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Denver Nuggets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Denver Nuggets might be the deepest team in the NBA, but in a division in which every team might make the post-season, are the Nuggets good enough to be more than first-round fodder? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Denver Nuggets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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Despite missing out on the latest installment of the NBA playoffs, there is almost too much to like about this Denver squad. It’s easy to forget about their lack of defense when you realize just how explosive they are offensively. Throw in the fact that they are one of the younger teams in the league and it becomes clear why so many people are high on their potential.

An important thing to note with this Nuggets squad: they barely missed out on the postseason last year. I can’t put enough emphasis on the word barely. Not only did a trip to the playoffs come down to the last game of the season (the Nuggets played the Minnesota Timberwolves with the winner moving on), but a win could’ve vaulted the Nuggets up much higher than just the 8th seed. That’s how close the Western conference playoff race was. Obviously, the Nuggets lost, missed out on the postseason and found themselves yet again in the lottery. But the future for this young core has never been brighter. Let’s take a look at this year’s edition of the Denver Nuggets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Denver Nuggets are not going to be the NBA’s best defensive team next season, but their offense should be quite potent. The Nuggets didn’t add make any major changes this offseason, though Isaiah Thomas could be a difference-maker if he is at least relatively healthy. Assuming players like Paul Millsap can avoid the injury bug as well, Denver should be considered a playoff contender as we approach opening night. This is especially true when you consider that some of Denver’s key players, like Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are still young and improving. However, while I like the talent on this team and think their offense will be a matcup problem for most opponents, their defense will likely be an Achilles heel. Players like Jokic and Murray are not impact players on defense and are often targeted by opponents. If Denver can put together a league average defense, I think they have a good shot of making the playoffs.

4th Place – Northwest Division

-Jesse Blancarte

The Nuggets didn’t make sweeping changes to any of the primary players on their roster this summer, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from predicting big things for them in 2018-19. After missing the playoffs by just a game last year, the Nuggets will bring back much of the same crew – only with hopes for a full season of health from Paul Millsap, a potential small boost from signee Isaiah Thomas, and most importantly, some solid development from young pieces like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Denver has one of the league’s most potent offenses when Jokic is on the floor, and while they’ve struggled at times on the other end, they may only have to approach league average here to rack up a ton of wins if everyone stays healthy. At the same time, it’s unlikely they’ll break into a true tier of contention until the defensive side of the ball gets a bit more attention.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

Oh, what this team could do! Before Paul Millsap’s wrist injury undid everything last season, the bar for the Nuggets was set at the playoffs. Now he’ll be back fully healthy. On top of that, Denver’s summer can be summarized in two hyphenated words: “Low-risk” and “high-reward.” They took Michael Porter Jr with the 14th pick after many believed he could have been top-three in a loaded draft. Then they signed Isaiah Thomas, who’s only one year past his MVP candidacy. So much could go right for Denver this season that it’s actually kind of scary to think of their potential. With all they’ve accumulated, Denver has to feel good about their chances.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

One of the strongest young cores in basketball resides in the Mile High City. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris Jr. have continued to develop into a significantly productive backcourt tandem. Nikola Jokic heads into his fourth year with plenty of hype surrounding him. There’s a nice veteran presence in Paul Millsap, who can truly making an impact if he stays healthy for the majority of 2017-18. A bench featuring Isaiah Thomas, Will Barton and Trey Lyles will provide plenty of scoring as well. The Nuggets fell one game short of making the NBA playoffs last season. Mike Malone’s talented bunch won’t be missing out this time around.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

If you look at the West in an unbiased way, it’s fair to say all five teams in the Northwest could make the postseason. The division is that good. For Denver specifically, how can you not like their roster? Nikola Jokic might be the best “every category” player in basketball and he’s really just finding his way. The Nuggets’ roster is just loaded, so beyond injury, the Nuggets should be a playoff team at worst, and at best could win 45-50 games. The West is going to be brutally tough, so its not a given for anyone, but one this is as close to a lock as they come, the Nuggets look like a formidable cover every night.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic

Sure, there are multiple guards on this roster that could claim this spot. But Jokic not only averaged the most points per game (18.5), he did so with the highest efficiency. He led the team in both three-point percentage (39.6) and true shooting percentage (60.3). He also led the team in assists, assist percentage, and usage. Did we mention he plays center?

