The message was simple for the Memphis Grizzlies this offseason: stay the course. This group has been right there in the Western Conference for several years now, just short of busting through to the game’s biggest stage on multiple occasions. And with much of the same core set to return, headlined by Marc Gasol on a brand new contract, there was no reason for management to do anything outlandish. They made a couple value moves in acquiring Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes as solid depth pieces who can contribute in multiple areas, and will bring back Mike Conley and Zach Randolph to form one of the league’s more unheralded three-man combinations with Gasol. The Grizz have depth up and down the lineup at this point, and could have more versatility from their wing rotation than ever before if Barnes is still effective and everyone can stay healthy. As always, they’ll bide their time and look to sneak up on the right unassuming opponent in the playoffs, where (as usual) no one will want to see them.
Basketball Insiders previews the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2015-16 season.
The Grizzlies are going to be tough as nails this year, with a defense that should ultimately be one of the best in the league. Not a lot has changed from a year ago other than the additions of Matt Barnes and Brandan, but that’s not a bad thing considering how good the Grizzlies were last season. Memphis is a team constructed of players in the midst of their peak years and don’t have to keep their fingers crossed that a certain player or two will break out. They’re 100 percent ready to be awesome right now, and that’s exactly what they should be this season.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
The Grizzlies quietly had an excellent offseason. They re-signed Marc Gasol, which was their top priority, but they also added two quality role players in Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright. Both players are on very reasonable contracts and they will fit in perfectly with the Grizzlies’ style of play. Outside of those two players, Memphis brings back much of the same core that they’ve had in recent years and that continuity means they’ll have great chemistry once again. The Grizzlies seem to be flying under the radar a bit since they didn’t make splashy offseason moves like some other teams in the West, but they’re definitely a contender and, as always, they’re a team that nobody wants to face in the postseason. Had they been completely healthy in last year’s playoffs, things could’ve been very different for them. Don’t sleep on the Grizzlies this year.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
Over the years, the Grizzlies have become one of the most entertaining teams to watch. They hustle. They grind. They aren’t afraid to get gritty. (Sounds like a perfect match for Matt Barnes, right?) The Grizzlies took care of business by locking in Marc Gasol. They are returning their core from last season, giving them an instant edge with chemistry. Health is always a key player in the Grizzlies’ success. If their top players can stay injury-free, this team has another shot at going deep in the playoffs.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
In a league full of teams transitioning to an offensive-heavy philosophy, the Memphis Grizzlies’ most notable free agent addition over the summer was defensive-minded veteran Matt Barnes. Why try to fix a successful output that isn’t broken? The Grizzlies haven’t won fewer than 61 percent of their regular season games since the 2010-11 campaign. With Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph still producing at a very high level, the Grizzlies will once again be in the Western Conference playoff mix at season’s end. Book it.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Mike Conley
A good case could be made here for Marc Gasol as the offense’s fulcrum, but Conley is the one who keeps Memphis’ attack humming and mostly viable while playing lineups often short on spacing. The Grizzlies were the equivalent of a top-10 per-possession offense while he was on the floor last season, per NBA.com, but slid to a borderline bottom-five unit when he sat down.
Conley is a stud in the pick-and-roll, one of the strongest in the game at keeping the defense continually on the back foot with a great change of pace game and a useful in-between floater. The Grizzlies need this in their primary ball-handler – Gasol and Randolph can both grind out their share of possessions in from the high and low posts, but Memphis lacks anyone else who can create regularly, and the frequent dearth of spacing allows teams to often crowd Conley’s roll men in two-man action.
Conley can punish teams for going under the screen as well, shooting over 39 percent on threes off the dribble last season, according to SportVU figures. He was in the same range on catch-and-shoot threes, making him a threat to space things out for one of the big guys in the post. He’s likely the team’s most irreplaceable piece offensively.
Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol
The former Defensive Player of the Year may be leaving his physical peak as he reaches his 30s, but his defensive game has never been predicated on any sort of freak athleticism. He’s a savvy veteran at this point, never out of position and always in control of the interior for one of the league’s most consistent defenses.
