When Nikola Jokic exploded onto the scene in 2017, we knew it was only a matter of time until Denver would establish itself as one of the best teams in the league. After the 2018-2019 season concluded, we now know that the Nuggets’ time has arrived.
Last season, they won 54 games, the most wins they’ve had since 2013. They also won their first Northwest Division Title since 2010. It wasn’t all for nothing either, as they managed to go all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semis, the furthest they’ve gone in the playoffs since 2009.
The difference between that Nuggets and their predecessors- It should only get better from here. Their best players are just scratching the surface of their potential. At just 24 years old, Nikola Jokic is already an MVP candidate. At 22 years old, Jamal Murray is one of the most promising scoring guards in the league. At 25 years old, Gary Harris is one of the better young two-way wings.
The Nuggets have built a great foundation that could lead to the most glorious era of basketball than they’ve ever had as a franchise. Time should be on their side for the next several years, but with as good as they are now, they have to ask how high their ceiling is. Seriously, if everything goes their way, this Nuggets team is a sleeper to win it all.
But how did they get this far this quickly? Basketball Insiders takes a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Among the rest of the contenders, the Nuggets had the quietest offseason – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There weren’t many holes to fill on the second-best team in the Western Conference. Sometimes, doing nothing is doing the most. They did add Jerami Grant to the mix, which could be one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Yet, MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, two-way wing Gary Harris, dynamic guard Jamal Murray, energetic presence Will Barton and more just have another year under their belt. Paul Millsap’s going to be Paul Millsap until he calls it a career. Monte Morris isn’t going to be turning the ball over off the bench. They’re hoping Michael Porter Jr. can shake the injury bug at some point, which would only strengthen their roster. If Mike Malone finds time for him, Vlatko Cancar is another international rookie to watch out for. The tussle at the top of the Northwest (and the West in general) is going to be fun to see unfold.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Nuggets surprised many last season by finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference. There’s no reason to think they won’t build on that success this upcoming season. They have one of the best young cores in the league. They have one of the NBA’s best coaches in Mike Malone. And they have one of the most intriguing wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. Porter was held out of summer league as a precaution following a minor knee sprain. There was a time he was considered the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. His addition and potential skill level can really vault this team to the next level. But expectations should be tempered, and even without him the Nuggets are a formidable threat. They’ve brought back every core player from last season with the great addition of Jerami Grant. Based on the other teams in the West, it’s a stretch to picture the Nuggets in the Finals, but they’ll continue to be a playoff threat and are good enough to give a few other teams a little scare.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Nuggets had a strong offseason by default. They didn’t add much talent, but they were so good and young in 2018-19 that keeping their core together is a major success in-and-of-itself.
The Nuggets should be even better in 2019-20 considering their two best players – Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – are 24 and 22 years old, respectively – and will only continue to improve. They were fortunate that Paul Millsap picked up his player option for 2019-20, although what they do with him beyond this year is up for debate. They also added Jerami Grant and return Michael Porter Jr., who missed his entire rookie season due to a back injury. They must shoot more three-pointers this season and do so more accurately – they were 16th in three-point attempts and 17th in three-point percentage. But accuracy and better shot attempts will come with experience.
The Nuggets will have fierce competition in the Northwest Division, but winning the division isn’t the end goal – winning a championship is. If the Nuggets are healthy come playoff time, the entire Western Conference will have another incredibly talented team to contend with.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Denver Nuggets are L-O-A-D-E-D with talent, and they have another promising young star coming online in Michael Porter Jr, but if the Boston Celtics taught us anything last year it’s that banking on youth to sacrifice their own star status for the greater good is easier said than done, especially with expectations now coming down on the franchise. Last year the Nuggets were not the hunted, they were the hunters. This year they will have to do better than their 54 wins to call the season an improvement, and that will be a tough task even for a team with some much talent.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Denver Nuggets didn’t make any splashy moves to bolster the roster, but I do like the addition of Jerami Grant, who could have a bigger impact this upcoming season than most people expect. This team is already loaded and another year of collective development should serve Denver well. The X-factor may be Michael Porter Jr, an extremely talented young player who has been hampered with injuries early in his career. Porter Jr has the talent to be a star but it all comes down to health with him. This roster is just well balanced and anchored by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who are both still incredibly young and always improving. I do question why the Nuggets felt compelled to offer Murray a max-extension this offseason, which reduces some future cap flexibility they could have utilized. This isn’t a major issue and there is value in showing a franchise cornerstone how much you value him, but it didn’t seem like the most pragmatic move considering the possible benefits of waiting. The sky is the limit for this Nuggets team, but they have plenty of other legitimate title contenders to deal with in the West this upcoming season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Nuggets are all-in on the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, paying Jokic the max last summer and giving Murray a five-year extension through 2024-25 in July. Denver is very close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold which may limit their willingness to dip further into their Mid-Level ($8.4 million remaining) or Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions. Using either (at least $2.6 million of the Mid-Level) will trigger a hard cap at $138.9 million.
