The Boston Celtics weren’t the team we thought they would be a season ago.
Alongside the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics were expected to pace the NBA. In fact, most pegged them the class of the Eastern Conference, with a chance to topple those same Warriors from the NBA mountain top.
That, clearly, wasn’t the case. With the amount of talent that some teams could only dream of, Boston just couldn’t put it together.
Jayson Tatum didn’t take the step many had hoped for (some might say he regressed, even), while Gordon Hayward looked like a husk and Jaylen Brown struggled as a reserve. There was a clear disconnect between the roster’s veterans and youth, and management did relatively little to remedy the situation.
Now, among others, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are gone and, because of that, the Celtics are a different team. The way they approach the season, and the way they handle their personnel, should see major change.
But, it would seem as if the same question is being asked of the team, if not with a different tone: how far can they go?
The sky was the limit a season ago, but now? It’s hard to say.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 2019 offseason was not a kind one to the guys in green. Having lost Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris and surprisingly Al Horford, core pieces were lost to say the least. However, with this comes opportunity, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are looking forward to taking the ball and running with it. The Celtics went out and brought in Kemba Walker to fill the All-Star point guard void, and Enes Kanter will likely assume starting duties in the middle. Considering how much those two love the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game, it could be a match made in heaven. Perhaps what’s forgotten in all this is Gordon Hayward is going to be a focal point for the first time in years, and the 29-year-old showed signs of his old self in spurts last season. The bench could be inexperienced with a couple of rookies mixed in there, but the leadership of Marcus Smart with that unit may be enough to guide them along. Brad Stevens loves a challenge. And unlike the managing of egos and disagreements behind closed door, *this* seems to be the kind of challenge he thrives on.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The Celtics may have lost Kyrie Irving, but they did replace him with Kemba Walker so don’t expect too much of a drop off on that front. Who they’re really going to miss though is Al Horford. Horford was their best interior defender and a capable scorer. They don’t have anyone on the roster who can replicate his production. What they’re really counting on, to avoid taking a step backwards, is the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. With a healthy Gordon Hayward, as well as Irving, there was only so many touches to go around. When the two were injured during the 2018 playoffs, both Tatum and Brown thrived with the offensive touches they got. They both took steps back last season overall, however. For the Celtics to try and offset the loss of Horford, they’ll need those two to regain their 2018 forms. They didn’t make much a splash on the free agent front, and they’re going to be expecting big roles from relatively unproven players like Robert Williams III and Semi Ojeleye. They’re still good enough to be a playoff team, but unless Tatum and Brown project upward, then they might find themselves without home court in the first round.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Celtics had a tough offseason. They swapped out Kyrie Irving and Al Horford for Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter – which is a net negative from a talent standpoint. But there is still ample talent on Boston’s roster. And there is still redundancy at the wing position, with Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart all posturing for many of the same minutes. But Celtics depth continues to be a good problem to figure out for Coach Brad Stevens. And with Walker now leading the Celtics, there is likely to be fewer disgruntled players in the Boston locker room. Rookies Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Grant Williams all show promise – but there obviously won’t be the requisite minutes for all of them to develop on the NBA team. Some – if not all – will spend a portion of the upcoming season with their G-League affiliate. The Celtics might have taken a step back from a talent standpoint, but they’ve added some much-needed stability. And with the league’s elite talent spreading across more teams (e.g., Kevin Durant leaving Golden State for Brooklyn), there is less of a need for a “big four.” So the Celtics picked a good year for this experiment, even if the plan was forced on them and not entirely theirs to pick.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Drew Maresca
Let’s be honest, you never want to lose talent in the NBA for nothing in return, let alone an All-Star talent like Kyrie Irving. However, if you do, Kemba Walker is not a bad consolation prize. In fact with the Celtics team chemistry being such a mess last season, Walker’s personality and style of leadership might actually make the Celtics a better fitting team this season which is a plus. The Celtics are going to miss Al Horford, not only was he a monster on the floor he was the big brother in the locker room that helped a lot of guys through the ups and downs of the season. That is a big void to fill. All in, the Celtics still look like a contender. They have fewer mouths to feed and that should help guys get in a rhythm a little easier. All said, the Celtics look like a more balanced team today and if any of the young guys take that next big step forward in their development, the Celtics should be in contention for home court.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
This was an interesting offseason for the Boston Celtics. Losing Al Horford is more significant than Kyrie Irving opting to join the Brooklyn Nets, in my opinion. Horford has been a huge difference-maker in the the lats few postseasons and is a good character guy to have around. Irving, on the other hand, never seemed to gel with the Celtics and was a disruptive presence during his time in Boston. Kemba Walker may not have as much raw talent as Irving, but he isn’t far off and should be a much better fit both on the court and in the locker room. Also, credit Boston for adding guys like Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards. Kanter is talented offensively and not as inept defensively as many may have you believe. To be clear, Boston lost a lot of talent this offseason, but made solid moves to fill out the roster. The hope is with more opportunity, young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can take a step forward in their development and fill the void.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Celtics quickly pivoted when it became clear that Kyrie Irving didn’t intend to stay. By executing a dual sign and trade with the Charlotte Hornets that brought in Kemba Walker for Terry Rozier, Boston triggered a hard cap at $138.9 million. That shouldn’t be an issue given the team has used all of its cap space and room exception (on Enes Kanter) to reach $117.9 million in guaranteed salary.
