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Believe it or not, only one of the NBA’s 30 teams (Golden State Warriors) officially know what they will be doing when regular season ends. The other 29 have yet to either punch their ticket to the playoffs or punch their ticket to the draft lottery. Granted, the fates of some teams are forgone conclusions that have yet to become official (such as San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland in the playoffs and Philadelphia, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the lottery), but the vast majority could realistically go either way. That group includes the four teams that have former Hoosiers on their rosters.
Even though all four could possibly make the playoffs, none of them are championship contenders and thus will look to make changes this offseason. This week I’m going to go over what each Hoosier needs to accomplish between now and the end of the season to assure they will remain a contributor for their current team going into next season.
Eric Gordon: Guard, New Orleans Pelicans:
@ Washington (L 109-89): DNP – injury
Vs Oklahoma City (W 123-119): DNP – injury
Vs Minnesota (L 112-110): 31 points (9-17 FG)(9-10 FT), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers, 3 personal fouls, 34 minutes.
Of all four former Hoosiers, this last third of the season directly affects Eric Gordon more than anyone else because he will be a free agent at the end of this season. Despite the fact that he will only be 28 years old, the 2016-2017 season will be his ninth in the NBA and during his career he has missed roughly one-third of those games due to injury (Gordon has missed 202 of 616 possible games as of this weekend). With Gordon’s injury history and the fact that the New Orleans Pelicans will have just completed one of the most injury-plagued seasons a NBA team has had in history, Gordon will have a lot of work to prove he deserves another contract with the Pelicans.
The first thing Gordon can do is stay healthy for the rest of the season. I know that sounds obvious but considering that both players who replaced him at shooting guard ended up suffering major injuries, staying healthy would be a nice change of pace for the team. The other thing Gordon must do is raise his three-point shooting above 40% before the end of the season. Gordon seemingly had made the transition to a three-point specialist last season when he hit a career-high 44.8% from deep. While he has been successful from deep this season (37.8%), it is still a far cry from last year’s success. It raises the question on whether or not last year was a fluke considering it’s the only time in his career he has shot over 40%. If Gordon can at least get his shooting percentage near 40% (>39.5%), it will make him a more valuable free agent (there are very few three-point shooters who can consistently hit above 40% with only 20 currently doing it this season) that would require a multi-year contract from either the Pelicans or any other team that might find interest.
Victor Oladipo: Guard, Orlando Magic:
@ Philadelphia (W 124-115): 22 points (6-12 FG)(9-9 FT), 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers, 41 minutes.
Vs Golden State (L 130-114): 14 points (5-16 FG)(2-4 FT), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 3 personal fouls, 30 minutes.
@ New York (L 108-95): 16 points (6-14 FG)(2-4 FT), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, steal, block, turnover, 2 personal fouls, 35 minutes.
Vs Philadelphia (W 130-116): 28 points (9-17 FG)(8-9 FT), rebound, 3 assists, 4 steals, 3 personal fouls, 44 minutes.
As I pointed out last week, part of the reason the Orlando Magic specifically made those trade deadline moves was to create extra cap space for this upcoming free agent class where the Magic hope to buy a superstar. That means Victor Oladipo only has a month and a half to either prove he can be the superstar the Magic desperately want, or prove to the Magic that he’s essential for the Magic to be championship contenders.
The idea of Oladipo becoming a superstar player was unrealistic to begin with and has only been backed up with Oladipo’s good but not great body of work. That doesn’t mean he can’t still develop into the second-best or the third-best player on a championship team but he needs to prove that’s possible. The first step towards doing that is showing that he’s the best player on this current team, one that management already thinks is devoid of stars. He can also prove his value to the team by just being one of the main reasons the Magic sneak into the playoffs this season.
The reason why it’s so important that Oladipo needs to prove he’s an important piece to the Magic’s championship blueprint is because the Magic will likely have to make additional moves after acquiring their star player which will likely involve trading away one of their younger players. Oladipo’s goal should be to make management not even consider getting rid of him when that move eventually happens.
