NBA

NBA storylines to watch: Are the Bucks the favourites and is Banchero the runaway Rookie of the Year?

By Sports Desk October 12, 2022

The NBA season is finally here, with the Golden State Warriors looking to defend their title after defeating the Boston Celtics in this year's NBA Finals.

Golden State will have plenty of serious opposition in their way if they are to go back-to-back, as some powerhouses – like the Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks – return to full health.

The list of contenders this year may be as deep as it has ever been, with the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns all definitely believing they have what it takes, and young sides like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves going all-in with the cores they have assembled.

After one of the best rookie classes in recent memory last season, this year's draftees have plenty to live up to, so to preview the season, we will start at the top.

Who are the favourites?

Despite not making the NBA Finals this past season, any conversation about potential champions in 2022-23 begins with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

The Bucks took the Celtics to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and that was while they were missing their second-best player as Khris Middleton was sidelined for the entire series after suffering a knee injury in the first round. 

There is a convincing case to be made that they would have gone back-to-back with a healthy Middleton, but instead, the Warriors were able to take care of business in the Finals and collect the fourth championship of the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green era.

Golden State return almost their full team, and with even marginal improvement from second-year lottery picks Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga, they will be one of the deepest rosters in the league, and will have the ammunition to put together one of the better trade packages if a disgruntled star appears around the deadline.

The Celtics will likely remain one of the best defensive units in the league, and will therefore always have a chance in the playoffs, and if the Warriors are not to come out of the Western Conference, the Nuggets or the Clippers are finally healthy and poised to make some noise.

Who are the dark horses?

Despite winning the title in 2019, the Toronto Raptors will come into this season extremely under the radar in what is now a loaded Eastern Conference.

One of the biggest and most athletic teams in the league, the thing working in the Raptors' favour may also be the point working against them – they brought back almost the exact same team.

Focal points Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are still only 28 years old, while O.G. Anunoby profiles as a potentially elite wing at 25-years-old, and 21-year-old second-year point forward Scottie Barnes is the reigning Rookie of the Year.

They were the five seed last year despite all of their starters missing significant time, and with their championship experience and natural improvement, they will be in the mix by default.

Out West, it's hard to go past the New Orleans Pelicans, who will have one of the best starting fives in the NBA.

With C.J. McCollum, Brandon Ingram and surprise packet Herb Jones on the perimeter, along with Jonas Valanciunas and the returning Zion Williamson inside, that group will be a tough out if Williamson can remain healthy.

 

Who will win Rookie of the Year?

The clear favourite to take home the honour as the best first-year player is the Orlando Magic's Paolo Banchero, who was selected first overall in June's NBA Draft.

Banchero – who at six-foot-10 and 250lbs is the same size as prime DeMarcus Cousins despite playing on the perimeter – has essentially been tasked with being the saviour of the franchise, and will have significant playmaking and scoring responsibilities from day one.

He could realistically average somewhere in the range of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game if the franchise truly decides to put the ball in his hands and let him run the show, and he is the only player in the class that can be said about.

His biggest competition – literally – was the Oklahoma City Thunder seven-footer Chet Holmgren, who was taken second overall, but will miss the entire season after suffering a fracture in his foot in the preseason.

Third pick Jabari Smith Jr will likely be more of an off-ball player in year one, limiting his ability to rack up massive counting stats, and fifth pick Jaden Ivey will be sharing the floor with last year's top overall selection Cade Cunningham with the Detroit Pistons, where Cunningham is unquestionably the star.

Keegan Murray, the fourth overall pick by the Sacramento Kings, profiles as one of the better all-around scorers in the draft and will have the opportunity to make his mark, and Shaedon Sharpe showed some intriguing flashes in the preseason after not playing a single game of competitive basketball since graduating from high school, still earning the seventh overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.

 

Quick hitters:

Pelicans wing Herb Jones was never going to receive the credit he deserved last year as a 23-year-old second-round draft pick, but the rookie was quietly one of the best defensive players in the league last season.

As a rookie, he was guarding the best opposing perimeter player every night for the Pelicans, suiting up for 78 of the 82 regular season games and finishing top-10 in the league in deflections per game (3.1).

He is one of the only wings in the NBA who is tasked with carrying his side defensively, and health permitting, he will be honoured on the NBA All-Defensive teams this season.

– For those who do not play fantasy basketball, it must be a shock to hear Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton has emerged as a first-round pick, but the unbelievably efficient 22-year-old is in position to have an explosive breakout season.

After being traded to the Pacers last season, Haliburton averaged 17.5 points, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 50 per cent from the field, 41 per cent from three and 85 per cent from the free throw line, putting him in the top echelon of efficient guard scorers and playmakers.

With established veterans Buddy Hield and Myles Turner both reportedly on the trading block as the Pacers enter themselves into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstake, their departure would only amplify the massive season coming from the former Sacramento draft pick.

– The Cleveland Cavaliers will have their sights set on the playoffs this season after their aggressive trade for former Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell – but he may not even be the best guard on the Cavs roster.

