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Brooklyn Nets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Brooklyn Nets have been under a slow rebuild for the last couple of seasons. Is this finally the year they can do something with all their young talent? Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the nets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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Following another season full of injuries, under-the-radar emergences and late-game losses, the Brooklyn Nets are nearly impossible to nail down.

Since the offseason began in July, the Nets have managed to move Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract, draft two intriguing European prospects and add short-term pieces like Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis to the puzzle. Jeremy Lin, formerly presumed to be the next franchise point guard, was traded to Atlanta in a series of moves that brought Kenneth Faried and a protected first-round pick back in return. In bursts, the Nets have shown signs of life in recent years but that pesky injury bug has always derailed their efforts before too long.

While the roster and front office have both tentatively looked toward a playoff push this season, the Nets regained control of their own first-round draft pick for the first time in five years. Beyond that, Brooklyn has amassed a hearty collection of developing youngsters but, at this point, they’re still waiting for one of them to break out. Supplemented by veterans on low-cost deals — Jared Dudley and Treveon Graham included — the Nets may have the right mix of athleticism and experience to make some noise in the weaker conference.

To kick things off, here’s where the Basketball Insiders team projects the Nets to finish during the 2018-19 campaign.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s much of the same moving forward for the Nets as the front office continues its workmanlike efforts to get out from under the massive hole the previous regime dug for this franchise. In their final year without their own first-round pick, the Nets once again used their open cap space to eat some dead money and pick up a future asset, this time absorbing Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur from the Nuggets in exchange for a 2019 first-rounder and a 2020 second. On the court, the Nets will be a similarly feisty but under-talented group – they’ll be looking for major court time and development from guys like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, with vets like Jared Dudley and Faried around to help mentor. They have enough depth that this could be a team that threatens for a lower playoff seed if the East is really as thin as it might seem to be, though whether that should be the ultimate priority at this point is debatable.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Nets are FREE! That should be the headline of their season. They finally control their own destiny again, which still leaves them as a mediocre team at best, but still. All credit should go to Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson for building a good foundation in such a bleak situation. The Nets had yet another subtly brilliant off-season, acquiring more assets while simultaneously getting out of paying long-term cash. With the solid group of veterans, they have to surround their solid group of young talent, the playoffs are a longshot, but not out of the question.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

Kenny Atkinson’s work with these Nets since the day he stepped foot in the organization’s headquarters has been nothing short of superb. He has the team believing in itself. His players are getting opportunities that they have earned and are flourishing because of it. Spencer Dinwiddie played spoiler almost all season long during clutch moments. D’Angelo Russell will be at full health to start the year and frontcourt players such as Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will keep improving as their careers become more and more established at this level. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the Atlantic is no walk in the park.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

The Brooklyn Nets didn’t land any superstars this offseason, but I think they arguably maximized their resources better than any other team this summer. The Nets made several moves to add talent while maintaining future flexibility. Among other moves, the Nets traded Timofey Mozgov, the rights to Hamidou Diallo (45th pick in this year’s draft), a 2021 second-rounder and $5 million to the Charlotte Hornets for Dwight Howard. They also moved Jeremy Lin’s contract, signed Shabazz Napier to a partially-guaranteed two-year $3,787,723 contract, signed Ed Davis to a one-year $4.4 million contract and signed Joe Harris to a two-year $16 million contract. These are some solid moves and we haven’t even discussed some other deals that landed the team some additional draft assets. Brooklyn also drafted Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. Long story short, the Nets made creative moves that helped to add talent to the roster and maintain the team’s future cap flexibility. This Nets team is far from undoing the damage from the last regime but they are certainly trending in the right direction.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Rebuilding is a long and brutal process, but after years of trying to dig out from past mistakes, the Brooklyn Nets finally look like a team ready to do something. The roster has the right mix of veterans and young talent, they have a great head coach and if anyone on the roster pops into legit star status, the Nets could be a post-season team. If anything, the Nets will be scrappy, but in reality, they are likely the best kept secret in the East. Don’t be surprised if they win 40 or more games this year.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s September, which means it’s officially time to write about Russell and his potential to become a superstar once again. After two turbulent campaigns with Los Angeles, Russell joined the Nets last offseason as the presumed centerpiece on a roster full of secondary options. Russell dropped 20-plus points in six of the Nets’ first 12 contests, but he underwent knee surgery in November, missed 32 games and then struggled to find that electric consistency in his return. Despite all that, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Russell and he represents Brooklyn’s best chance of taking the next step as a franchise.

