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Charlotte Hornets 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Charlotte Hornets.

Basketball Insiders

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As splashier offseasons from some of their Eastern Conference competitors stole most of the summer headlines, the Charlotte Hornets quietly went about their business.

They replaced outgoing Jeremy Lin with understated veteran Ramon Sessions at a much lower price tag, plus grabbed one of the standouts of NBA Summer League in high-upside big man Christian Wood on a team-friendly deal. They fleeced the rest of the market in re-signing two incumbent unrestricted free agents, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, who now check in at moderately and comically underpaid, respectively. To cap it off, they used some of the extra space from Williams’ bargain deal to nab forgotten rim protector Roy Hibbert on a cheap deal, replacing outgoing Al Jefferson with a more defensive-minded anchor.

Much like their on-court product the last couple seasons, the moves predictably fell mostly under the radar as other contenders flashed their expensive feathers. Those who did give the Hornets a second look focused more on offseason departures like Lin, Jefferson and Courtney Lee, all of who were nice pieces but were nonetheless a bit overrated as drivers of Charlotte’s success. Lin and Lee both saw the team perform better when they sat than when they played, and Jefferson’s fit in the modern NBA grows worse and worse by the year. Smart additions to fill whatever holes were left, plus the return of plus-minus star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a season mostly lost to injury, make worries surrounding outgoing players a bit overdone.

A group that technically finished third in the conference last year in a four-way tie is commonly being picked at the back of the East’s playoff picture or even out of it altogether. Have their competitors behind Cleveland – including teams the Hornets were clearly better than last season with the same core group – truly distanced themselves that much in such short order, or is Charlotte being shortchanged?

Basketball Insiders previews the Charlotte Hornets’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Hornets had a sneaky good (though not perfect) offseason. Retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams were big wins considering how important they are to the team’s overall success. Batum’s playmaking skills complement Kemba Walker’s well and allow him to play off the ball at times. Also, the additions of Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert help to, at least partially, offset the losses of Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson. I will say that I wasn’t a fan of the Hornets trading the 22nd pick in this year’s draft to the Sacramento Kings for swingman Marco Belinelli. Belinelli has been very inefficient since leaving the San Antonio Spurs and that was a steep price to pay for a player who has been a net negative on the court recently. Having said all of that, the biggest change next season for the Hornets will be the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Though shooting has never been a strength for Kidd-Gilchrist, his relentless perimeter defense, versatility and slashing ability makes him one of the Hornets’ most important players. Charlotte is simply a much better team when Kidd-Gilchrist is on the court, so hopefully he can avoid the injury bug this upcoming season.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

While the Hornets didn’t do a lot to drastically improve this offseason, they are plenty talented enough to win a weak Southeast with essentially the same group that made such a big step forward last season. Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson are out, but Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert are in. Not to mention, getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back healthy is obviously big too. Kemba Walker is really, really close to being an All-Star, and Nic Batum and Marvin Williams are proven commodities at this point. With this lineup and Steve Clifford at the helm, the Hornets look poised for a strong year.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

This past summer, the Hornets lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin. The three were important pieces of their team, and some might say the team will take a step back. Of course, they could, but if there is one thing that the Portland Trail Blazers taught us last season, it’s that there are exceptions to the rule. Those departures will create more minutes for the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can return to being the player he was prior to his injury, then the additions of Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions will actually count for something. It’s pretty well documented that I’m a big believer in Kemba Walker. I first met him the night he was drafted and quickly became convinced of his potential as a professional. I think he is realizing it. He and Steve Clifford have a great relationship and, based on their performance and experience last year, I think the best is ahead. I wouldn’t be shocked if they walked away with the division this year, but on paper, I’d still favor the Wizards because of their superior talent and improved coaching.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

Steve Clifford is a fantastic coach and there is a lot to be excited about for the Hornets. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is huge for this team, and their offseason additions were solid (although I would’ve liked to see them re-sign Courtney Lee). While I have the Atlanta Hawks winning the Southeast Division, I believe Charlotte will take a step forward this year and win a lot of games during the regular season. Whether they’re ready to make any noise in the playoffs remains to be seen, but I do think the Hornets are poised for a strong season and are heading in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Hornets reached the playoffs in 2014, but then crashed back down to earth and missed out on the festivities in 2015. Then, Charlotte managed to return to the postseason in 2016. Do you see a pattern here? The Hornets lost three productive veterans in free agency this summer with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee headed to new destinations. Charlotte managed to address their backcourt by bringing in veterans such as Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, while also introducing former All-Star center Roy Hibbert into their frontcourt. The East has improved, but there’s enough uncertainty going on in the conference that Charlotte should be able to break free from their recent trend and reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker

