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Detroit Pistons 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Detroit Pistons made the post-season last year, but getting back isn’t a guarantee. The Pistons have the talent to be a solid team in the East, the question is can they stay healthy enough to make noise? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Detroit Pistons in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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For all intents and purposes, the first season of the Dwane Casey era in Detroit went according to plan. The Pistons went 41-41, made the playoffs and were trounced by Milwaukee in a sweep in the first round.

This is the space Detroit finds themselves in: A middling team with slim, top-heavy talent that could as easily sneak into the postseason as they could find themselves out of it. But in a league that’s shown competitiveness where overall competence can be a vehicle for drawing free agents, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

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FIVE GUYS THINK…

If there is a time to strike when the league least expects it, it’s now. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond’s first year-and-a-half together has revived this Detroit group back into a playoff team. Dwane Casey’s done this with the Raptors before, and we could be seeing a quicker transformation in the Motor City. Reggie Jackson finally seems to be getting back to himself after multiple seasons of hampering injuries. Luke Kennard should be a popular candidate to make a significant jump as one of the better tertiary scorers in the game. The team brought in Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell to bolster its depth as well. This writer would be surprised if Detroit doesn’t finish somewhere in the top eight in the East for a second straight season.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Pistons underwhelmed in 2018-19. But at least Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin made it through an entire season without an injury. Entering 2019-20, they definitely added some nice pieces like Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier, Markieff Morris and rookie Sekou Doumbouya. But their roster didn’t have enough star power in the 2018-19 season to get them beyond the first-round of the playoffs – and they’ve added no new star power since. There is far too much depth and parity in the East for the Pistons to expect too much success. Their best bet might be a self-initiated rebuild. Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020-21. I’m sure most people in the Pistons’ front-office are already praying he opts out to try his hand in free agency.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Drew Maresca

The Detroit Pistons had a pretty solid offseason, in my opinion. I think drafting Sekou Doumbouya at 15th overall in this year’s draft was a nice move. Signing Derrick Rose to a two-year $15 million contract and Markieff Morris to two-year $6,560,000 contract (player option on final season) is a good value overall. I also like that the team claimed Christian Wood off waivers. And while Michael Beasley hasn’t turned out to be the player he was projected to be coming out of college, he could add some scoring off the bench and was signed to just a one-year, $2.2 million deal. The Pistons don’t have the overall talent or depth of the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers, but they are a solid Central Division team and could be a tough matchup on any given night.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Pistons seem to be stuck in “no man’s land.” That is, a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually win anything significant once they’re there. They do have Blake Griffin, a player 29 other teams would love to have. Griffin has expanded his game to the point where he’s one of the best all-around big men in the league. Another bright spot for Detroit is the fact that Reggie Jackson played in all 82 games last season and shot a career-high 36.9 percent from three. Andre Drummond also had a resurgent season this past year. The three of them from the Pistons core group. They also have some intriguing young players. Bruce Brown became a starter as a rookie, and Sekou Doumbouya is an interesting prospect. In the East, the Pistons are pretty much a lock for the postseason, but unfortunately for them, their prospects of advancing past the first round seem rather slim.

3rd Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Pistons are one of those teams that has everything they need to be a playoff contender. They have two All-Star level guys in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, they have solid guards, some depth on the bench, quality coaching. There is no reason the Piston’s shouldn’t be a playoff team… except for injury concerns. Durability is the Pistons big unknown. Blake Griffin, who is basically everything to this team has missed 10-15 games (or more) a year since 2013. Last year was maybe his best year, where he logged 75 games but was hobbled going into the playoffs, ultimately requiring another surgery. The Pistons are good enough when healthy, but that’s not the same variable for the Pistons as it is for virtually everyone else, mainly because of the core players have missed serious time over the last few years making them hard to believe in.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pistons are flirting with the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with $130.8 million in guaranteed salary towards 14 players under standard contracts. The team will reportedly sign Michael Beasley to a make-good deal. If he or Christian Wood lands the final roster spot, the franchise will be right up against the tax.

By using most of their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions on Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris, Detroit has a hard cap of $138.9 million. Before November, the franchise needs to decide on the team option for Luke Kennard. Thon Maker is extension eligible before the start of the season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin is far and away the best offensive player on this Pistons team. In 75 games last season, Griffin averaged a career-high in points at 24.5 per game while adding in 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. As some of his athleticism has faded due to age and nagging injuries, Griffin has accordingly reinvented his game over the past three-and-a-half seasons. This culminated last year when Griffin shot 36.2 percent from three on seven attempts per game (also a career-high), on his way to his highest effective field goal percentage since 2013-14. This new wrinkle in his game has allowed Griffin to remain a top player and elite on the offensive end. Assuming his left knee holds up, he will continue to produce at the level he always has this season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond

Death, taxes and Andre Drummond controlling the Little Caesars Arena paint. Drummond enters his eighth year having played at least 78 games in all but one season. He’s led the NBA in rebounds per game in three seasons, including the last two. He’s led the NBA in total rebounds four straight seasons, and in offensive rebounds for six straight. His career average in blocks per game is 1.8, steals per game is 1.6 and he’s been number one in defensive win shares for two years in a row. Enough said.

