For all but the very best, success in the NBA is contextual. As we rush into the 2020-21 season, let's highlight guys who are better than they looked last season -- some in new situations, and a couple who remain with the same teams but should bounce back anyway. Call it our 2020-21 Redeem Team.
Can we just fast-forward through a rejuvenated Horford, playing center full time, averaging 15-8-4 and shooting 38% from deep until the Thunder trade him to a contender -- or desperate wannabe chasing a play-in spot -- for some heavily protected first-round pick (fine, two seconds)?
(By the way: I don't think we've internalized how much the play-in tournament will change the last few weeks of the season. There has been a lot of talk about the Atlanta Hawks chasing the No. 8 seed, but all that guarantees now is the luxury of losing once in the play-in. The No. 10 seed is suddenly similar in value to No. 8, and the race for No. 6 -- and avoiding the play-in -- becomes urgent. The fate of more outgoing lottery-protected picks could come down to the wire. Fun!)
Horford is absolutely going to put up that kind of stat line. Even so, trading him for good value looks like a tough ask now. Teams that make theoretical sense are adopting a cocksure posture: How many draft assets do we get?
Horford's salary -- $27.5 million this season -- limits realistic destinations; without cap room or a massive trade exception (and the Boston Celtics, now owners of one, already decided against paying Horford), any suitor would need high-salaried players who don't matter much to their team. Most disposable expensive players on multiyear contracts hold little interest to a rebuilding Thunder team -- unless Sam Presti thinks Player X has more potential trade value than Horford.
The landscape will look different after Horford reminds the world he's still good. He wasn't even that bad last season. The Sixers' offense cratered when Horford, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons shared the floor, but Philly hummed when Horford played with only one of Philly's tentpole stars, per NBA.com.
Horford still slings fire from the elbows. He shot an acceptable 35% from 3. He can mash switches in the post. Those last two skills should sing with Horford again working as pick-and-roll hub.
Horford popping for 3s amid an open floor is different than Horford standing around the arc as Simmons and Embiid jostle in the paint. It was easier for Horford's defenders to clog the lane last season. They had less distance to cover. Horford was mostly a stationary target on the perimeter when he wasn't skulking along baseline dead zones.
He's still a capable defender, though he has lost some bounce and side-to-side speed. If the Thunder can't find a trade partner this season, they might have an easier time in the summer. There will be more cap space than worthy free agents. Horford will have two years left on his deal and only $14.5 million guaranteed in the second.
In their first conversation after Dallas acquired Richardson on draft night, Rick Carlisle, the Mavs' coach, delivered a simple message: "He basically told me he still remembers I am a good player," Richardson recalled, chuckling.
Dallas could be the perfect fit for Richardson -- provided he amps up his aggression off passes from Luka Doncic. Richardson probably ventured out of his depth as a co-lead ball handler in Miami. He then struggled as an off-ball player for the jumbled, jumbo Sixers last season. He shot just 34% on 3s and looked languid and hesitant on catch-and-go drives. Only 20% of his shots came at the basket, tied for a career low.
"It's tough to get to the rim when so many people are in the paint," Richardson said. "It just wasn't a great fit."
When Doncic whips the ball to him, Richardson should have more time and space to shoot. On pump-and-drive attacks, he will knife into an uncluttered lane -- especially when the Mavs play Maxi Kleber or Kristaps Porzingis at center.
That ecosystem should help Richardson recalibrate his shot diet. He has generally hovered around the same splits: 40% of attempts from midrange, 40% from 3, a very low 20% at the rim, and a blah free throw rate.
His release on 3s is a little slow; fast defenders recover in time to dissuade him. "That's something I'm working on," Richardson said. He has attempted startlingly few corner 3s, and he hit about 36% of them over the last three seasons. Alongside Doncic, Richardson needs to take and make more.
The Heat pushed Richardson beyond his limits in developing his NBA 3-pointer. Richardson was wrapping one off-day workout early in his career when Erik Spoelstra, Miami's coach, walked into the gym and began shagging rebounds. Spoelstra decided Richardson could not leave until he made 70 of 100 3s. On his first try, Richardson made 64. Spoelstra ordered him to run 10 baseline-to-baseline sprints. Richardson went again: 67. More sprints. Attempt No. 3: 69, with Richardson (according to his memory) missing his last two. Ten more sprints. "I was freaking out," Richardson said. "Saying stuff I can't repeat." One coach remembered a hurled ball. He finally cracked 70 on the fourth try. Point being: If Richardon's jumper stalls out where it is, it won't be from lack of effort.