Heading into his fourth professional season, Russell is just 22 years old and often showcases the skills of an offensive juggernaut. Through 191 games, Russell has hit three or more three-pointers on 50 separate occasions already, even hitting career-best averages in the rebound (3.9) and assist (5.2) departments in 2017-18. With the aforementioned Lin out of the picture for good, the Nets hope he’ll lead a formidable 1-2 backcourt punch alongside Spencer Dinwiddie.

Ultimately though, Brooklyn will go as far as Russell takes them.

Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

For the Nets’ best defender, it’s easily Hollis-Jefferson — a long, hard-working 6-foot-7 forward that can practically guard four positions on the floor. Although Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive game improved considerably last season, the longest-tenured Nets’ biggest benefit is offering head coach Kenny Atkinson loads of positional flexibility. Hollis-Jefferson can guard faster opposition, switch admirably in the pick-and-roll and does a fine job of defending the perimeter, a trio of skills that make him the Nets’ poster child for versatility. His determined energy and ball-hawking nature have deservedly made Hollis-Jefferson a mainstay in Brooklyn’s crunch-time lineups since he was drafted in 2015.

Hollis-Jefferson is up for restricted free agency next July, so expect more of his nightmare-creating defense and small-ball athleticism all year long.

Top Playmaker: Jarrett Allen

Last September, it was fair to assume that the raw rookie might spend most of his year in the G-League — instead, Allen quickly became one of the league’s most interesting projects. The Nets started Allen off slowly, often using him in low-risk chances behind Tyler Zeller and Mozgov. But once he was truly unleashed, it was quite the introduction to the high-flying, shot-blocking 20-year-old. Truthfully, Allen is Brooklyn’s best playmaker because, well, he simply makes stuff happen, both on offense and defense. By all means, this is a slightly-altered twist on the normal connotation of a playmaker — but he literally just makes plays, it’s that easy.

From throwing down thunderous dunks to popping off the pick-and-roll or even smashing away a weak-side block, the Nets played so much better deploying Allen as the starting center. Although Russell is the better scorer, Dinwiddie the better passer, Allen Crabbe the better shooter and so on and so forth, there’s something magnetic about Allen. It could be his 58.9 percent tally from the field or his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time — but the court seems to open up for everybody when Allen is on the floor.

In some cases, there’s no better definition of a playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Spencer Dinwiddie

The recent third-place finisher for Most Improved Player has patiently waited his turn to be mentioned in a superlative category — admittedly, there’s an argument for Dinwiddie all over the place here. Even if Russell inches him out in overall offensive firepower, Dinwiddie definitively deserves the title of the Nets’ most clutch, as he proved periodically last year. Beyond saving the season after Lin and Russell went down, Dinwiddie thrived and lived for the fourth quarter’s biggest moments by hitting a multitude of tough crunch-time buckets.

For much of the year, Dinwiddie went toe-to-toe against the likes of C.J. McCollum and Russell Westbrook for game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute. At a fraction of the cost, Dinwiddie nearly carried the Nets through another frustrating season. Whether he was fearlessly bouncing off seven-footers in the paint or launching away from behind the arc, there’s no question that Dinwiddie is clutch — but what does he have in store for the encore?

The Unheralded Player: Kenneth Faried

At long last, Faried has been freed.

Following his breakout campaign way back in 2012-13 — 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game — Faried has seen his court opportunities decrease almost every year since, even falling to a paltry 14.4 minutes last season. Thanks to the emergence of Nikola Jokic and the recent addition of Paul Millsap, it’s no wonder that Faried had dropped out of the rotation — but now, he’s back in a golden situation. Faried, of course, is a somewhat limited player. He’s attempted 20 three-pointers (and made only two of them) and over his seven-year career, while 87.9 percent of his shots have come within 10 feet of the rim.