Tony Allen has a legitimate case here, but two things: The big positions are inherently a bit more important defensively – they wall off the most common area NBA teams score in and are responsible for the majority of the rebounding. Maybe more importantly, while it’s not really a defensive deficiency, Allen’s play on the other end of the floor hurts him here. He’s too often a liability offensively, and the fact that Gasol was able to play seven more minutes nightly last season is important for a group that wants to maintain their defense-first culture.
Top Playmaker: Mike Conley
To be truthful, the Grizzlies don’t have a single high-volume setup man on the roster. Conley and Gasol do much of the creating initially, with Randolph as more of a score-first option on the block. It takes real effort for the Grizzlies to score a lot of the time, though, and without a single dynamic star to move the defense around the chances are tough to come by.
Conley does his best, using his combination of skills to open the floor wherever possible. Gasol and Randolph eat enough possessions on the block that he’s never been among the league’s more prolific assist men, but he’s a smart and diverse player in two-man action with enough moves in the bag to make things happen in isolation in a pinch and draw help.
Top Clutch Player: Zach Randolph
On the surface this may seem an odd choice – Randolph isn’t the Grizzlies’ first option down the stretch of close games and played slightly less in these circumstances than Conley and Gasol. Big Zach certainly isn’t the first guy anyone’s mind jumps to when they think of the league’s premier clutch players.
Here’s the thing, though: Memphis has an inordinate amount of success while he’s on the floor in these situations. Randolph was a team-best plus-24.4 per-100-possessions during the 153 minutes he played in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime and the score within five points last year. Even better, he was a jaw-dropping plus-37.6 per-100 in situations where the Grizzlies were either tied or behind by five or less – Memphis finished 17-9 in these games. Randolph seems to up his game when it comes down to it, raising his defensive intensity and imposing his full physical brutality on opponents when the game slows down.
The Unheralded Player: Courtney Lee
Any guess who played the most minutes last postseason for the Grizzlies behind Gasol and Randolph, with Conley struggling with injuries? It was Lee, who earned coach Dave Joerger’s trust as a reliable two-way guy who doesn’t get outside himself and has some sneaky versatility to his game.
Lee shot a round 40 percent on over 200 threes last year, the most attempts of his career. He’s one of the only reliable shooters on the team beyond Conley, and has the skills defensively to match up with a number of guys on the other side of the ball. These sort of basic plus attributes are useful on both ends of the ball for a team that keeps it simple for the most part.
Best New Addition: Brandan Wright
Matt Barnes is a candidate as well, but Wright should be a perfect fit as a third big with Memphis. He’s long been unheralded as something of a jack of all trades, a smart player on both ends who does what’s asked of him and rarely makes mistakes. He should be an upgrade in this system over Kosta Koufos, who ended up being significantly more expensive (heading to Sacramento). Wright comes in at a great number (under $6 million annually) for each of the next three seasons – pennies as the cap explodes.
– Ben Dowsett
Who We Like
Tony Allen: Long one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, Allen in part represents just how vital shooting has become in today’s game. There aren’t five guys in the world who lock down opposing wings as effectively, but the Warriors played him off the floor in the latter stages of the second round last year when they used Andrew Bogut as his de facto “defender,” allowing the big Aussie to abandon Allen entirely and force the Grizzlies to play four on five offensively. Allen couldn’t punish them for ignoring him, and the series turned in part on Steve Kerr’s ingenuity.
Will teams continue to extend that theme even further? It’s a blueprint a number of coaches should be able to replicate, and it could really limit Memphis offensively while Allen stays on the floor. That said, his value on the other end can more than overcome this at times, particularly against teams with a primary creator on the perimeter. He can suffocate up to three positions, maybe the best guy in the league at simply denying star wings the ball with relentless pressure and the ability to mirror their motions. He’s a joy to watch when he’s engaged, and an ace in the hole for Joerger in the right matchups.
Beno Udrih: Udrih is a nice change of pace backup for Conley, a bit of a jitterbug who has a number of tricks up his sleeve and can keep teams off balance with second units. He assisted nearly a quarter of Grizzlies baskets while on the floor last season. He isn’t quite talented enough to play huge minutes and is in the later stages of his career, but he’s useful for what the Grizzlies need out of him.