Top Playmaker: Blake Griffin

One of the more underrated things in the NBA over the last 10 years is Blake Griffin’s playmaking ability. While most dedicated basketball fans have been aware of it for years, it feels like the general public doesn’t recognize how much Griffin holistically brings to an offense. Despite not being a primary ball-handler, Griffin has averaged right around five assists per game for the last five seasons. And while that number may not jump out at you, in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin had an assist rate of 26.9 percent, putting him in the 99th percentile compared to the rest of the league. In fact, he hasn’t had an assist rate outside of the 95th percentile for his entire career.

Griffin’s proficiency from anywhere on the floor has been extremely obvious since he became a competent three-point shooter. That playmaking ability is even more pronounced in Detroit where the Pistons desperately need him to do so.

Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin

There’s no reason to look anywhere else. Griffin is Detroit’s best offensive player and playmaker. His ability to shoot from three makes him the go-to player in any late-game situation the Pistons could find themselves in. The only other potential answers are Reggie Jackson or newly-acquired Derrick Rose, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince many people they’re better options than Griffin at this point in their careers.

The Unheralded Player: Luke Kennard

Kennard gets the nod here primarily because he’s the only capable shooter on the roster outside of Griffin and Reggie Jackson. No one else outside of Tony Snell really takes threes, and Snell will never shoot at a high enough volume to move the needle. Kennard is a 40 percent guy you expect to stay that way even when his attempts go up. He was also very good in Detroit’s first-round playoff series loss last season, where he averaged 15.0 points per game and was 9-15 from three in four games.

Best New Addition: Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose! After some light talks of a Chicago reunion, Rose ultimately chose to sign a two-year deal with Detroit. Rose has been somewhat of a repetitive story over the last five seasons; seasons full of injuries and uneven play. However, Rose’s memorable 50-point effort in this past season gives Detroit hope that he still has something left in the tank. Production similar to last season would be a welcome addition to the Pistons.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Reggie Jackson

While oft-maligned, Reggie Jackson is still an assertive guard teams have to account for. Last season, Jackson played all 82 games and posted career-highs in three-point percentage and three-point attempts. He finished third on the team in scoring behind Griffin and Drummond and is capable of making something happen at any moment. With Griffin operating as a point-forward and Rose now in the fold, Jackson will hopefully be able to direct his energy towards playing away from the ball and attacking accordingly. That’s what’s best for him individually and the Pistons as a team.

2. Markieff Morris

When you think of the Detroit Pistons, you think of hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball. This began with the Bad Boys and rolled into their championship season in 2004, but the essence still exists in 2019, and Markieff Morris fits that vibe. Morris is a tough veteran who will look to provide frontcourt depth behind Griffin and Drummond.

3. Tony Snell

Throughout a six-year career, Tony Snell has become a Central Division staple. Snell spent three years in Chicago followed by three years in Milwaukee and now enters his first year in Detroit. Snell is the ultimate role player, a long-armed wing who is a career 38.2 percent three-point shooter. He will fit in just fine, likely playing 20 minutes per game as he did for Detroit’s division foes.

4. Sekou Doumbouya

Detroit’s first-round pick may have been the youngest prospect in the draft, but he has the most professional basketball experience of anyone selected this past June. Doumbouya began playing pro basketball when he was 15 and spent 2018-19 playing in a league in France. Though it will take Doumbouya time to develop, he’s a skilled 6-foot-9, 229-pound forward who gets to learn from Blake Griffin every day. There’s plenty of reason to expect exciting things from him this year.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Last season, Detroit was a relatively weak offensive team. Without much in the way of offseason additions, that will likely be true again this season. Accordingly, the offensive strengths for the Pistons are Blake Griffin and their offensive rebounding. Barring injury, Griffin can carry this team offensively. He’s still that good.

Regarding the offensive glass, the Pistons were sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. What is a great way to boost an otherwise struggling offense? Get more chances. Any team with Andre Drummond will be good with that.

Defensively the Pistons were solid. They finished 12th in the league in both points allowed per 100 possessions and turnover rate and will need to at least repeat those numbers to vie for the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

The offensive talent around Griffin. Detroit has been in the bottom third in points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage the previous three seasons. Reggie Jackson will need to be more good Reggie than bad Reggie, Kennard will need to build upon last year’s playoff performance, Rose will need to be effective and healthy and Doumbouya will need to add something. Of course, if Griffin’s knee flares up for an extended amount of time, it may not matter how everyone else plays.

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pistons return to the playoffs in an improved East?

Even if Blake Griffin misses time, it still feels like the Pistons will slog their way to 38-40 wins. That’s just what they do. The question is, will that be enough to once again make the playoffs in a revamped East?

This writer’s guess is no. Every team above Detroit in the Eastern Conference last year will be relevant again this year, and several teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can be playoff teams. Detroit’s roster is thin. Coupled with the injury history of their core, it seems wise to take the field for that final playoff spot.

– Drew Mays

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NBA

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

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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