He's a capable secondary ball handler who should thrive catching on the move in Carlisle's pet sets. Miami used Richardson as the back-screener in "Spain" actions, a play Dallas runs more than anyone:
You can envision Richardson flying off a pindown as Doncic runs a two-man game, sprinting into a Doncic pass, and continuing into a wing pick-and-roll. Richardson is slippery in tight spaces and can salvage dead possessions:
Of course, the major benefits come on defense. Dorian Finney-Smith was Dallas' only reliable wing defender last season, though Tim Hardaway Jr. put together his best campaign on that end. That became a problem against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the postseason. Richardson provides a second stopper who defends point guards and wings.
A lineup of Hardaway, Richardson, Finney-Smith, Doncic, and Porzingis has massive two-way potential for a team that was basically all offense last season. Dallas can go even bigger -- replacing Hardaway with Kleber or some wing/hybrid forward yet to be acquired.
Richardson is ready to recover his standing. "People get caught up in the moment," Richardson said. "Maybe they forgot what I can do. That's fine. I like flying under the radar."
Wright had had his eye on Detroit -- and Dwane Casey, his former coach with the Toronto Raptors -- when he got wind the Raptors might trade him in 2019, he told ESPN. After one year in Dallas, which proved a poor fit, Wright has arrived in Motown -- a savvy catch for the Pistons. Casey's message to Wright in their first post-trade phone conversation, Wright recalled: Get ready to have the ball more.
Wright's pick-and-roll volume plummeted in a 3-and-D role around the preternatural Doncic. Wright was ill-suited to that role because of plays like this:
Coaches have long urged Wright to stop passing up open looks. "I've heard it a hundred million times," Wright said. There is not always a better shot around the corner; there might be a turnover or a shot clock violation. Wright hit half his corner 3s over the last two seasons!
"I can't keep passing up shots," Wright said.
That passivity is likely one reason Wright's minutes dwindled in the postseason; the Mavs benched him in two of their six playoff games.
"The bubble tarnished my game," Wright said. "But I'm ready now."
He's also ready to lead by example, he said. Since high school, coaches and observers have labeled Wright "too chill," he said -- nonchalant on the floor, not angry enough after losses. "To some extent, I need to have more assertiveness," Wright said. "I agree with that. But in Memphis, I had a lot less chill to my game."
Wright is referring to his 26-game stint with the Grizzlies, when he averaged 12 points and five assists after Memphis gave him the keys. Wright is a cagey ball handler with a penchant for rejecting screens -- something he took from Dwyane Wade's game, he said -- and gorgeous change-of-pace craft:
About half his shots come at the rim, monstrous for a point guard. Even when he can't get all the way there, his herky-jerky guile forces the defense into switches Wright's teammate might then exploit:
But Wright's pick-and-rolls have produced middling efficiency, per Second Spectrum tracking data -- mostly due to his iffy jumper. Defenders duck picks, blockading the paint and reducing the need for rotations elsewhere. Wright takes almost no long 2s. Analytics frown on such shots, but lead ball handlers who face the "go-under" coverage need them in the arsenal. Otherwise, they are often left dribbling aimlessly as the shot clock ticks. It's hard for Wright to punish bigs on switches, since they back away and concede jumpers he is reluctant to take.
"I've never really felt comfortable shooting that midranger," Wright said. "But teams are giving it to me all day."
He's not a blow-away athlete. He doesn't have the straight-line speed to dust quicker guards, or the strength to overpower smaller ones -- though he can launch floaters over them.
Wright is not meant to be starting point guard on a great team. That's OK. Few are. The actualized version of Wright can still be a rotation player -- a hybrid reserve guard, probably -- on that level team. He has perfect supplementary skills: canny cutting, fierce defense across both guard positions, elite rebounding on both ends. Hone his jumper, especially standstill 3s, and Wright can grow into a really nice player.
He can work on that in Detroit while enjoying the ballhandling responsibility he craves.
I just cannot quit Aaron Gordon. It could be 2030, with Gordon shooting 28% from deep and running too many pick-and-rolls, and I would still insist he might make the leap at any moment.
Perhaps Gordon hinted at it in 10 games between the All-Star break and the NBA's hiatus, when he averaged 15 points (fourth on the team in that span), nine rebounds, and seven assists -- and hit 56.5% of his 2s. He was pushing the pace after grab-and-go rebounds, spraying dimes in transition, and (sometimes) overpowering suckers in the post:
Give me more of this -- against a like-sized player in T.J. Warren! -- and way fewer bricked fadeaways.