But for what he lacks in range, Faried makes up for it by being an absolute menace and a pest in the paint. Even during his rotation-shortened 2016-17 season, Faried managed to pull down nine or more rebounds in 25 games. The player that came closest to reaching that total for the Nets last year was DeMarre Carroll at 19. Generally speaking, if Faried gets his minutes, he’s a near-lock to rebound at an above average rate. For a team that struggled to do exactly that in crucial moments all last season, Faried should bounce back in a big way in Brooklyn.

Best New Addition: Ed Davis

Similarly to Faried, the newly-signed Davis fills a massive hole for the Nets in the frontcourt. He’s a strong rim protector — in Portland, opponents shot 43.6 percent against Davis in 2017-18, the best mark on the roster — and a steady rebounder. Supporters of the Trail Blazers were sorely disappointed when management let Davis walk this offseason, but their loss is most clearly the Nets’ gain. Quincy Acy, Timofey Mozgov, Jahlil Okafor and Dante Cunningham have all been moved on from, so Davis immediately becomes the first big off the bench.

He’ll presumably spend most of his minutes backing up Allen, but he’s got the versatility to spell Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll at power forward too. Davis won’t be the Nets’ long sought-after answer as a stretch four, but he’s excelled in every high-energy role he’s been handed since he joined the NBA in 2010. Due to his fantastic fit and impending opportunity, this could be a career-best campaign for Davis in black and white.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sean Marks

For the second offseason running, general manager Sean Marks takes the top spot here — and why wouldn’t he? With the Nets still firmly looking toward free agency in 2019, Marks executed the rebuilding grand slam this summer. Not only did he acquire future draft assets, but Marks shed one the NBA’s worst contracts, unclogged positional jams and addressed the roster’s biggest weaknesses — all without taking on major salary commitments past this upcoming season.

To top it all off, Marks selected two highly-rated European prospects in Džanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs back in June’s draft. Although both rookies are far off from contributing on a nightly basis as they stand, Marks has quietly put together an assortment of prospects while replenishing picks and looking toward the future.

Under Marks, the Nets are in safe and sound hands, finally.

2. Caris LeVert

Alongside Dinwiddie, LeVert was one of the Nets that dutifully saved the sinking ship behind those crushing injuries at point guard. Thrown into the deep end, LeVert thrived as a playmaker and court general, upping his assists average from 1.9 to 4.2 almost overnight. In December, LeVert tossed out a career-best 11 assists to go with 12 points and five rebounds. Even better, the third-year professional made two or more three-pointers on 27 occasions, proving that some important strides of improvement are already here.

Even if he comes off the bench below Crabbe or Carroll, LeVert seemingly makes everyone around him better, regardless of the role he’s in that night — so expect big things from the flexible utility man in 2018-19.

3. Džanan Musa

On the topic of their rookies, Musa assuredly looks like he’s worth the excitement — maybe not in 2018, but in the very near future. Following Luka Dončić, Musa entered the NBA Draft as the most captivating overseas scorer and the Nets were happy to scoop him up at No. 29 overall. Musa himself believes he could play anywhere in the frontcourt — even at point guard — and at 6-foot-9, that’s a tasty proposition for Atkinson.

In April, Musa tallied 36 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds on 5-for-7 from three-point range for KK Cedevita off the bench — exhibiting the type of all-around game he may eventually possess. As of now, Musa will likely get spot minutes to spell Joe Harris and Carroll at small forward. Nevertheless, the Nets will need to be patient with Musa as he must get bigger and stronger before he can frequently contribute at the highest level. Either way, Musa is only 19 years old, the seventh-youngest player in the NBA this season.