Jokic is one of those “eye-test” players that doesn’t really come off as elite to the casual fan. But make no mistake, this guy can play basketball. He just got inked to a nice, big contract. He’s only 23 years old. He’s improved his per-game points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks numbers in each of his three years in the league. Few players have done this in the league’s history.

Top Defensive Player: Paul Millsap

If there is one thing Denver has struggled with, it is their defense. Whether it’s personnel, coaching, or a combination of both, they’ve been one of the worst rated teams in the league on that end of the floor. Paul Millsap has been one of the better defenders on this roster. Standing at 6-foot-8, his elite wingspan at 7-foot-2 allows him to guard players taller than him, yet his quickness helps him stick with more athletic guards on switches. He boasts the second highest block percentage on the roster at 37.6 percent.

Another thing to note, when Millsap is on the floor, the team boasts their lowest defensive rating of 107.1. When off, it goes up to 109.5.

Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic

This was an easy choice. Although he plays the five, the offense essentially runs through Jokic. Like I mentioned previously, he leads the team in assists per game at 6.1. As impressive as it is to lead the team in assists at center, it’s very easy to see why. Jokic has a natural feel for the game and can fit passes into pockets that most wouldn’t even think about. His high offensive IQ allows him to facilitate the ball whether it’s from the top of the key, or down by the rim. He had mild success playing alongside Jusuf Nurkic a few seasons ago, but we really saw his playmaking abilities flourish as soon as he was placed next to a true stretch four in Paul Millsap.

Top Clutch Player: Paul Millsap

Although his sample size wasn’t as large as other players on the team in clutch minutes, thanks in part to missing extended time with a wrist injury, Millsap is the clear choice for this spot. Considering the fact that “clutch” minutes are the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five, no one played more clutch minutes per game than Millsap. He remained on the floor thanks in part to his veteran presence. He averaged the most clutch points, had the second highest field goal percentage and the highest plus-minus out of anyone who played in more than 10 clutch games.

He led the previous year’s edition of the Atlanta Hawks in clutch points as well, so this isn’t anything new for him. As the season goes on, look at a few younger guards to potentially take this position, but entering the season it’s clear Millsap is the best option with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Gary Harris

No player on this roster has quietly improved his game the way Gary Harris has. Arguably the best shooter on the roster, he’s also developed into an above-average wing defender, and an efficient scorer from almost anywhere on the court. He finished last season with a deadly clip of 39.6 percent from three. He averaged 17.5 points per game, his highest mark to date. He turned in 1.8 steals per night as well, also a career high.

On a team that is so explosive offensively, yet lacking on the defensive end of the court, Harris is a player that stands out. Not only is he a main contributor on the offensive end, he does plenty on defense as well. The Nuggets have a positive 3.2 net rating with him on the court and a negative 2.6 rating with him off.

Best New Addition: Isaiah Thomas

There is not a single player in the NBA that has had a rougher go than Isaiah Thomas in the last few years. He played highly admirable basketball in Boston, got dealt to Cleveland while he was trying to overcome an injury, and ultimately ended up with the Lakers after another string of trades. His season there had its ups and downs, but he wasn’t really a part of the Lakers’ future. After signing with Denver in the offseason, he’ll look to get his career back on the right track.

