase the almighty dollar before a superior fit, but sometimes, the two align. When they don't, a select few will, for whatever reason, end up catering to the basketball side of the argument.
Trades work the same way. Players seldom dictate where they wind up, but the promise of a blank slate invariably does wonders for some.
To be clear: This isn't for the regular-old, quality fits. Doug McDermott is a good pickup for the Indiana Pacers. Trevor Ariza is an OK get for the Phoenix Suns. Seth Curry is a stellar acquisition for the Portland Trail Blazers.
In this space, though, we're after fresh starts that'll translate to something more.
Housekeeping note: Rookies are not eligible for inclusion.
Honorable Mention: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Excluding LeBron James from this exercise feels just the right amount of wrong. He changed teams, and he's LeBron James. He will thrive.
But the Los Angeles Lakers have done a bang-up job of bringing his fit into question—mostly because of the players they've assembled around him.
Teams with James have usually adhered to the same model: surround him with shooters, and watch him detonate. The Lakers have instead given him Michael Beasley, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and a bunch of kiddies.
Spacing could quickly become a downfall for this squad. The league's average three-point-attempt rate last season settled in at 33.7 percent. Beasley, Rondo, Stephenson and Brandon Ingram fell shy of that mark. Lonzo Ball surpassed it but dropped in just 30.5 percent of his three-pointers.
Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma should be tidy fits, yet the Lakers are left begging for a pick-and-pop 5. Their solution? Play James at center. As one of Los Angeles' executives told Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus: "We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors'] Death Lineup with Lonzo, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kuzma and LeBron."
Everyone without a rooting interest in another team should sign up for this. The Cleveland Cavaliers notched a plus-42.5 net rating last season when James jumped center, per Cleaning The Glass. But that sample barely spanned 50 possessions. Upping the volume gives way to both grandiose visions and unknown returns.
The caveat to the caveat that was the original caveat: LeBron James is the best player alive. He will excel, even though Los Angeles has not made it easy for him, and the Lakers will be better than most think.
DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors
DeMarcus Cousins' addition to the Golden State Warriors is being overrated relative to the rest of the league. He will not have some profound impact on their progressing dynasty. He probably won't take the floor until 2019, and Golden State didn't bring him in to play 30-plus minutes and close games at the expense of its "Death Lineup."
Whatever opportunity he receives will also go only so far if he doesn't come almost all the way back from his Achilles tear. History has not been kind to guards and wings who suffered a similar injury. Cousins is entering uncharted territory as a nimble-footed mastodon who has displayed spotty conditioning in the past.
Pretending like this move doesn't matter, though, is an underreaction. Cousins may be a luxury to the Warriors, but they're a vessel for validation to him.
Golden State's uptempo play style has been deemed a questionable fit. It shouldn't be. Cousins has worked in hurried environments. The New Orleans Pelicans played with top-six pace before his injury and only slowed down a hair with him in the lineup. The George Karl-coached Sacramento Kings, while a disaster, did not shy from running the floor.
Elements of the Warriors offense are also tailor-made for Cousins. They shouldn't have him jump-starting pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler if they're concerned with tamping down their turnovers, but he elevates their play out of the post, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"Passing out of the post and from the elbows is perhaps Cousins' most Warriors-friendly skill. Golden State actually posts up a lot; it averaged 16.7 post touches per game, third most in the league, per Second Spectrum tracking data. It just uses the post as a vehicle to unlock passes instead of back-to-the-basket shots.
"Golden State topped all teams in the percentage of post-ups that led to shots for players one pass away, per Second Spectrum data. On an individual level, Warriors comprised six of the league's overall top 10 post players by this measure: [Draymond] Green (No. 1), [Andre] Iguodala, David West, Zaza Pachulia, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney."
Cousins will have to buy into a reduced role. That might be a problem anywhere else. It won't be with the Warriors. They don't need him, and he knows it. He has no choice other than to crash the glass, pummel opposing second units, increase his defensive engagement and align himself with Golden State's culture. That experience will be good for him and his persona, ultimately proving he can, in fact, make meaningful contributions to a winner.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan is already a quintessential San Antonio Spurs player at the offensive end.