I still remember where I was the moment Frank Vogel, then starting his tenure as Orlando's head coach, told me during an interview he would use Gordon like he had Paul George in Indiana -- i.e., as something close to lead ball handler. It surprised me, and struck me as something a coach might say to placate an ambitious young player.
Orlando last season scored only 0.838 points per possession when Gordon shot out of a pick-and-roll, or dished to a teammate who fired right away -- 205th among 260 players who ran at least 50 such plays, per Second Spectrum. That number has cracked 0.9 only once in Gordon's career, and barely. He just hasn't displayed the jumper or feel to thrive in that role.
You can't blame Gordon for chasing conventional stardom. Most good young players do; Gordon is barely 25. He has never played with an elite or maybe even above-average pick-and-roll maestro. In some past seasons, he could have plausibly talked himself into being Orlando's best player.
The Magic also shoehorned Gordon into a wing role; it is not a coincidence Gordon's best stretch last season came with Jonathan Isaac hurt and Gordon playing power forward. With Isaac out, Gordon stays there.
I have been writing for years that Gordon would find himself when he decided to channel his inner Draymond Green instead of aspiring to be LeBron James. Gordon is already a borderline All-Defensive player capable of guarding any position.
Perhaps that switch flipped before last season's stoppage.
"The challenge for every player is the same: How do you play well and efficiently while the team functions well?" Steve Clifford, Orlando's coach, told ESPN. "For Aaron, that stretch was probably the best he has played."
Gordon felt it too. "I found my comfort zone with what [Clifford] wanted me to do," he told ESPN. "Just trying to be a better teammate on the floor, looking to get everyone involved."
Gordon has always been a canny passer in motion -- on the break, and after screening and diving on the pick-and-roll. He whips inside-out dimes when he draws help in the post, though smarter teams won't deploy help until Gordon proves he can punish people consistently. He has fantastic chemistry picking out Terrence Ross on backdoor cuts.
You even see hints of that vision when Gordon slices into an alleyway in the half-court:
Gordon doesn't find many easy drives because defenders ignore him on the perimeter and lay in wait in the paint. Gordon is a career 32% shooter on both 3s and midrangers. With Nikola Vucevic serving as Orlando's main screen-setter, Gordon does not get a ton of chances to wreak havoc as pick-and-roll fulcrum.
That said, a shooting center -- like Vucevic -- is the prototype frontcourt partner for Gordon. Surround him with four shooters, and Gordon can lean into more of an interior role: setting picks, cutting to the rim, crashing the glass. Gordon chilling unguarded along the arc is death for Orlando's offense.
Other teams imagine this Gordon. Several -- maybe as many as 10, maybe more -- called Orlando to express interest in trading for Gordon during the recent transaction period, sources said. Minnesota was one, sources said, and Gordon would fit there in a supporting role alongside high-volume playmakers and one of the greatest shooting bigs ever in Karl-Anthony Towns. How might Gordon look in Portland, playing off two elite guards and a snazzy-passing center in Jusuf Nurkic? What about as the nominal center in small-ball Brooklyn lineups featuring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and two other perimeter guys?
But Orlando held firm, and Gordon remains. Clifford will urge him to keep pushing the pace, mashing in the post, screening with force, and moving away from the ball. He may not be ready to shift full time into a Draymond-style role, but he experienced the power of it last season. "Some games, I'll still run a lot of pick-and-roll," Gordon said. "Other games, I'll be the glue guy. Whatever it takes to win."
The team still has hopes for Gordon's jumper. "Because he's such a hard worker, I think it's going to happen," Clifford said. "Whether it's this year, next year, whatever, he's going to get to 37% or 38% on 3s."
Gordon is also healthy after a series of nagging leg injuries hampered him last season. Just when I think I'm out ...
Whether Harris can reverse a bizarro two-year shooting slump is one of the most important swing factors in the NBA title race over the next two seasons. Harris' corner 3 has held strong; he hit 46% last season, though he doesn't take enough. The longer above-the-break 3 deserted him. Defenders are straying from Harris, mucking up Denver's spacing.
After hitting double digits in five of seven games during Denver's rally against the LA Clippers in the second round, Harris made just seven baskets and two free throws in the conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Perhaps it's health and confidence. Harris has battled lower-body injuries, including a hip problem that delayed his debut in the Orlando bubble. Harris stabilized Denver's defense when he returned in Game 6 of their first-round slugfest against the Utah Jazz. The Nuggets will need that even more with Jerami Grant in Detroit. Denver is going to sink or swim as a title contender based upon whether it can survive defensively with all three of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. on the floor.
"I get a lot of flak in Denver for why I continue to play Gary," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told ESPN. "Well, I believe in him."
