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Deron Williams Turns Back Clock with Mavs

Deron Williams discusses his departure from the Nets and how the fourth-place Mavericks are defying odds.

Moke Hamilton

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With a lightning quick crossover dribble, Deron Williams went from left to right. His defender, seemingly dazed and confused, was lost. Williams stepped behind the three-point line and launched a 25-foot jump shot. By the time it had found the bottom of the net, Williams—confident that the shot would fall—was already half way back up the floor.

Oddly reminiscent of a better time, the former All-Star has turned the corner and the page on his tenure as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. And although the onlookers left his basketball career for dead, rumors of Williams’ demise were greatly exaggerated. And rest assured, he is laughing last.

“It’s over,” Williams said of his time in Brooklyn. “I’m past all that and I’m on to a new chapter. I wish things were different and happened differently, but they didn’t. You can’t dwell on it, you can only move forward and I think that’s what I’ve done.”

Indeed, in moving forward, Williams has seemingly turned back the clock.

* * * * *

Back in 2011, within the span of 48 hours, everything had changed.

As it had become known that Carmelo Anthony had his eyes on a return to the city of his birth, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets engaged the Denver Nuggets in what became a very public negotiation for Anthony. The Nets would obviously lose, but the disappointment was short-lived when, merely 48 hours after Anthony’s arrival, general manager Billy King and assistant general manager Bobby Marks pulled off a blockbuster for Deron Williams.

Together, Anthony and Williams would be charged with resurrecting their respective franchises and reviving basketball in a city that has been haunted by mostly imprudent management and failed get-rich-quick-basketball schemes.

In February 2011, with King and head coach Avery Johnson flanking him at New Jersey’s PNY Center, for Williams, excitement reigned supreme.

“It’s good to be here and I’m excited about being a Net,” Williams told the assembled media almost five years ago.

“Seeing the direction that they wanted to go in and the vision that they had for this organization just really got me excited. It got me excited about the possibilities of competing for a championship over the next couple of years.”

In the end, we now know that the lofty expectations that awaited Williams in New Jersey and later in Brooklyn would go unfulfilled. And when the Nets made the decision to pay Williams to go away this past summer, the NBA world expected him to fade into obscurity.

Instead, he has helped the Mavericks become one of the surprise teams early in the 2015-16 NBA season.

“It feels good,” Williams told Basketball Insiders about the Mavericks defying the odds thus far this season. “I think any team will tell you that you try to tune out what people have expectation-wise for you, you just kinda go about your business.

“We felt like we had a good team, there were a lot of variables—a lot of guys coming off of injuries, a lot of guys missing training camp, myself included—so we didn’t know how fast it would come together or how fast it would click and I think, at this point in the season, we’re a little head of schedule. But we still have a lot of work to do and we can still improve.”

Entering play on December 8, only six Western Conference teams have winning records, and after being left at the altar by DeAndre Jordan, few would have expected the Mavericks to have been one such ball club.

“I expected him to play great and he has,” head coach Rick Carlisle said of Williams. “He’s a great player. The things that he’s battled the last couple of years have been health issues… Double ankle surgery two years ago and other nagging injuries. He’s worked extremely hard to push through those things and get himself on the uptick, but hard work is paying off for him.”

Like Pau Gasol and, to a lesser extent this year, Rajon Rondo, Williams is once again proving true the simple theory that happy players perform better. A change of scenery can do wonders for an athlete. As the years progressed, Williams and his on-court productivity deteriorated and he was never able to rediscover the energy and spirit that he harnessed in his first 12 games as a Net, when he averaged 12.8 assists per game.

Eventually, his play began to stink as much as his attitude, and Williams eventually revealed himself as someone who wasn’t quite comfortable with the crushing expectations and blunt criticism that awaited a centi-million dollar player who was charged with resurrecting a franchise.

In many ways, Anthony will forever be linked with Williams. Regarded as two of the top players in the league, they found new homes in New York City merely days a part. There, though, is where the comparison ends.

Say what you want about Anthony, but from day one, after willingly accepting the spotlight in New York City, he has accepted everything that has come along with it. Win or lose, 62 points or 3-for-20 shooting night, Anthony always shows up, holds his head high and accepts accountability for his shortcomings. It’s called mental toughness, and a special type is required to succeed in New York City. Anthony is one of the few players who has an informed opinion as to what that burden feels like.