Before November, the Nuggets need to decide on Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie-scale option. Juancho Hernangomez is eligible for an extension before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic
When you lead your team in points, assists, rebounds aka the three most essential elements to a team’s offense, you earn the title of top dog in that department. In all honesty, were you really expecting someone else? There may not be a big in the league that has the all-around game offensively that the Joker has.
That’s not even a shot at the other players on the Nuggets’ roster. They’ve got some weapons next to their young phenom. His repertoire despite his doughy frame outshines them all badly. That’s what makes him so entertaining to watch. The guy does so much on the basketball court despite being arguably the least athletic one out there.
An even scarier thought is that the guy finished fifth in MVP voting last season, and his campaign for Most Valuable Player revolved around his dominance offensively despite only shooting a tick under 31 percent from distance. We’ve seen Nikola shoot consistently well from deep before, so if that comes back, then we’re all in trouble.
Top Defensive Player: Gary Harris
The NBA values players who are labeled as 3&D swingmen. Now that he’s entering the sixth season of his career at just 25 years old, Harris has made a name for himself as one of the better 3&D wings in the NBA.
The Nuggets won’t be messing around with anyone this season. They’re expected to be among the best of the best in their conference and the NBA. In their way will be the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Damian Lillard. Expect their primary stopper to be Gary Harris.
In the playoffs, the Nuggets assigned Harris to their opponent’s top offensive players such as DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, and did a solid job of preventing them from getting into a good groove. His defensive assignments are going to be a lot harder this season with the new-look Clippers, Lakers, and Jazz to name a few. So far, he’s been up to the task. If Denver is for real, Harris’ efforts defense should be a vital reason why.
Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic
Leading your team in assists (7.3) by a pretty fair margin when you’re the center is an impressive enough feat by itself. Leading all centers in that department – again, by a pretty fair margin – makes you look all the better. Averaging the ninth-highest assists per game when the only other bigs who come close to that average are the likes of Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo automatically vaults you to elite status.
If someone who didn’t watch the NBA asked you why Nikola Jokic is so much fun to watch, your answer would quickly refer to his passing ability without hesitation. There are plenty of bigs in the league who are terrific passers. Jokic though puts almost all of them to shame. He doesn’t just make passes that will make you get you out of your chair. He’ll make passes that make you think, “How did he even see that guy?”
Now that the NBA has more footage of the Serbian, he doesn’t make as many flashy passes as he did when he came into his own in 2017, but his vision is still something we’ve rarely been able to see from any center in the history of the NBA.
This early in his career, Jokic has already made his case as the best passing big of all time. If he’s going nowhere but up from here on out, then there may not be a debate when he hangs up his sneakers.
Top Clutch Player: Jamal Murray
Fun fact: Denver was excellent in games that were considered clutch last season. They went 31-15 in games that were considered to be in clutch situations, which gave them the best winning percentage in the entire league in that specific statistic.
Some of Denver’s best players had very positive net ratings in the clutch. Jokic, Murray, Monte Morris, Paul Millsap. Murray gets the nod here because now that he’s entering his prime, he should be relied on to the go-to guy on this roster. Better yet, we’ve seen that he can be unstoppable when the game is on the line. He wasn’t consistent in the postseason, but he did put the entire team on his back on multiple occasions.