Last season was a coming out party for point guard Darius Garland, who appears to be next up in the archetype of deep-shooting, slick-passing, small initiators. 

He shot a career-best 46 per cent from the field this past season while attempting a career-high 6.7 three-pointers per game, and he was also one of the best passers in the league, averaging 8.6 assists and forming spectacular chemistry with fellow All-Star and alley-oop partner Jarrett Allen.

Mitchell will bring a level of perimeter scoring and playoff pedigree to the Cavaliers that is desperately needed to lower the demands on Garland late in games, but it will be Garland running this team for the first 46 minutes.

Related items

  • New Simeone? Howe did not learn 'dark arts' from Atletico coach New Simeone? Howe did not learn 'dark arts' from Atletico coach

    Eddie Howe was amused by the suggestion he might be the "new Diego Simeone" following accusations of Newcastle United employing Atletico Madrid's "dark arts" this season.

    Newcastle are enjoying an outstanding season, third in the Premier League and on the eve of the home leg of an EFL Cup semi-final.

    Having been more concerned with a relegation battle this time a year ago than any cup progress, the Magpies need only avoid defeat against Southampton on Tuesday to make a first major final since 1999.

    Liverpool were the last top-flight team to beat Newcastle way back in August, their sole league reverse this season, but their approach both in that match and in subsequent tussles with elite opposition has been the source of some debate.

    Newcastle, whose coach Howe spent time studying Simeone's Atletico after leaving Bournemouth, have received five yellow cards for time-wasting this season, fewer only than Aston Villa and Fulham.

    In relation to this trait, Howe was asked if he was the "new Diego Simeone" and laughed before replying: "It's so funny how things can be blown out of all proportion.

    "Yes, I did go and see a couple of Diego Simeone's training sessions, and I have huge respect for him as a coach and a manager.

    "But literally they're one-hour training sessions and then you go. Certainly I took nothing of the 'dark arts' from Diego.

    "I'm very much the same manager [he was before]. I've changed slightly because I've got older and I've got new ideas, and I'm always looking to evolve my work and improve.

    "I'm still fundamentally the same manager with the same principles and the same beliefs in style of play.

    "I just think I've become different from managing Newcastle. I think, naturally, managing this club is a huge challenge, so you evolve in that way."

    Newcastle's strong defensive record is also comparable to Simeone's best Atletico sides, keeping a Europe-leading 16 clean sheets in all competitions.

    But Howe is not planning to protect a draw against Southampton as he urges his Newcastle team, who have been wasteful of late, to attack their opponents in the manner popular former manager Kevin Keegan did.

    "The template is to entertain – of course, within the Kevin framework," he said. "We want Newcastle supporters to come to the game excited about what they're going to see.

    "It's to attack, it's to be front-foot, and it's also to try to win."

    Southampton were the last team to score against Nick Pope, back in early November, and boss Nathan Jones does not believe a win on Tyneside is beyond the Premier League's basement side, who lost 1-0 in the first leg.

    "It's not 'mission impossible' by a long chalk. It's a game of football," Jones said. "Anything can happen.

    "We have to be the best versions of ourselves – we know that's what we have to do. We have to have a game plan, we have to be good, and we have to execute it.

    "Newcastle are in good form, but they're not going to go the rest of their lives without getting beaten, so why not get beaten tomorrow night? That's what we have to attempt to do.

    "We'll go there in good spirits, we felt we played well in the first leg. If we'd had a bit more belief in the first half and been a bit more aggressive, it could have been something different.

    "We had a really good chance to take the lead. There's a lot of positives to come out of it.

    "It's definitely not 'mission impossible', and not even 'improbable'. It's a really acutely poised cup tie. That's how we're treating it."

  • Fifteen years on from Portsmouth stunner, was Ronaldo ever a great free-kick taker? Fifteen years on from Portsmouth stunner, was Ronaldo ever a great free-kick taker?

    Cristiano Ronaldo has scored many famous goals.

    Undoubtedly, though, one of his most celebrated strikes came 15 years ago, on January 30, 2008.

    On a winter evening at Old Trafford, Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth rocked up in fine form on the road, having won seven of their 12 away games in the Premier League.

    Yet Ronaldo, in the midst of a 31-goal season in the top tier, was the difference. 

    Having put Manchester United ahead in the 10th minute, Ronaldo stepped up, just under 30 yards out from goal, three minutes later.

    His free-kick, taken in what would become his trademark style, went up, over the wall and swerved remarkably into the right-hand corner. David James, the Portsmouth goalkeeper, had no chance.

    That goal is often thought of as the typical Ronaldo free-kick. Power, panache and pinpoint accuracy.

    But is Ronaldo actually as good as a free-kick taker as that goal might suggest? Using Opta data, Stats Perform has taken a look.

    Quantity, not quality?

    Since that goal against Portsmouth up until the day his second spell at United ended (November 23, 2022), Ronaldo had more shots from direct free-kicks than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

    Of the 645 shots Ronaldo had, 41 resulted in a goal. That is from 700 club games, across stints at United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

    On the face of it, that goal tally does not stand out as particularly impressive, at least given the fact that Ronaldo netted 619 times in total.