4. Allen Crabbe

The acquisition of Crabbe last year came paired mixed feelings and his slow start didn’t convince many doubters either. But after settling in, Crabbe averaged career-highs almost across the board — in points, rebounds, three-pointers, assists and minutes — and launched from deep an astonishing 7.1 attempts per game, 13th-most in the entire league. As most sharpshooters go, when Crabbe is locked in, he’s a game-changer without hesitation, but he’ll need to find more consistency moving forward.

When Crabbe hit three or more three-pointers, the Nets went 14-18, a far cry from their 5-16 record when he made just one or zero from deep. For a team that jacked up the second-most three-pointers in 2017-18 — and registered a lukewarm 20th-ranked percentage on them — it’s evident that Crabbe will be a key cog in Brooklyn’s offense for the foreseeable future.

5. Joe Harris

Last, but definitely not least, is Harris, the Nets’ first official success story in the new regime. Brooklyn picked him off the scrap heap in 2016, but Harris fast became one of the team’s best shooters and defenders — eventually making him an asset they badly wanted to re-sign this summer. Harris’ 41.9 percent clip from three tied him for 16th-best in the NBA and he functioned side-by-side with Carroll as the Nets’ most reliable two-way players throughout 2017-18.

But given the Nets’ current status in purgatory, it was fair to wonder if Harris would take his renewed career and head to a contender. In lieu of that, Harris signed a two-year deal worth $16 million to stick around for a few extra attempts. As Brooklyn’s modern-looking offense gets further fleshed out and refined, there’s a fair chance that Harris will only continue to rise.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Everybody knows that the Nets’ biggest strengths lie within their three-point prowess. It’s not hyperbole to say that Brooklyn lived and died by the three in 2017-18 and it’s unlikely to change at this stage. However, they’ve now got the personnel to do so, so their nightly consistency simply needs to catch up to their fire-rate. But instead of regurgitating those statistics again, let’s look at another potential strength: the Nets’ positional flexibility.

All their point guards can play off-ball at the two, a group that now includes Shabazz Napier. Elsewhere, Musa believes he can handle those responsibilities and LeVert proved he could for much of the previous campaign. At 6-foot-5, Graham can guard multiple positions, a skill set that Carroll and Hollis-Jefferson both filled last season to great success. The duo of Faried and Davis give the Nets have two capable options backing up Allen, while both could play power forward when Carroll or Hollis-Jefferson slide up a position.

Given Brooklyn’s penchant for fast, three-point launching offensive sets, they’ll need their players to wear many different hats all year — for once, they might have the roster to pull it off.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

It’s a sore subject in Brooklyn, but they’re another below average defense unit heading into 2018-19. The good news is that they’re trying and incrementally improving. The Nets have learned to defend the three-point line decently under Atkinson, but have lacked a second rim protector like Allen until now. Davis gives the Nets a sorely-needed upgrade in rim protection and Faried will help to ease any lingering rebound concerns.

More or less, the Nets have effectively addressed solutions for their most glaring weaknesses — all the same, there’s still a giant part missing: a superstar.

Enhanced team defense and three-point shooting are great, but until the Nets find a bonafide star to carry them through difficult, tight contests, this will remain their middling fate. Naturally, they hope to have a budding star in Russell already, but LeVert and Allen have both shown promising flashes in addition. Conclusively, the Nets are stuck in the 9th/10th/11th range as long as their roster is a compilation of second and third options, sadly.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

The Nets can’t actually make the playoffs… right? (Version 2.0)

So here we are again, wondering the Nets could make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference. Here are the cliff notes summary in full: Brooklyn plays in the weaker conference, they are healthy (for now) and their young core is another year wiser. Thus far, Atkinson and Marks have steered their ship elegantly in the right direction, but it’ll be up to the players to finally put it all together.

For now, it’d be reasonable to say that the Nets have an early leg up on the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and, depending on how the Kristaps Porzingis situation unfolds in a few months, the New York Knicks. Unfortunately, that’s not a strong enough case to put the Nets as a definite playoff contender just yet — but it’s feasible to expect that they’ll hang around 9th or 10th place at the very least.

On the other hand, if D’Angelo Russell evolves into the star-caliber player he’s capable of becoming, then all bets would certainly be off.

– Ben Nadeau

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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