If you were watching Denver’s playoff run, you probably knew about the time Murray exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets toppled the Spurs to tie the series at one a piece in the first round, or when he had back-to-back 34-point outings, the latter of which included clutch free throws that tied the Western Conference Semis with the Blazers. For a first playoff outing, Murray’s performance could have been a lot worse.
Coming off a nice payday from Denver this summer, and with the prime of his career approaching, expect Murray to put up more of the same this season. If not better.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Millsap
It sounds weird because Millsap’s had a fantastic reputation in the league for what seems like an eternity now. It sounds even weirder since Denver chose to pick up his $30 million team option hence demonstrating how much the Nuggets value what he does on the floor.
So what makes him unheralded? Because of both his expected decline and the expected improvement from the Nuggets’ young guys. Paul’s numbers have gradually decreased since he came to Denver, which should surprise no one since he will be 35 by mid-season in 2020. As he ages for the worse much like anyone else would at that age, everyone around him should age for the better.
He’s still going to be a valuable piece to this Denver squad. Millsap may not be what he was during his Jazz/Hawks days, but he’s always reliable to play within the offense, keep it all together on defense, and be a good teammate. It’s not that he’s an unheralded player. It’s that he’s going to be.
Best New Addition: Jerami Grant
Denver didn’t really revamp its roster this summer for good reason. There’s no need to mess with what’s working unless you see that there are obvious limits to what your roster can do. However, that shouldn’t stop you from adding players who can improve certain areas if the price is right. Acquiring Jerami Grant for what will probably be a late first-round pick fits the profile.
After being nothing but a rotation player on a team that didn’t bother to try, Grant broke out as a premier 3&D ¾ tweener in Oklahoma City. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points on 50/39/71 splits while also proving himself to be one of the most versatile defenders on one of the league’s best defensive squads.
In Denver, he should add more versatility and depth to a team that already had plenty of it but was clearly more than open to having more. If Grant’s skillset wasn’t enough, take note that he has a player option after this season. If he really wants good money in what looks like a pretty barren offseason next summer, expect him to give the Nuggets his all.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Michael Porter Jr.’s potential
It’s a shame that we don’t have a lot of data to support Porter. All we have are his high school/McDonalds’s/AAU highlights and the few college games he played at Missouri to judge where he stands as an NBA player. With all that he’s gone through, all we can say about MPJ as a player is that he has potential.
Denver wisely kept him on the shelf after taking him with the last pick in the 2018 lottery. Both the talent and the injury rap sheet plus the team’s timeline afforded Denver the privilege of preserving him until they knew he had a clean bill of health. The Kings did the same thing with Harry Giles, and so far, it’s working out quite well for them.
Porter is expected to be ready for training camp. If healthy, the possibilities are endless for what he could do for the Nuggets. He gives them another scorer to put next to Jokic and Murray, and could give so many more lineup possibilities. But that’s all banking on that he’ll avoid the injury bug. This isn’t just high-risk/high-reward. This is a monumental risk/legendary-level reward.
No pressure though kid!
2. The other young guys
So much praise has been heaped on the likes of Jokic, Murray, and Harris that the other young talent on Denver’s roster definitely deserves a shoutout. They don’t have the same ceilings as the aforementioned players, but they played a role in Denver’s uprise last season
-Malik Beasley: When Denver traded the long-tenured Wilson Chandler, Will Barton was the starting small forward meaning the backup wing was up for grabs. Beasley took that role and ran with it, averaging 11.3 points on 47/40/84 splits. Establishing himself a rim-running three-point specialist, Beasley gave Denver an unexpected jolt.
-Monte Morris: Morris was another surprise contributor in Denver’s success. Isaiah Thomas was the designated back-up point guard for the Nuggets, but while he never found his groove, Morris established as the leader of the second unit. In 24 minutes a game, he averaged 10.4 points on 49/41/80 splits. Those stats didn’t continue in the postseason, but Morris proved he could be Denver’s Sixth Man of the future.
-Juancho Hernangomez: The 23-year-old did an excellent job filling in for the injured Will Barton as the starting small forward. He started 25 games for the Nuggets in that time where he averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 42.5 percent from three. He didn’t exactly have an easy transition back to the bench when Barton returned, but there is a reason to be optimistic about him for the future.