Even as he cut down on his mid-range volume last year, he finished fourth in overall attempts per game. And in first place, there was LaMarcus Aldridge, alpha of the Spurs offense, which closed the season fourth in mid-range frequency, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Joining San Antonio will permit DeRozan to indulge his deepest-seated stylisms without raging against the machine. Kawhi Leonard was lauded for his long-range efficiency, but he too fired up more than his fair share of DeRozan's favorite shots. He finished 12th in mid-range attempts and 13th in pull-up jumpers per game during the 2016-17 campaign.
DeRozan's mushrooming comfort as the pick-and-roll triggerman will only simplify his transition. San Antonio unleashed Leonard from the point of attack in 2016-17. DeRozan should be awarded similar latitude—even with Dejounte Murray ferrying more responsibility—and he has finished no lower than the 78th percentile since 2015-16 in scoring efficiency out of the pick-and-roll.
Iffy spacing could hold both parties back a tick. DeRozan's advancement as a three-point shooter has been overstated. He canned 31 percent of his treys last season. San Antonio's expected started five—Aldridge, DeRozan, Murray, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay—dropped in 205 triples between them. Twelve players cleared 200 three-point makes on their own.
Still, this is not a new dilemma for the Spurs. They've long tilted toward more truncated floor balance. They finagle breathing room anyway. Players will be in constant motion off the ball, which should open the door for DeRozan to use his 6'7" frame for catch-and-finish opportunities on basket beelines. As NBA TV's David Griffin told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck on The Full 48 podcast:
"The DeRozan piece will fit well with what [Gregg] Popovich did a couple of years ago in the playoffs, when everything in their offense was about moving bodies and ball. The slashing, cutting element of DeMar that was really silent to a huge degree in Toronto—you know, he put up huge numbers very largely doing what he does least efficiently.
"He was good in iso situations, he was good in pick-and-roll situations, but he wasn't elite in those things. And if you didn't bite on the ball-fake in playoff games—which because you have enough time to really zone in on DeMar and lock in on defending him, teams by and large didn't do in the playoffs; they stayed down—he's not somebody who's going to jump up and bang a bunch of mid-range shots.
"What he wants to do is get to the free-throw line and get you off your feet. Well, in playoff games, you can prepare to not do that. So now he's less effective in that way, too. And I think what San Antonio is going to do is they'll play to the fact that if they go back to moving bodies and ball, it'll bring back the strengths of all of their pieces. And Pop knows that, and Pop's so successful at doing it I think they'll find a way to be a playoff team."
Incorporating DeRozan into the defensive scheme will pose a different challenge for the Spurs. They lost three of their best stoppers over the summer—Leonard, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green—and DeRozan has never been a plus at the less glamorous end, according to NBA Math's defensive points saved.
Let blind faith in San Antonio wash over you here. The Spurs failed to rescue the Leonard relationship, but they're still the Spurs. Pop and his staff will reach DeRozan on a previously unexplored defensive level. Don't be surprised when he's effectively running players off the three-point line and guarding on-ball attacks without committing too many shooting fouls. A career defensive year could be in the cards.
James Ennis, Houston Rockets
Playing for Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni tends to look good on specialty wings. James Ennis is about to find out why.
Viewing him strictly as a singular replacement for both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute misses the mark. He isn't around to salvage Houston's switchy defense from last year on his own. But he will help preserve it.
Standing 6'7", Ennis has that kind of defensive malleability. He can struggle when left on an island, but he's an extremely useful weapon within a team scheme. The Memphis Grizzlies threw him on wings of all sizes and skill sets before trading him to the Detroit Pistons. He saw ample face time against everyone from Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant, to Brandon Ingram and Khris Middleton, to DeRozan and even Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Houston will run into (mostly enviable) crunch-time conundrums if Ennis hits enough threes to warrant extended run. And he's going to hit enough threes.
Ennis shot a lackluster 34.8 percent last season on outside looks where a defender was four or more feet away. That number will mushroom with the Rockets. They generated wide-open threes with more regularity than any other team, and contrary to reflexive belief, all uncontested attempts are not created equal.
With James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and, yes, Carmelo Anthony to worry about, defenses will label Ennis an afterthought. He will become accustomed to launching unimpeded deep balls without taking a single dribble and while having time to gather himself.
He never knew that luxury in Memphis or Detroit. His latter stop was so shaky on spacing he saw his three-point splits dip. That won't happen in Houston.
If Ennis put down 37.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys with the Grizzlies, just think of what he'll do for the Rockets.