Walker is the unquestioned offensive captain for this team, fresh off a career year in which he easily led the Hornets in usage percentage and attempted nearly 500 more shots than second-place Nicolas Batum. His playmaking-to-turnovers ratio is the best in the NBA among volume guards, as noted previously in this space. Major progression with his open jump-shooting allowed for a big leap in his three-point percentage last season, one that feels at least mostly sustainable if the quality of his looks maintains.

A big part of this is Batum, whose presence or absence next to Walker last season came with a pretty noticeable swing in Kemba’s production – especially as a shooter. Walker shot over 41 percent from deep on a diet of mostly open looks while he and Batum shared the court, a figure that dropped precipitously to just over 28 percent when Batum sat and took his gravity with him. Space on the floor for Walker disappeared without the French marksman, a fact hammered home by Kemba’s increased turnover numbers during these minutes and nearly a five point reduction in his overall field-goal percentage. Any significant absence for either player is probably the biggest realistic worry for this team, and perhaps the only occurrence that should really threaten their playoff hopes.

With both healthy, though, Walker is primed to again approach All-Star level. He’s an underrated headache for defenders, running them enough to affect their performance on the other end of the floor. Now squarely in his physical prime, Walker should be in for a very nice year once again.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

If one of the elite offensive wings in the NBA, a recent top-three draft pick, had missed all but seven games with a non-career-threatening injury in his age-22 season, the summer preceding his return would likely be filled with ravings about his recovery and potential impact, right? Guys that age are often still improving, particularly if they’ve lost a year of development, and the expected added value for his team could be massive after they got so little production the year before.

Why, then, is Kidd-Gilchrist’s slated return drawing so little relative buzz?

Maybe some of it is a collectively faulty memory. It’s easy to forget how devastating a defender MKG was in his last healthy year – a 2014-15 season in which he trailed only two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards. (Not to mention, he was among the top 15 most impactful overall defenders in the league here, despite DRPM generally favoring big men). He has the quicks and length (a seven-foot wingspan) to check point guards as well as the strength to bang with many power forwards, and he’s arguably the strongest non-Leonard option in the league against stars at the shooting guard and small forward positions in between.

Critics point to his offensive game, a legitimate concern that nonetheless hasn’t had nearly the effect one might expect on his on-court impact. Kidd-Gilchrist’s presence or absence has consistently produced the sort of gap in team efficiency typically reserved for borderline star-level players at his position, and brief appearances last year were no exception. And if he’s this impactful as one of the worst offensive rotation wings in the league, what happens if he does what many talented 22-year-old NBA players do and improves even slightly on that end?

Health remains by far his largest concern after missing time in each of his first four seasons, but folks are sleeping on Kidd-Gilchrist if he can log 70-plus games. Along with incoming free agent Hibbert, he markedly raises the defensive ceiling of a team that was already in the league’s top 10 last year.

Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum

Batum is the catalyst who allows Walker and the rest of the scheme to operate at peak levels. He’s the perfect Kemba complement: Not in Walker’s stratosphere as a ball-handler, but a strong shooter and off-ball cutter who slices into the high-leverage areas of the floor and doubles as an underrated passer. Batum actually assisted on a higher percentage of Charlotte baskets while on the floor than Walker last season, with the two combined accounting for over 45 percent of the team’s dimes overall. Walker initiates more plays, but it’s Batum who often finds the incisive pass after moving the defense around with his gravity.

Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker

This pick reflects the likely reality, but perhaps it’s not actually the optimal approach. Walker attempted nearly double the shots of any other Hornet during crunch time last year, but did so in a mostly fruitless manner – he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 27 percent from deep. He spent the entire year (and much of his career) as a relatively ineffective isolation option, per Synergy Sports, so it’s no surprise he had issues during iso-heavy clutch minutes. At the same time, the approach seemed to work: The Hornets were the league’s fifth-best per-possession team in the final five minutes of close games, though some of this certainly speaks to their defense.