3. Torrey Craig
This writer’s a sucker for underdog stories, and Torrey Craig’s story is no exception. He came into Denver as an NBL stand out, then a 27-year-old rookie on a two-way contract, then got a nice extension last summer.
In response to his newfound job security, Craig did not disappoint in his second season as a Nugget. His offensive stats aren’t great, but Craig’s specialty is more of doing the little things aka bringing energy and playing tough-as-nails defense. When other Nuggets like Morris didn’t keep up their play for the postseason, they spent more time on the bench. Such was not the case with Craig. His defense came in handy for Denver when they needed it to be.
The acquisition of Jerami Grant may or may not eat into his time when the season approaches, but adversity is nothing new to Craig. Perhaps the new competition at the wing will further motivate him to improve his game more than it already has.
4. Mason Plumlee
When your name is in the running for the best backup center in the league, you deserve a shout out. On one hand, Mason Plumlee could be seen as the guy who Denver acquired for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder. On the other, Plumlee can be seen as the guy who was a much better fit as the backup center for Denver.
Plumlee may very well be the most overqualified back-up big in the league. At first glance, his 7.8 rebounds, 6.4 rebounds, and three assists a game are merely acceptable. When you consider that his rebound percentage of 16.4 percent is 22nd among centers and second-highest among backups – behind only Domantas Sabonis – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even better, his assist percentage of 19.5 is fifth among centers. He’s been so good for Denver that they’ve actually played him and the Joker together.
We don’t see a lot of teams playing lineups with two pure centers at the same time for extended minutes anymore. Seeing Denver keep it alive with Jokic and Plumlee is as effective as it is nostalgic.
Can you say “League Pass frontrunner”? Because that’s what this Denver Nuggets team is. They are always a joy to watch. They play basketball in some of the most fun ways it can be played. It’s unselfish. It’s active. It’s pure basketball. At least on the offensive end, the Nuggets are a total viewing pleasure.
At the center of it is Nikola Jokic. Enough praise has been heaped at Nikola so there’s no need to repeat what he can do. Let’s put it like this. The man is the engine for one of the finest offenses in the league, and he’s still got plenty of career left.
That actually shouldn’t take away from their defense. Denver had the league’s tenth-best defensive rating, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s not as boastable of a strength, but it isn’t a weakness. A little added bonus is the versatility that they should have in their arsenal with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. could give them a lot more firepower than they already have.
The source of Denver’s sudden uprise last season may very well be what may hold them back when the postseason comes around – their youth. As talented as the Nuggets are, they haven’t been in this position in years. Keep in mind that they lost to Portland – who lost Jusuf Nurkic and replaced him with Enes Kanter on one functional shoulder – even though they were the second seed.
Now Portland barely won that series, but it shouldn’t have been that close. Denver was at full strength and had homecourt advantage. Portland’s victory can be attributed to both the roster continuity and experience. They’ had been in that atmosphere with most of those guys before. Only Millsap had that experience on Denver’s side, and we’ve already dived into why Denver won’t rely on him as much.
Not to fret though. This is just part of the growing process for a young and upcoming team. The Nuggets already impressed everyone with their success last season. They should see more coming their way. It just might not be as fast.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Nuggets one piece away?
Denver should be one of the best teams in the league this season. Most of their best players are 25 years old or younger, so their chances of them individually improving on last season and in turn, the team itself, are pretty high.
They’ve still got their work cut out for them since they play in the brutal Western Conference. The core that they currently have right now will be good enough to put in a good fight against anyone. But, the phrase, “Putting in a good fight” is not synonymous with “The favorite to win”. With the team they have right now, reaching the NBA finals is possible, which is great all things considered, but they may sleep easier at night if they knew they had one more guy.
The real question is who would be that one piece? Is it an upgrade over one of their best players now or is it a player that adds another dimension to the team? Or both? Again, Denver should remain patient because time is on their side. If they want to show the NBA that they mean business, they may need to take care of this as soon as they can.
It’s sad because, had they just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights in 2017, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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