Before November, the Celtics will need to pick up team options on Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams. Jaylen Brown is eligible for a contract extension until the start of the season. While Boston might have enough cap room next summer to sign a maximum-salaried player, players options (Gordon Hayward at $32.7 million and Enes Kanter at $5 million) and Brown’s cap hold as a restricted free agent ($19.6 million) suggests the team is unlikely to be a big spender in July.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
In his two seasons in Boston (and with Brad Stevens), Irving posted some of the best numbers of his career. Now, in a similar role, Kemba Walker is set to do the same.
Already a potent offensive weapon, Walker averaged 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists and shot 43.4% from the field with the Charlotte Hornets last season. Irving, in arguably his career-best stretch, posted similar numbers (24.1, 4.4, 6.1, 48.9%), so it wouldn’t be ridiculous to think Stevens could push Walker to another level.
Even with the Celtics’ many departures, Walker is about the step into a primary role on a team more talented than any he was a part of in Charlotte. With those inferior rosters, Walker managed three All-Star appearances and an All-NBA appearance.
So, as Boston’s lead man? Expect Walker to take a leap.
Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart
With Horford gone, there wasn’t much debate here. Boston has multiple versatile defensive weapons, but Marcus Smart is the best among them.
Defense has been the Celtics’ identity for years, and Marcus Smart has been at the heart of it, perhaps more so than ever last season. Smart finished eighth in the vote for Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-time member of the All-Defensive first team. Smart also finished third in the NBA in total steals (143) and sixth in steals per game (1.8).
He isn’t the biggest, nor the strongest, but Smart has shown the ability to excel, regardless of the defensive matchup. His defensive instincts are impeccable, as is his tenacity – ala Patrick Beverley, Smart is never one to give up on a play.
Smart also has a knack for making plays when the team is desperate for one. Whether a deflection, forced an errant pass or an outright block or steal, Smart can often be found in the thick of it late in games.
Top Playmaker: Kemaba Walker?
There isn’t an elite passer in this group, but there are a number of different players that could take on the mantle come season’s end.
Walker would be the obvious candidate, as his 5.9 assists per game last season would lead the Celtics’ current group. Smart, who thrived as a secondary playmaker last season, would also seem like an easy choice here.
Hayward’s career average of 3.4 assists per game doesn’t look like much, but the forward has solid passing skills and the team could look to employ him as a point-forward in certain situations.
The most likely scenario? Boston can (and probably should) look to Frankenstein their abilities together. They aren’t Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but together the three of them should be able to make a serious impact.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
Walker has long been regarded as clutch. And, as he has in almost every other facet, he should step in nicely for Irving as Boston’s go-to guy.
By virtue of his situation in Charlotte, Walker’s field goal percentage in the clutch, the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within five, doesn’t impress (49.6%) — he had to take almost every shot, because there just wasn’t anyone else that could. Still, Walker finished the regular season with the third-most field goals in those situations (52), just five behind Irving (57) and ahead of Stephen Curry (31), Kevin Durant (31), James Harden (47), Damian Lillard (36) and others.
Plenty of his teammates — Brown, Hayward, Tatum, etc. — can and will get up shots late in games. But, when the Celtics need a bucket, they’ll have a guy in Walker that can get it done when- and wherever.
The Unheralded Player: Jaylen Brown
Brown regressed in 2019, but not nearly as much as some would make it out to be.
He struggled early on due to a hand injury and, by the time he got back Boston was in the midst of a meltdown. Stevens moved him to the bench and it took some time for him to adjust but, once he did, he took off.
In Brown’s last 37 games, he averaged 14 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals and shot 38.2% from three. Only Paul George, T.J. Warren, Curry and Irving posted those numbers while playing more than 40 games last season.
With a chunk of the offense production gone from last year, expect Brown to not only take on a greater role with the team, but another step forward, career-wise, in the last year of his deal.
Best New Addition: Grant Williams
Of course, Walker would fit the bill as the best new addition. But, to highlight someone else, let’s take a look at rookie Grant Williams.
