Moving on from the Jimmy Butler era, the Bulls embarked on a new journey with a trio of pieces to build around. The 2017 draft night trade was seen as a steal for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but we found out that might not be the case.
Chicago has something to be excited about when it comes to the future of its franchise. With a healthy roster, one big signing and a couple of first-round draft picks entering the picture, the Bulls are aiming to prove they’re not a bottom dweller.
It may take some time for them to get to the level they desire, but there’s plenty to watch for in the Windy City in the upcoming season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
With Zach LaVine signing his brand-new contract and hometown hero Jabari Parker coming to the Windy City for the foreseeable future, the Bulls have more talent than they had all of last year. But Lauri Markkanen was fantastic and Kris Dunn proved that it was way too early to call him a bust. Looking forward, rookie big man Wendell Carter Jr. made his presence felt during summer league and will look to continue that momentum into his first NBA season. Fred Hoiberg will have a better team on the floor, but the Central still has too much competition to offer.
5th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Chicago Bulls made some bold moves this offseason, including matching the Sacramento Kings’ offer sheet for Zach LaVine and signing Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40 million contract (team option on the second year). I think there’s a good chance that in a few years the Bulls will regret matching the offer sheet for LaVine but I understand the thinking behind investing in a talented and athletic guard. I like the deal for Parker considering there’s little risk involved as Chicago holds a team option on the second year of the deal. Parker is better at power forward but he could be an answer at small forward for Chicago, which the team desperately needs. The best move of the offseason, however, was selecting Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh pick in this year’s draft. Carter Jr. put on a show at the Las Vegas Summer League and looks to be a foundational player for the Bulls moving forward.
5th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
This is looking more and more like the team Fred Hoiberg has wanted since he took over as Head Coach of the Bulls. Their players are better shooters and have more energy than in years past, which fits what Hoiberg has always had in mind. That doesn’t mean the Bulls will be good, necessarily. Rather, they could be one of the young teams that’s more fun to watch. As youthful as they are, the Bulls’ lack of defensive personnel should hold them back from making the playoffs, which is to be expected from a rebuilding team.
5th Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Are the outlines of a true core finally emerging for the Bulls? It certainly seems that way after a mostly productive summer. They’ll bring back Lauri Markkanen after a strong rookie campaign, plus other young pieces in Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. They’ll also be holding onto Zach LaVine after matching a big restricted offer from Sacramento for him. Finally, they drafted Wendell Carter Jr. in the lottery, a player many believe could be a sneaky Rookie of the Year pick, then nabbed Jabari Parker after Milwaukee clearly signaled he wasn’t part of their future plans. Will any of this translate into a significant on-court improvement? Well…maybe, but certainly not enough to challenge for a playoff spot. The Bulls could push for 30 wins if everything breaks right, but the real priority should be seeing how those pieces work together over as large a sample as possible. Enough emphasis there could allow Chicago to make a few moves here or there to plug holes if certain pieces don’t work; too much messing around could see them stuck with guys a couple years down the line once their value has fallen too far to move.
5th Place – Central Division
The Chicago Bulls could be the sneaky play in the East to make the post-season. With Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine healthy, and the young bigs the Bulls have in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., the Bulls look to be formidable. The two big questions for the Bulls are, can it all come together under Fred Hoiberg and which version of Kris Dunn will show up to camp? Dunn was a dud in Minnesota as a rookie and a stud in Chicago as a sophomore. If Dunn can pick up where he left off the Bulls might have enough to not only win some games, but sneak into the playoff discussion in an Eastern Conference that flattens out pretty fast in the four through eight seeds.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Lauri Markkanen
When the Bulls needed to score the basketball, they looked for Markkanen to carry the load, and most nights he answered the bell. The Finnish 7-footer started the second-highest number of games on the team (68) and was one of the most durable players on the roster.
He displayed an innate ability to not only shoot the basketball, but also have the versatility to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim with force. Markannen’s accolades from his debut season include joining Dirk Nowitzki as the only other 7-footer to make eight threes in a NBA game, passing Hanno Mottola to become his country’s all-time scoring leader in the association and setting a new record as the fastest rookie to reach 100 made threes in league history.
This offseason, Markkanen has reportedly put on 14 pounds and is looking bulkier. He should be in store for another solid year of work, especially with the better talent surrounding him.
Top Defensive Player: Wendell Carter Jr.
Is it premature to say a rookie is the best defensive player on a professional team? Maybe. But based on what Carter showed off in summer league and at the collegiate level – combined with how awful Chicago was on that end last season – it isn’t far off.
At Duke, Carter averaged over two blocks in about 27 minutes per game and three blocks per 40 minutes. In Las Vegas, he had two games where he recorded at least four swats. The competition isn’t what it is at the true NBA level there, but the timing and defensive principles he had are absolutely an indicator of what he’ll bring.
Seeing how he’ll fit with Markannen will be interesting (who plays what position?), but regardless, it’s not a bad problem for Fred Hoiberg to have.
Top Playmaker: Denzel Valentine
Valentine’s sophomore season saw him make a huge jump in playing time. He went from 17 minutes per game to 27 minutes per game and was depended on for the majority of the year. With the Bulls having lost Jimmy Butler, he had a huge role to fill as a swingman.
While his individual defense can definitely use work, Valentine’s willingness to get everybody involved is purely natural. His decision making is certainly a strength and he doesn’t take too many shots unless Chicago is in a scoring funk.