Matt Barnes: Barnes offers some more stability and a ton of playoff experience. There’s a good chance he becomes the preferred option on the wing to someone like Jeff Green come playoff time, with continued solid two-way play at 35. You know what you’re getting from Barnes: intensity, plus defense and enough other skills to stay on the floor. He’ll compete for regular minutes with the likes of Green and Vince Carter; Memphis’ newfound depth on the wing will allow them to pace each of them, and provide some more versatility come playoff time. He’s a nice offseason pickup for a cheap price.
Dave Joerger: Joerger should be mentioned within the elite circle of NBA coaches more often than he actually is. He’s proven both disciplined and adaptable in his two years at the helm in Memphis. The Grizzlies have been able to stick to their grit-and-grind guns in part due to an effective, no-fluff system that emphasizes their limited offensive strengths, and Joerger has resisted the urge to tinker too heavily and damage what can be a low-margin approach.
Does he have the ingenuity to help get this team through an imposing Western gauntlet? It’s not exactly a condemnation of his style if not, but this might be one of the last chances he has with the current core as Gasol and Randolph age. One of the game’s best at making the most of what he has may have to do even more for the Grizzlies to challenge the West’s true elite, though true to form he’ll keep them one of the postseason’s toughest outs at the very least.
– Ben Dowsett
This Grizzlies team continues to be defined by their defense. They’ve been no worse than seventh on a per-possession basis each of the last four years, and they should be right in that range again with most of the band back. They play a mostly conservative style that suits Gasol in the middle, with strong perimeter guys in Allen, Conley and Lee anchoring a strong front line.
They also have a great deal of continuity on their side, vital for a team with a low margin for error. Every member of the team’s core has been in town for multiple seasons; Wright and Barnes are the only real newcomers, and both are veterans who will have little trouble fitting into a great culture. Everyone is on the same page in Memphis, with a limited amount of ego clouding things in the locker room.
The Grizz also have some legitimate depth this year. In Lee, Green, Allen, Carter, Barnes and even sophomore Jordan Adams, Memphis can throw a number of different looks at teams on the perimeter, and can even try larger periods of small ball with someone like Green or Barnes at the four. Wright gives them three bigs who can play serious minutes when needed. This team should run at least 10 deep most of the year and could be among the league’s freshest come playoff time if they can stay mostly healthy.
– Ben Dowsett
The Grizzlies continue to have issues with shot creation, and it looks to be a primary concern yet again. Conley is the only ball-handler with even token separation skills individually, and even he is much more effective in the two-man game. Randolph and Gasol can both get theirs down low, and Gasol is excellent in the pick-and-roll as well, but with so few other threats anywhere else on the roster and a lack of distance shooting it’s easy for teams to sit on these actions and clog things up.
The Grizzlies are hoping a guy like Barnes, along with continued strong shooting from Lee and Conley, can push them over the top spacing-wise. It’s tough to say if he’ll be enough unless they get some improvements elsewhere, though – the Grizz were 23rd in the league in three-point percentage last season.
In a bigger-picture sense, the past few seasons have seemed to indicate that perhaps the Grizz don’t have an extra gear in playoff time. They’re always one of the league’s toughest outs, and no one ever wants to play them… but they also don’t really seem capable of raising their game quite high enough against the league’s true elite. Part of it is scheme – Memphis plays such a labor-intensive style in the first place that kicking things up yet another notch can be difficult. They also lack a superstar-level offensive player to put them on his back when things get rough, and while some of this is cliché at times, it’s been noticeable in the playoffs.
– Ben Dowsett
The Burning Question
Can the Grizzlies finally get over the hump against the West’s elite?
It seems to be a yearly question at this point. No one would ever dispute Memphis as a legitimate contender by now – they’re one of the league’s most consistent franchises. They just can’t seem to ever take that permanent leap from great to elite, though.
It may never be in the cards, as painful as that might be for the franchise’s faithful. Gasol, Conley and Randolph are a wonderful core, but they’re undoubtedly behind the times of the modern league to some degree with their style and approach. They’ve lacked versatility in a couple instances, particularly against the Warriors last season when they couldn’t rebound after Golden State’s move to Bogut on Allen.
To management’s credit, though, they aren’t going quietly. Barnes and Wright aren’t superstar additions, but they fill real needs and add depth on a tight budget. This is the kind of team ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness; it would only take one playoff injury or stroke of misfortune for an opportunity to arise. If they can keep their key pieces healthy, they’ll be lurking as always come May.
– Ben Dowsett
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.