Not a lot has happened with this roster to suggest big changes here, but perhaps coach Steve Clifford should consider some minor tweaks. Batum was even worse from the field than Walker down the stretch last season, but certain members of the supporting cast (Williams in particular) were actually really effective – suggesting the possibility that a more team-oriented approach might be even more useful. This can be tougher in practice than in theory, of course, and there will be times where they simply have to rely on Walker or Batum to make things happen themselves.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams

Williams has finally found his perfect niche under Coach Clifford: a stretchy power forward who does just enough defensively and is a huge spacing asset for a team with shooting imbalances in strange places. He was the team’s best high-volume spot-up shooter outside of Walker, and the fact that over 90 percent of his looks from three were classified as “Open” or “Wide Open” by SportVU data indicates just how often he was used as a safety valve when teams collapsed on the likes of Walker and Batum. The only major risk for Williams’ productivity is the chance that his body begins to break down in the power forward role as he crosses age 30, but he’s been very durable the past few years and doesn’t have to shoulder any huge offensive burden that might tax him further. He remains a vital complementary piece on a fantastic new contract.

Top New Addition: Roy Hibbert

It’s tempting to include Kidd-Gilchrist here after he played just 205 minutes last year, but Hibbert’s under-the-radar signing is more organic. Not even 18 months removed from a time when many still considered him among the league’s elite interior defenders, Hibbert has seen his reputation slide into the gutter after a year in the NBA’s worst defensive culture. Are we really already prepared to write him off after one throwaway season under Byron Scott with nothing to play for? This feels premature. It’s possible Hibbert’s best days are behind him at 29 years old, but with real defensive players and a real defensive scheme around him once again, this is a guy primed for a resurgent year. He’ll work well with a floor spacer like Frank Kaminsky in second units that can both stretch the court and protect the rim, and could even enter crunch time lineups to help protect leads when necessary.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Cody Zeller

Zeller will turn 24 years old in a couple weeks and is mostly a finished product at this point in his career, though he’s made solid improvements around the margins in recent years (lowering his turnovers, improving his scoring efficiency). He’s settled in as an above-average defensive center who makes up for a negative wingspan with strong instincts and good lateral mobility. He’s a very effective dive man in pick-and-roll sets, shooting nearly 60 percent on these plays and drawing a boatload of fouls as Charlotte’s most prolific rim runner. His 1.22 points scored per roll-man possession ranked fifth in the league last year among guys with at least 100 attempts, per Synergy. He’ll continue to serve as Walker’s most reliable screener and a solid, more-versatile-than-you-think defender.

  1. Steve Clifford

Clifford has quietly been one of the most productive systems coaches in the league since arriving in Charlotte. His schemes have gotten the most out of Walker, Williams and others offensively while simultaneously covering career-long defensive warts for someone like Jefferson. His Hornets teams have been in the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency each year he’s been in town, and he preaches a ball control-centric offense that’s posted the lowest turnover rate in the NBA for those same three years running. Charlotte doesn’t give the opponent anything easy, and the system really started to hum when Williams and Batum came aboard and opened up the floor for Walker. The Hornets were one of just five teams to finish in the NBA’s top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency last year, typically a mark of a contender. They should be in the same neighborhood this year.

  1. Ramon Sessions

Those looking past the Hornets this year are doing so in part due to concerns regarding Jeremy Lin’s departure, but are perhaps a step or two ahead of themselves. Sessions was a more efficient offensive player in Washington last season despite arguably a worse supporting cast during his minutes, and he comes at a much cheaper price tag (signing Hibbert almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if the Hornets had retained Lin at his eventual Brooklyn contract figure). He’s a downgrade on Lin defensively, to be sure, but additions like Hibbert and Kidd-Gilchrist should help cancel this out. Sessions is a perfectly acceptable backup point guard who can function mostly as a caretaker while Walker rests, and the need for two-point-guard lineups that featured Lin last year is greatly diminished with MKG’s return.