There is a lot to like about the big-man out of Tennessee. At 6-foot-7, Williams has the size to play at either the power forward or center spot and should hold his own against most players, small or large, defensively. He can score efficiently, pass effectively and can even step out and make an impact on the perimeter.
Williams would seem to fit the mold of the do-it-all front court chess piece. Depending on where he is at, development-wise, he could seize a large role relatively early in his rookie season as the Celtics look to fill the Horford-sized hole left in the roster.
If not, Williams should develop into a solid player, and one the team can build with, as the Celtics look to turn their team around after last season.
– Shane Rhodes
WHO WE LIKE
1. Grant Williams
To reiterate, there is a lot to like about Williams and what he could do at the NBA level.
He was exceptional in nearly every phase of the game at Tennessee — he can shoot, pass and defend at a high level — and he has the motor that any team would want to see in a rookie. In his third year with the team, Williams averaged 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and shot 56.4% from the floor (32.6% from three).
Williams has also shown to be a team-first player, an attitude the Celtics sorely lacked last season, and should go a long way in bringing the locker room together.
He also impressed in Summer League and, given Boston’s options at power forward and center, Williams could step into a relatively large role out of the gate. If that’s the case and, should he hold his own, Williams could prove one of the biggest steals of the 2019 NBA Draft.
2. Carsen Edwards
Carsen Edwards can flat out score. And that’s exactly why the Celtics brought him in.
Boston struggled to score points off the bench last season, so they added the diminutive guard in the second round of the draft. Edwards scored easily and often during his time at Purdue, and even stepped up his game in the NCAA tournament and shined with the Celtics in the Summer League. He can score at every level — near the basket, mid-range and from three — and isn’t afraid of any matchup.
That confidence should bode well, both for Boston and Edwards. Even as a second-round rookie, expect some big nights out of him in his first season.
3. Gordon Hayward
Two seasons removed from his gruesome leg injury, this may be the year Hayward looks like himself again.
Many thought Hayward would take that step last season, but he struggled with his confidence and often looked lost on the court. Stevens tried to force-feed him the ball, but he only struggled further and the team worse for it (both on the court and in the locker room).
But now, with two years and an injury-free offseason between him and the original injury, Hayward may be able to take that massive step back toward the player he once was.
If Hayward can make that triumphant return to the court, it could completely change other teams view Boston and their place in the NBA hierarchy.
4. Romeo Langford
Should Boston not extend Brown, Romeo Langford’s rookie season could change from an afterthought to a primary focus quickly.
Langford isn’t the defensive presence Brown is, but the Indiana forward could become quite the offensive weapon. At Indiana, Langford made the game look easy as he averaged 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists. While he struggled in his efficiency — 44.8% from the field and 27.2% from three — much of that can be attributed to a thumb injury sustained early in his freshman season.
With a healthy hand and NBA spacing, the 6-foot-6 Langford, much like fellow rookie Edwards, should have no problem bringing some much-needed scoring off of Boston’s bench.
– Shane Rhodes
The future of the NBA is positionless basketball — teams want players that can play and defend a multitude of positions. And, when it comes to versatility, the Celtics have it in spades.
Brown, Hayward, Langford, Ojeleye, Smart, Tatum and (Grant) Williams can all play multiple positions. Meanwhile, Edwards and Walker can play either spot in the backcourt. Stevens has always been one to shift players around the court, and he should have a multitude of lineup options at his disposal for almost any in-game situation.
Should he (and the team) take advantage of that, it could give Boston a leg up on more than a few teams as they look to win games.
– Shane Rhodes
With Horford gone, the Celtics project to start Enes Kanter at the five. And, in case you didn’t know, Kanter isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess.
With the number of players that can switch defensively, Boston should find few issues defending the perimeter. However, there is a distinct lack of defensive anchor on the Celtics roster. Second-year big Robert Williams flashed but played limited minutes — is he ready for a bigger role? Likewise, Daniel Theis has shown promise, but has played relatively little during his two seasons with the team.
It’s possible someone may step up, whether it be either Williams, Theis or even Kanter. But don’t expect Boston defense to look as stout as it has in recent seasons until they address their issues on the inside.
– Shane Rhodes
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can Walker Help the Young Celtics Run?
The Irving experiment clearly didn’t work, but Boston lucked out and hit the reset button with Walker. But where do they go from here?
It’s also fair to question whether the younger players — Brown, Smart, Tatum, etc. — can get better or if someone can push them to be better than they were a season ago.
Ultimately, that responsibility should fall to Stevens and, as the team’s best player, Walker. If the two of them can push everyone to be their best, Boston could find themselves where we thought they would be a season ago.
If not, expect another long summer as Danny Ainge and management look to re-evaluate.
– Shane Rhodes
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
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
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