“He looked comfortable,” Anthony said after getting a glimpse of Deron Williams when the newest Maverick returned to New York City in early December.

“He got away from New York,” Anthony added with a chuckle. “Some people can handle it, some people can’t. He was a guy who needed to get away from this [and go] where he can kind of be himself and get some clarity and get back to the Deron Williams that we all used to love.”

Aside from sharing the city with Williams for about four years, Anthony and Williams spent time together playing for Team USA, most notably as members of the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.

One of the major differences between Anthony and Williams and their stories, though, is that Anthony willingly chose to come to New York, even meeting with team brass and negotiating a contract extension as a condition precedent to his eventual extend-and-trade agreement with the Nuggets.

Williams, on the other hand, was—in his own words—blindsided by the trade and first heard the news of his divestment from a television report that he heard while getting treatment among his teammates. And although Williams ultimately opted to re-sign with the Nets, it was a decision that he would probably reconsider if given the opportunity.

“It’s been a great move for me,” Williams said of his relocating to Dallas. “Just being a part of this organization and this team has been great for me and just having a fresh start.”

Anthony knows a thing or two about fresh starts, as well.

“It could rejuvenate you, mentally, emotionally,” Anthony said of Williams and his flight to Dallas. “For him, it was just more of kinda getting away from this, getting away from New York. [Williams] seems like he’s comfortable out there in Dallas. When he’s on the court, he’s a different kind of D-Will than we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons, so you can tell that he has some kind of mental clarity where he feels comfortable again.”

“It just never went well, I think,” Williams agreed. “Everybody felt I was the problem, now I’m gone, I can be a part of another organization where I feel like I’m better suited. I feel like they need a point guard like me a little bit better here and I’m able to flourish and have the ball in my hands a little bit more and it’s been great for me, it’s been great for my family. There’s been a lot more positivity in Dallas and I think I needed that in my life.”

Whatever it is that Williams needed, rest assured, Mark Cuban is happy that he’s found it.

After 22 games in Dallas, on the court, Williams has resembled the player that he was when he was arguably the finest point guard in the entire league. Spry and engaged, Williams has rediscovered his ability as one of the best pick-and-roll floor generals in the NBA, and he has had almost immediate success and chemistry with Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews.

His 15 points per game is a slight improvement over last season’s 13 points per game, and his shooting percentage has taken a marginal step forward as well. Most importantly, though, is the fact that Williams simply seems more comfortable and relaxed with not shouldering the burden of being a franchise player or someone whose poor performances or underwhelming results cause dissection and criticism.

For the first time in a long time—perhaps since his days as a member of the Utah Jazz—Williams can simply focus on playing basketball. And that is a major part of the reason why he chose to return home to Dallas in the first place.

As the Mavericks continue along as one of the surprise teams of the season, they will have an opportunity to be great so long as Nowitzki plays efficient basketball. Like Williams, Nowitzki has been experiencing a bounce back as well.

Back in July, when the Mavericks lost out on DeAndre Jordan, most onlookers thought that when Jordan left his home in a Houston suburb and traveled back to Los Angeles to remain with the Clippers, that he took Cuban’s hopes of qualifying for the playoffs with him. However, entering play on December 8, the Mavericks are above the Clippers in the standings, as L.A. is currently fifth in the Western Conference.

Yes, when Jordan fled Texas and traveled back to Los Angeles, he indirectly assisted the Mavericks with their acquisition of Williams. Shortly thereafter, we theorized as to whether the Mavericks might be better off in the long run.

With the spirited play of Williams and their early-season thriving as one of the league’s top teams, at least in the early going, it’s difficult to argue with the results. Based on what we have seen over the course of the first 22 games for the Mavericks, Williams looks nothing like the player that Nets fans last saw. In 2014-15, Williams seemed to lack effort and passion, and he managed some of his lowest outputs since his rookie season, including shooting just 38.7 percent from the field.

“Expectations were high,” Williams said of his time in Brooklyn. “I was injured pretty much the whole time I was there. Four coaches in three and a half years didn’t help. As a point guard, with chemistry and things like that, there was constant change and it just didn’t work out.”

Now, with a fresh start, Williams appears rejuvenated.

Blink, and in a New York minute, he may have crossed you over and drilled a jump shot in your face.

Sometimes, in life, you have to take a step back to take a step forward. And after passing on signing with the Mavericks when he was a free agent back in July 2012, Williams is taking advantage of his new opportunity.

Evidently, there truly is no place like home.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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