Danny Green/Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Beware the Toronto Raptors if you're a fan of another Eastern Conference team. That includes the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors are that scary with Green and Leonard in tow.
Granted, most of their appeal hinges upon Kawhi being Kawhi—no small ask after he appeared in just nine games last season and entirely ghosted on the Spurs by year's end. And then we have his emotional commitment to consider. Leonard remains dead set on joining the Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. His waffling allegiance could make for an unideal fit, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explained:
"Alternatively, if Leonard was healthy enough to play last year but decided not to out of frustration/anger/whatever, can we be sure he'll buy in with Toronto as a rental? If the guy just spent a year sitting, perhaps partially out of spite, can any team trust him? Hypothetically, he could malinger for another year, rest up and be ready to join the Lakers with low mileage.
"If the outcome falls somewhere in between, perhaps Leonard has to rest frequently and is still a star-level player, but he isn't quite the two-way wrecking ball he once was. Does that get the Raptors to the top of the East?"
Color me unconcerned. Leonard is in a contract year (player option), working off a major injury and didn't leave San Antonio absolved of all blame. He doesn't have the luxury of coasting through 2018-19. Like the Spurs without him, he carries the burden of proof. He has to show up.
Maybe there will be a grace period in which Leonard struggles. But also: Maybe not. He is the archetypal plug-and-play superstar. His time ceding touches and status to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Tony Parker and, hell, even Gary Neal prepared him for universal naturalization. He didn't crack the top five of San Antonio's usage-rate pecking order until Year 4, and in 2016-17, his highest-volume season, almost 20 percent of his offense came off spot-ups—on which he averaged an elite 1.24 points per possession (94th percentile).
Slotting Leonard next to OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam on defense is going to be unfair. Bringing Green with him makes it even more ridiculous. He stands to benefit from his relocation more than Leonard.
The Spurs needed Green to push the ball on offense last year, sans Leonard, while he dealt with a groin injury. He needn't worry about expanding his horizons in Toronto with Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Fred VanVleet and a healthy Kawhi. He'll be free to drain more wide-open threes, on which he shot 39.8 percent last year, and partner with Lowry to form one of the NBA's top defensive backcourts.
Ersan Ilyasova/Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez are not going to neutralize the Milwaukee Bucks' defensive rebounding warts. Nor will either of them erase point-blank looks in volume or entirely dissuade assaults on the paint.
Heck, the Bucks probably overpaid a tad for Ilyasova. Hard-capping themselves on the first day of free agency to float his $7 million salary was suspect in this year's market. His list of options could've winnowed down the way it did for Lopez.
Whatever, though. Ilyasova is a fantastic fit—especially following Jabari Parker's exit. The Bucks can look at him and Lopez as an aggregate investment for 2018-19. They're paying under $10.4 million for both, which is pretty damn good.
Ilyasova will work where Parker failed. He is a better rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass, and smarter defender. He won't anchor exceptionally stingy lineups, but he gives the Bucks a path to playing "smaller" without imploding.
Milwaukee coughed up 116.2 points per 100 possessions last season whenever Antetokounmpo manned the 5, according to Cleaning The Glass. Unlike John Henson or Thon Maker, Ilyasova is more interchangeable at power forward and center, and he won't concede as much size or strength as Khris Middleton does when tasked with playing up at the 4.
Philadelphia posted a net rating north of 10 with a 99th percentile defensive rating when trotting out Ilyasova and Dario Saric as its primary bigs, per Cleaning The Glass. Pairing Ilyasova with Antetokounmpo in identical capacity should unleash a similar beast for Milwaukee.
Both Ilyasova and Lopez bolster the Bucks' frontcourt spacing. Last year's center rotation finished 19th in three-point-attempt rate and 23rd in true shooting percentage. Ilaysova splashed in 38.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples splitting time with Atlanta and Philly, and Lopez was a nifty pick-and-pop weapon before he ever started journeying beyond the arc.
Lopez specifically blends everything Milwaukee needs from its center on offense. People forget how lethal he is after his role diminished on a Lakers outfit that had no long-term allegiance to him. Last season was the first time since his sophomore campaign that he averaged fewer than 20 points per 36 minutes. He should see more touches under head coach Mike Budenholzer, perhaps as an Al Horford lite.
Stop laughing. Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson helped Lopez beef up his passing out of the post. He can shoulder a workload that toggles between low-block battles, pick-and-pops and standstill threes. He will cook as a member of the Bucks.