Year three is usually when players really take the big step in their careers. Keep an eye on Valentine and his potential progression, especially with fresh faces joining him on the floor.
Top Clutch Player: Kris Dunn
In one November win and a memorable early winter stretch, Dunn delivered when it mattered the most. He was a go-to guy for Hoiberg and the Bulls in key moments. Chicago went 10-6 in December and he was a big reason why.
It started against the New York Knicks on Dec. 9, where Dunn won the game with two free throws after drawing a foul on a drive in a tie game late. He did it to them again weeks later with a beautiful upcourt pass to Markannen for a go-ahead bucket on a dunk. The third time was the charm on Jan. 10, when he floated a contested teardrop off the glass for the lead with less than a minute to go in the second overtime.
On Dec. 13, Dunn hit a step back, between-the-legs jumper over Alec Burks to put the Bulls up four and seal a win against the Utah Jazz. Taking on the Sixers five nights later, he hit a game-tying three in transition, another step back over Robert Covington and pulled off a drive-and-kick to a wide open Nikola Mitotic on the right elbow.
It’s a shame we didn’t see more down the stretch, as Dunn missed the last 14 games of the season with a toe injury. He also experienced a scary fall where his teeth were dislocated and he suffered a concussion to boot. If he stays healthy this season, though, we’re in for some big moments from the third-year guard.
The Unheralded Player: Justin Holiday
You can’t talk about Chicago’s 2017-18 season without mentioning the team’s ironman. Holiday receives little attention because he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers, but he is durable, talented and more than serviceable as a key rotational player in the NBA.
Holiday averaged over 30 minutes per game for the first time in his five-year career and took advantage of the chance he was given. His field goal percentage overall was poor, but he knocked down threes and gave the Bulls a sufficient second or third scoring option most nights he played.
He started 72 games and led the team in most appearances. That in itself should be appreciated. Holiday’s role will likely take a small hit this season with the new influx of talent, but don’t forget what he means to this team.
Best New Addition: Jabari Parker
It’s a brand new start for the former second overall pick, and what better way to do it than in his very own hometown? We know the talent Parker has offensively as a strong, attacking forward who can finish with the best of them when healthy. That is the question we all need answered, though: What is still left in the tank and can he stay on the floor?
Parker showed there’s plenty left during the final stretch of the Milwaukee Bucks’ season and short playoff appearance. While he didn’t shoot the ball well from three, he did just fine inside of the arc. Defensively, he will have work to do, but it makes sense that he’s had trouble with considering the injury history. It will also be an adjustment to manning the small forward position
Chicago isn’t really taking a risk signing him to a 2-year, $40 million deal since the second year of the contract is a team option. It may be a hefty salary this season, but if need be, that can be moved and treated as an expiring deal. It feels like a low-risk, high-reward type of situation.
– Spencer Davies
Who We Like
1. Zach LaVine
In the 24 games he played in coming off of a major knee injury, LaVine’s bounce was there. He was unafraid to take it to the basket with conviction and confident in his jump shot. There were signs of rust, of course, but that was to be expected due to the gruesome torn ACL he suffered on February 5, 2017. Expect LaVine to be a crucial piece to the puzzle this season.
2. Chandler Hutchison
The Bulls’ other first-round pick in the 2018 draft should not be overlooked. Hutchison’s primary skill is his ability to play both ends of the court. He is somebody who can open up the floor and is constantly trying to improve his three-point shot with each year, as he did in college at Boise State. His skillet is one that fits today’s game perfectly.
3. Bobby Portis
Chances are this season starts off a little smoother than last for Portis, which means Chicago will be much better off. Who knows how he’ll fit into rotations with the abundance of frontcourt players on the roster, but Hoiberg must find at least 20 minutes per game for the talented power forward, who made a big jump in production. He just might be the perfect sixth man big for this team.
4. Antonio Blakeney
Opportunity is knocking for Blakeney. As one of the beneficiaries of a two-way contract, he earned a regular multi-year NBA contract this summer. He is still being developed at only 21 years old, but he has the potential to break out as a volume scorer off the bench. He is quick and an aggressor, making him a candidate to ascend into a regular role for the Bulls.
– Spencer Davies
Chicago is loaded with young talent. There might be difficulty finding minutes for all of these young players, but there is no question that they have plenty of potential. Think about the future of a frontcourt featuring Markkanen and Carter or a dynamic guard combination between Dunn and LaVine moving forward. There’s light at the end of the tunnel in the Windy City.
– Spencer Davies
The Bulls have to get better on both ends of the floor. It’s as simple as that. While there were times where they found success, they ranked in the bottom four of the league in points per game and points allowed per game for a reason. There is no “one thing” that needs work. It’s a collective improvement that is needed. Oh, and staying healthy and at full strength for the majority of a season would be nice, too.
– Spencer Davies
The Burning Question
Can Fred Hoiberg win and develop players at the same time?
This is the toughest part about being a head coach in professional sports. There is a desire to rack up victories because people want to see progress, but that isn’t easy with a team that is still so young. Players have to make mistakes to learn and gain experience. Sometimes that will happen in key moments of games that prove to be costly and lead to a loss.
There will be times of adversity and times of success throughout the course of an 82-game NBA season. Hoiberg is going to have to figure out a way to fit all of these guys on the floor together with the right rotations. It might take a bit to find it out. The question is: How does the organization handle it as a whole?
– Spencer Davies
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals last year, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
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.