  1. Frank Kaminsky

Year two will be a big one for Frank the Tank, who had mostly a negative on-court impact as a rookie, but has several skills that could be vital for bench units now that Jefferson isn’t around to eat his share of possessions on the block. A slight uptick in Kaminsky’s three-point shooting could allow him to pair with Hibbert for a strong two-way lineup; defensive strides could allow Kaminsky himself to play center more often to juice spacing and bits of improvement in the post could make him more of a stand-alone option when Walker is off the floor. Kaminsky won’t check all these boxes at once, of course, but if he can nail one or two and stay healthy, he’ll be an asset. If not, he could lose minutes to Spencer Hawes, Hibbert or even youngster Wood.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Hornets went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to acquire Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert and Ramon Sessions, before re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. Now over the cap, Charlotte still has their $2.9 million Room Exception. The team has 13 guaranteed players, with five players fighting for two available roster spots (Aaron Harrison, Mike Tobey, Treveon Graham, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andrew Andrews).

Next summer, the Hornets could have $21 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up Frank Kaminsky’s rookie-scale option before November. It also presumes Spencer Hawes opts out before next season, and that the team declines options on both Christian Wood and Sessions.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hornets under Clifford are built on discipline, smart systems and maximization of talent. Guys know their roles or they don’t play. This is most likely to show through on the defensive end this year, where Kidd-Gilchrist and Hibbert raise the ceiling significantly. The former in particular almost certainly gives Clifford his largest collection of defensive talent since taking over in Charlotte. The Hornets were also the best defensive rebounding team in the league last year despite starting a small lineup and not employing anyone with a reputation as a monster on the glass, which is another tribute to Clifford’s demand of attention to detail.

They should remain solid if not spectacular offensively barring key injuries, with shooting as a crux point. There’s certainly a chance guys like Walker or Williams see slight negative regression, but it’s also far from out of the question that Kaminsky or Kidd-Gilchrist improves some. Even Batum has been a shade below his career averages the last couple years – he’s not too old to creep back up toward the mean. Belinelli’s addition should also help (another candidate for a moderate resurgence in a productive culture), and there’s enough here for another borderline top-10 finish.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Things get a bit dicey offensively if Walker or Batum misses any time, and overall margin for error in that regard is relatively thin in Charlotte. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t been very durable in his four NBA seasons. Depth and shot creation could quickly become a concern if a couple guys go down or heavily disappoint, and this is where Lin or Jefferson could be missed. The Hornets punt the offensive glass as much as virtually any team in the league, a tactic that shouldn’t change with Williams entrenched at starting power forward. If there’s an area truly poised for regression with this team, it’s their surprisingly strong showing in crunch time minutes last year.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Charlotte carry over their quiet success with improvements elsewhere in the East?

It’s a tough question, and for many the natural inclination is to look at larger surface changes to the Hornets’ competition and assume they’ve fallen behind.

Continuity doesn’t always mean stagnation in this league, though, particularly not with a strong coach and culture. Concerns regarding departures could be overstated, as we’ve discussed, especially if Kidd-Gilchrist has an impact anything like his age-21 season. A group that clearly has chemistry and a desire to win together – enough to get Batum and Williams back to a small-ish market for a bargain, at least – runs it back with a bit more talent in certain areas and another year of familiarity. They weren’t far at all from the East’s elite last season, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least come close again.

– Ben Dowsett

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NBA

The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived

It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.

When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.

Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.

Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.

But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.

This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.

With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.

Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.

On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.

Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.

However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.

Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.

Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.

That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.

If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.

This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.

Better late than never.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Are Player Legacies Really On The Line?

How important is legacy in the NBA playoffs? Lang Greene takes a look.

Lang Greene

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As the NBA Playoffs continue to pick up steam, the subject of individual greatness has become the big topic of conversation. Today, we ask the question: is legacy talk just a bunch of hyperbole or are they really made or broken in the playoffs?

To be clear, legacies do matter. Reputations are built on reliability and how dependable someone is throughout the course of their respective body of work. We all have them. They are built over time and it’s seldom they change from one misstep – but they can. Some of the greatest players in NBA history never won a title; see John Stockton and Karl Malone during their Utah Jazz years. Some NBA greats never won a title until they were past their physical prime and paired with a young charge that took over the reins; see David Robinson in San Antonio. Some NBA greats never won a title as the leading man until they were traded to a title contending team; see Clyde Drexler in Houston. We also have a slew of Hall of Famers that have been inducted with minimal playoff success in their careers; see the explosive Tracy McGrady.