    Yet he is behind only Lionel Messi (who else?) when it comes to goals from direct free-kicks, with the Barcelona great scoring on 51 occasions from such situations.

    That gives Messi an 8.1 per cent conversion rate from free-kicks in that timeframe, in contrast to Ronaldo's 6.3 per cent.

     

    Naturally, given their status in the game, Ronaldo and Messi will almost always pull rank when it comes to set-pieces, especially at a free-kick in a dangerous position.

    Miralem Pjanic, who ranks third for direct free-kick goals and was a club-mate of both players at Barca and Juve respectively, boasts better conversion rate than either (nine per cent).

    Neymar's 13 goals from 147 attempts gives him an 8.8 per cent success rate, while James Ward-Prowse's 12 per cent (15 from 125, though this figure of course does not account for his strike against Everton earlier in January) is close to double what Ronaldo managed.

    Indeed, when ranked against players from Europe's big five leagues that scored 10 or more direct free-kicks between January 31, 2008 and November 23, 2022, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dani Parejo had lower conversion rates than Ronaldo.

    Club by club

    So, having established that Ronaldo's free-kick finishing was somewhat erratic following that stunner against Portsmouth, let's check on how he stacked up at each club.

    Across his career in Europe's top five leagues, Ronaldo netted 48 free-kicks in all competitions, from 782 shots (6.1 per cent).

     

    Thirteen of those goals came at United, with five each in his final two seasons of his first spell at the club.

    Indeed, Ronaldo's peak when it came to free-kicks was definitely between the 2007-08 season and the 2013-14 campaign, when he scored 35 times from that type of dead-ball situation.

    His best single season tally was six, in the 2009-10 season – his first at Madrid.

    From 2014-15 onwards he did not manage more than three free-kick goals during a season, while he scored only twice from 86 such attempts while at Juve, and managed no goals from four free-kicks in his second stint at United.

    One of the greats?

    As well as his effort against Portsmouth, Ronaldo has many other memorable free-kicks in the bank.

    His stunning, 40-yard strike against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final; a mesmerising hit from even further out in a Madrid derby in 2012; and who can forget that spellbinding, hat-trick sealing effort that secured a last-gasp draw for Portugal against Spain in a 3-3 thriller at the 2018 World Cup.

    Ronaldo might have gone off the boil from dead balls since the halcyon days either side of his move from Manchester to Madrid, yet there's no doubting that when he hits them true, there's not much any goalkeeper can do.

    While he may not go down as one of the greatest free-kick takers in history statistically, he has definitely been a scorer of some great free-kicks down the years.

    And who knows, maybe there'll be more to come in Saudi Arabia.

  • Antetokounmpo not taking anything for granted after sixth career 50-point game Antetokounmpo not taking anything for granted after sixth career 50-point game

    Giannis Antetokounmpo was determined to reach 50 points as he piled on 12 in the last four minutes of the Milwaukee Bucks' 135-110 home win against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.

    It was the sixth 50-point performance of Antetokounmpo's career, and after coming into the season with four, he has managed two this month following his career-high 55 against the Washington Wizards on January 3.

    He shot a blistering 20-of-26 from the field – including 16 of Milwaukee's first 21 points – adding 13 rebounds and four assists, and while he could have settled for a strong effort and a comfortable win, he decided to make it a memorable night down the stretch.

    Sitting on 38 points with 3:51 remaining, Antetokounmpo hit four free throws and a layup to reach 44, before closing the game with back-to-back three-pointers to bring up his 50.

    Speaking after the victory, the two-time MVP and 2021 NBA Finals MVP said these are opportunities you do not want to waste.

    "I knew that if I was able to get the rebound, I was going to shoot," he said. "It doesn't always work out, but tonight it did. 

    "I didn't hesitate at all. I was able to get my legs under my shot, stayed there, and just watched the ball go in.

    "It's one of those moments you can never take for granted because you never know when you're going to have those moments again."

    Antetokounmpo's team-mates decided to bring the locker-room celebration out to the court, showering their franchise player with bottles of water in front of the sold-out Fiserv Forum.

    "We might as well do it in front of everybody," Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. "It's really just to show how much we appreciate him. For him to go out there and do that is amazing, no matter how many times you score 50 points.

    "It's a great time – everybody just kind of gets on his shoulders and we're just along for the ride. At that point, we just got to support him. If he passes it to us, make the shot, but for the most part, we know who's going to carry us."

    Head coach Mike Budenholzer joined Holiday in awe of his star player, highlighting all the hard work he puts in.

    "Tonight, I think 50 on 26 shots is impressive," he said. "Just everything he did, his aggressiveness, a couple threes, especially late, but he's shooting it well. 

    "It feels like a few more catch and shoots – if we can generate a few of those for him and build the confidence in that area, those are areas where he's improving."

    The Bucks improved their record to 33-17, leaving them third in the Eastern Conference and with the fourth-best record overall, while the Pelicans slipped to 26-25 after their eighth consecutive loss as they battle a number of key injuries.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.