Noah Vonleh: Forward, Portland Trail Blazers:
Vs Brooklyn (W 112-104): 4 points (2-5 FG), 3 rebounds, personal foul, 13 minutes.
Vs Houston (L 119-105): 2 points (1-3 FG), 2 rebounds, turnover, 3 personal fouls, 13 minutes.
@ Chicago (W 103-95): 5 points (2-4 FG)(0-1 FT), 3 rebounds, block, turnover, 2 personal fouls, 18 minutes.
One of the main reasons the Portland Trail Blazers traded for Noah Vonleh was that management thought the team would be going through a rebuilding phase and thus would have had the time to oversee Vonleh’s development. Yet in the end the Blazers merely reloaded as they now find themselves tied for sixth in the western conference with a month and a half to go. The reason the team has rebounded so much is because young players like C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe have taken huge steps forward this season with McCollum proving to be 20+ scorer and Crabbe proving to be a great sixth man. While Vonleh has also improved from last season, the level of improvement is nowhere near McCollum and Crabbe’s level.
To ask Vonleh to make a jump similar to those two players would be asking too much of a player that is still very raw. However, aside from attempting more three-pointers recently (he’s attempted at least one three-pointer in 13 of his last 15 games, making 33.3% of those attempts), not much has changed since he was inserted into the starting lineup in December. With Portland ready to contend in the playoffs right now, Vonleh needs to show some sign of improvement for Portland to keep him this offseason instead of trading him away for someone who can help the team in the present. Even if it’s only 8 points and 7 rebounds a game, he needs to show some form of progress so management knows that it isn’t wasting its time.
Cody Zeller: Forward, Charlotte Hornets:
@ Cleveland (L 114-103): 7 points (3-6 FG)(1-2 FT), 6 rebounds, turnover, 3 personal fouls, 23 minutes.
@ Indiana (W 96-95): 14 points (5-5 FG)(4-7 FT), 5 rebounds, block, 2 turnovers, 2 personal fouls, 27 minutes.
@ Atlanta (L 87-76): 6 points (1-4 FG)(4-6 FT), 7 rebounds, steal, 2 turnovers, 2 personal fouls, 23 minutes.
As I have mentioned several times in past articles, the Charlotte Hornets frontcourt is so crowded that the team will need to make some kind of move to free up playing time. The easiest and most likely move would be not re-signing Al Jefferson in the offseason. That would directly benefit Cody Zeller the most as they are currently splitting time at center. While Zeller is the one who gets to start, both guys are still playing around the same amount of minutes. In the five games since he returned from injury, Jefferson has played 22.4 minutes per game while Zeller has played 25.2 minutes per game during that stretch.
However, unlike his fellow former Hoosiers, Zeller’s goal is to not let things change. Sure it would be great for Zeller to play so well that he’s averaging 30 minutes a game, but realistically all he needs to do is prevent Jefferson from playing more minutes than him. That means staying out of foul trouble, playing his usual great defense, and continuing to improve his field goal percentage. Zeller has made a lot of strides towards becoming the Hornets’ franchise center this season and now he just needs to make sure there are no setbacks.
Eric Gordon: 15.3ppg, 2.2rpg, 2.7apg, 1.00spg, 0.29bpg, 1.6tpg, 2.2fpg, 41.3% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 88.6% FT, 33.5mpg.
Victor Oladipo: 14.9ppg, 4.8rpg, 4.0apg, 1.46spg, 0.56bpg, 2.1tpg, 2.3fpg, 41.4% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 82.5% FT, 32.1mpg.
Noah Vonleh: 3.8ppg, 4.1rpg, 0.4apg, 0.41spg, 0.29bpg, 0.6tpg, 2.0fpg, 42.4% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 80.0% FT, 16.0mpg.
Cody Zeller: 9.1ppg, 6.1rpg, 0.9apg, 0.80spg, 0.66bpg, 1.0tpg, 2.9fpg, 50.8% FG, 10.0% 3FG, 73.3% FT, 24.9mpg.