Thomas certainly will not help Denver on the defensive side of the ball, as his sheer size essentially hinders any success on that end, but he’s only two seasons removed from one of the better offensive seasons in recent memory. His final year with Boston, he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.6. If Thomas can get back to that kind of production, he’ll make an already impressive offense even better.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1 – Jamal Murray

Murray didn’t get any mentions above, but could essentially find himself in each of the aforementioned categories. It was clear the Nuggets viewed him as the point guard moving forward after dealing Emmanuel Mudiay to the Knicks. In just his second year in the league, he started in all but two games and played in all but one, averaging 16.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting, and 3.4 assists. He has incredible range from beyond the arc, and is a superb free throw shooter, finishing last season at 90.3 percent.

2 – Michael Porter Jr.

Once considered the top high school prospect in the country, a back injury caused him to miss almost his entire college season. He still entered the draft, and luckily for the Nuggets slid all the way to No. 14. Boasting a combination of elite size, skill, and athleticism, Porter Jr. could be the next big star. The only unknown currently is his expected return date, as he opted for a second back surgery not long after this year’s draft. If he can return this season, he’ll likely add instant help off the bench. But that’s a big if. When healthy, there’s no doubt Porter Jr. will contribute, but it may not be this season.

3 – Nikola Jokic

Much can be (and already has been) said about this big man. An interesting rhetoric that surrounds this team is whether or not the Nuggets can actually win a championship with Jokic at the five. He’s slow, not overly athletic, and certainly doesn’t look like an elite basketball player. But the numbers don’t lie. When he is on the court, this team is better. He has the highest net rating differential on the team at 9.9.

He got paid a lot of money this offseason, and many people are arguing that his contract is too much. Only time will tell if his on-court production is worth his max contract, but one thing’s for certain: This Nuggets team is considerably better with him on the court.

4 – Trey Lyles

Many would argue that the Utah Jazz got the better end of this trade. They gave up their 24th pick in the draft and Trey Lyles for Donovan Mitchell. We all witnessed the season Mitchell put together and no one would say the Jazz were stupid to give up Lyles. What isn’t getting enough attention is how well Lyles played in the absence of Paul Millsap. During this stretch of a little over two months, Lyles average 13 points and six boards off the bench. He did so shooting 49.8 percent from the field, and 40.1 percent from three. In Millsap’s absence, Lyles was essentially the sixth man for the squad and performed under that title commendably. In that same span he also had the fourth lowest defensive rating, something Lyles had struggled with “effort-wise” earlier in his young career.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

One word: offense. This team can flat out score. They have the personnel to do so at the rim, from mid-range, and most definitely from three. They finished sixth last season in points per game and 5th in assists per game. Adding Isaiah Thomas to this squad will only bolster their bench’s ability to get buckets.

Another really important attribute that this team possesses is continuity. Their core four players of Millsap, Harris, Jokic, and Murray all have one season of playing together. Take out Millsap and they have two full seasons. Add in another key player like Will Barton and you can go back even further. This team clearly has chemistry on the court, and that is an absolute plus.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

One word: defense. The Nuggets finished 26th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponents points per game, and dead last in opponent field goal percentage. They struggle mightily at protecting the rim. Jokic is better at defense than most people assume, but rim protection isn’t his strong suit. During the offseason the Nuggets seemed to have gone all out on offense, adding Isaiah Thomas. He clearly isn’t going to help the team defensively, so it appears that the Nuggets will continue to try and hide their poor defense with an even better offense.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Denver’s strategy of focusing more on offense and less on defense get them to the playoffs?

This question ultimately depends on how well they do offensively this season. They have an arsenal of players that can score, create, and do a little of both. They do not have an arsenal of players that can defend.

Obviously, winning a basketball game comes down to scoring more points than the other team. If the Nuggets can do this night in and night out then they will win games. The issue falls on them being able to perform well, on a consistent basis. There are many teams in the league that can win games both on offense and on defense. The Nuggets’ success this year will rely heavily on their ability to put the basketball through the hoop. Place extra emphasis on the words rely heavily. Are they good enough to do that? The answer is probably, yes. But only time will tell if they are actually able to.

– Jordan Hicks

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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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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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