There is nothing structurally wrong with Harris' shot, or any underlying injury impacting it now, sources familiar with the matter said.
An aggressive Harris who hits enough shots is an ideal complement to Jokic and Murray. He is an invaluable member of Denver's locker room -- the rare player who can talk to everyone and problem-solve chemistry issues. "He has everyone's respect," Malone said. "And it's not because he's a nice guy. It's because they see how hard he works, how he embraces guarding the other team's best player."
Harris has long enjoyed a wink-wink chemistry with Jokic on baseline cuts -- and is a surprisingly acrobatic finisher there when healthy -- and sneaks behind defenses when they rotate toward Denver's stars:
He's always moving and screening, flowing from one action into another. In an offseason conversation about getting Harris back on track, he and Malone discussed the need to keep Harris involved in the offense. "It's my job, too," Malone added.
When Harris revs it up, he can dust defenders and make the next pass:
Too often, Harris shrunk in those moments of flux -- pausing long enough for the defense to reset. He can look uncomfortable probing. He either passes too early; rushes headlong at the rim without a plan; or pulls up for wayward floaters at first sight of a help defender. Passing a beat early is fine when you pass to Jokic and Murray. But Harris needs a more refined in-between game, with change of pace moves that allow him to keep his dribble alive and find more profitable stuff -- including free throws. Harris attempted only 1.6 per game last season, the fewest since his rookie season. (Denver was 26th in free throw rate.)
"The injuries have messed with his confidence and aggressiveness," Malone said. "He's almost worried about attacking."
If Harris is healthy and gets off to the kind of start that rouses his confidence, I'm betting on a bounceback.
I keep reading smart people suggest the Nets attach a first-round pick to dump Prince's salary, and thinking, Wait ... When did it get that bad? Shouldn't this guy be able to help a good team? Isn't he a potential 3-and-D guy?
I'm not alone on Prince Peninsula, right?
When I interviewed Prince for a feature in late 2018, he was coming off a breakout season and harboring hope of emerging as a No. 1 option.
"I didn't work with [noted skills trainer] Drew Hanlen to just be a 3-and-D guy," Prince told me, referencing workouts from that summer. "I did that to expand my game, expand my imagination."
The Hawks indulged Prince in the second half of the 2017-18 season -- their last before drafting Trae Young. At the All-Star break, the coaching staff presented Prince a goal: Lead the league in 3-point attempts over the rest of the season, Prince and others recalled. He ended up seventh, hitting 73-of-177 -- a tidy 41%. He ran more pick-and-rolls than ever before or since, and he flashed manipulative playmaking:
Prince's role receded the next season amid injuries and Young's star turn. Atlanta sent him to Brooklyn in the deal that unlocked cap space for the Nets to acquire Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
By coincidence, Prince had also worked out with Durant in the summer of 2018, waking early to drive and meet Durant in Malibu. Prince had always looked up to Durant. He wore Durant's number, 35, at Baylor.
Playing next to Durant and Irving would mean going back to a pure 3-and-D role, and Prince struggled in it last season. It was as if his basketball mind was caught in the middle of a rewiring process.
He hit just 33.9% from deep after canning 39% combined over the prior two seasons, and he missed a ton of open looks. Among 260 players who attempted at least 300 shots, only 18 underperformed their expected effective field-goal percentage -- based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders -- by a larger margin than Prince, per Second Spectrum.
I'm betting it was random. Almost the entire drop stemmed from corner 3s; Prince hit 32% after canning 46% over the prior two seasons, per Cleaning The Glass. His mark on above-the-break 3s held steady.
The deterioration of his off-the-bounce game was more troubling. The Nets need Prince to keep the offense moving when defenders run him off the arc. He looked confused in traffic, paralyzed by indecision, left to fling up hopeless floaters:
Prince did not arrive in Brooklyn an expert ball handler. He turned the ball over on 16% of his pick-and-rolls with the Hawks in 2017-18, the worst rate in the league, per Second Spectrum. But he also slipped slick pocket passes and fired lasers to the corner:
Prince should find the equilibrium in his game and have a solid offensive season playing off Brooklyn's stars. If he digs in on the other end, he could become part of Brooklyn's crunch-time lineups.
Prince has never been as good on defense as he looks like he should be. He's quick, with a 7-foot wingspan. But his focus comes and goes, and he isn't the most physical dude.
The Nets have shown no inclination to salary dump Prince, let alone attach a pick to do so, sources said. That's smart. Prince won't ever be a No. 1 option at this level, but he can be a damned good plug-and-play support guy.