So what’s in a legacy? And why does it mean more for some then it does for others?

Four-time League MVP LeBron James’ legacy is always up for debate, despite battling this season to make his ninth NBA Finals appearance. James’ legacy seems to be up in the air on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s because of the rarified air he’s in as one of the league’s top 10 players all-time or maybe it’s just good for ratings.

As this year’s playoffs gain momentum, the topic of legacy has been mentioned early and often.

Out in the Western Conference, the legacy of Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is being questioned at all angles. There’s no doubt Westbrook is one of the best players in the league today as the reigning MVP and coming off two consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. However, Westbrook’s decision making has come into question plenty over the past couple of seasons.

The subject of whether you can truly win a championship with Westbrook as your lead guy serves as the centerpiece of the debate. It goes without saying former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors amid rumors that he could no longer coexist next to Westbrook in the lineup. Ever since Durant’s somewhat unexpected departure, it seems Westbrook has been hell-bent on proving his doubters wrong – even if it comes at the detriment to what his team is trying to accomplish.

The latest example was in game four of his team’s current first-round series versus the Utah Jazz.

Westbrook picked up four fouls in the first half as he was attempting to lock up point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a career night in Game 3 of the series. Westbrook infamously waved off head coach Billy Donovan after picking up his second personal foul in the first quarter. Westbrook was also in the game with three personal fouls and under two minutes left in the first half before picking up his fourth personal.

You can make an argument that this was just bad coaching by Donovan leaving him in the game in foul trouble, but it also points to Westbrook’s decision making and not being able to play within the constructs of a team dynamic. Further, what will be Westbrook’s legacy on this season’s Oklahoma City Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George if they were to flame out in the first round with little fizzle – against a Jazz team with no star power and zero All-Stars? Is discussing Westbrook’s legacy worthless banter or is it a legitimate topic? There is no doubt on his current trajectory Westbrook is headed straight into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. As an individual player there is no greater achievement than to have your name etched in stone with the greats of yesteryear, but the court of public opinion factors in team success and this is where the topic of legacy comes into play.

Say what you will about Durant’s decision to go to Golden State, but his legacy is undoubtedly secured. Durant won the Finals MVP last season in absolute dominant fashion and showed up on the biggest of stages. All that’s left from those that question Durant’s legacy at this point are the folks on the fringe saying he couldn’t do it by himself. But that is exactly the line of thinking that’s getting Westbrook killed as well, because winning championships is all about team cohesiveness and unity.

Out in the Eastern Conference, all eyes will be on Milwaukee Bucks do everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo. After five seasons in the league, Antetokounmpo has zero playoff series victories attached to his name. Heading into the playoffs this season, the seventh-seeded Bucks were considered underdogs to the second-seeded Boston Celtics.

But the Celtics are wounded. They do not have the services of All Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are a team full of scrappy young talent and cagey veterans. Antetokounmpo is clearly the best player in the series and teams with the best player usually fare well in a seven game series. But the Bucks are facing elimination down 3-2 versus Boston. Antetokounmpo has only been in the league half of the time Westbrook has, but the chirping about his legacy has already begun as Milwaukee attempts to win its first playoff series since 2001.

So what’s in a legacy? Are there varying degrees for which people are being evaluated?

Despite James’ success throughout his career, a first-round exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers over the next week will damage his legacy in the minds of some. While others feel even if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were to drop this series against the Celtics, he should be given a pass with the caveat that he still has plenty of time in his career to rectify.

As for Westbrook, there are vultures circling the head of his legacy and these folks feel that a first-round exit will damage his brand irreversibly after 10 seasons in the league

Ultimately, the topic of legacies makes for good column fodder, barbershop banter and sport debate television segments. Because when guys hang up their high tops for good, a Hall of Fame induction is typically the solidifying factor when it comes to a player’s legacy.

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: The Futures Of LeBron, PG13, Kawhi and More

Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and NBA writer David Yapkowitz talk about the future of LeBron James in Cleveland, the Paul George situation, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, the future of the Blazers and the Basketball 101 program that’s part of the Professional Basketball Combine.

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and NBA writer David Yapkowitz talk about the future of LeBron James in Cleveland, the Paul George situation, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, the future of the Blazers and the Basketball 101 program that’s part of the Professional Basketball Combine.

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