After a 112-86 victory against Puerto Rico that was close for a half, Team USA flies to Spain on Saturday. The USA braintrust apparently want to bring only 12 players with them, so here is how I think the roster should look.
My preferred starting five: Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kenneth Faried and Anthony Davis. The two positions up for grab are point guard and power forward.
Rose, assuming he is over his soreness, is a better fit with the starters than Kyrie Irving due to his ability to distribute, superior defense and FIBA experience. Rose was excellent against Puerto Rico. He and Klay Thompson played the best defense on the perimeter, but Rose also provided unique (to this team) ball distribution. When he handled in high pick and roll, Rose showed off his rehab-aided core strength to gun bullet jump passes to three-point shooters on the weakside. He hit a three and a layup to keep the defense honest, but most importantly he just moves the ball quickly. The ball really pops around the floor when he is out there, and that is something this squad really needs.
Irving mostly works for his own offense, even on this team, so he is better as a scorer on the second unit when Harden and Curry are not in the game.* Hopefully he will also be facing the opponent’s backup point guard who is less likely to light him up on defense. He had been passable on that end, but he spent the whole game alternating getting blown by and taking bad gambles. He gave up at least eight straightline drives in the game through either of those two mechanisms.
*Irving did have six assists, but after watching the video none of these were really value-added plays in the halfcourt the way all of Rose’s four assists were. This is not to suggest that Irving in any way has played selfishly.
Curry, Harden and Davis are unquestioned starters, so the other spot up for grabs is between Rudy Gay and Faried. Faried is not what the US has looked for recently at the four since he cannot shoot from deep. But he has overcome my skepticism by being among the best US players by plus/minus in the exhibitions and providing excellent work on the glass. He also played intelligent, effective defense against Puerto Rico. The US scheme calls for a lot of switches, and he did well to execute them. Faried is a player who does have the physical talent to be a solid defender. That has not yet manifested at the NBA level, but we have seen poor NBA defenders improve defensively for Team USA, most notably Chris Bosh in 2008.*
*People forget that Bosh was basically a sieve in the NBA until he got to Miami.
Faried has played better so far, has been with the team longer and provides a unique aspect with his energy. But he also does not offer the spacing that Gay does, nor the ball skills to attack off the dribble with an advantage. And Faried really isn’t much bigger than Gay, so their post and help defense are relatively on par despite Faried’s status as a traditional big man. I would start with Faried, but consider playing Gay down the stretch if the game is close.
In addition to the seven mentioned above, Thompson is clearly in the rotation as the other plus defender on the perimeter and a deadeye shooter. That leaves another space in the rotation for a backup center, with the candidates being Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins and Mason Plumlee. Ideally, that player would provide five core skills: protect the rim, play pick and roll defense, play post defense (crucial against Spain), set great screens and finish pick and rolls. But nobody has really emerged who provides even three of those skills.
Plumlee had by far his worst game. Although he provides solid effort offensively and gets some buckets that way, he is a liability on the defensive glass and does not really protect the basket. He was very undisciplined on the pick and roll with no clear purpose on Friday, jumping out at seemingly random times to leave the lane unprotected. Theoretically, Plumlee’s best attributes would be playing hard and not messing up, but he really failed to execute Friday. He was a miserable -7 on the night, which he earned with his play.
Cousins is the best NBA player of the group right now, but his skills are not particularly optimized to this team. His ability to create (relatively inefficient) shots in the post at a high rate is not useful when there are so many more efficient options available. He has not been effective on the few postups he has had either, going 0-2 and throwing a pass away against Puerto Rico. If he is going to post up, it should be in transition right under the basket. Otherwise, he gums up the spacing by trying to post on the strong side.* Cousins does set great screens in the pick and roll though, and hits the offensive glass hard, though it can lead to him not getting back on defense.
*Faried and Davis have tried to postup as well, which just shouldn’t be happening. They should just go out to set a side pick and roll if they find themselves on the strongside block.
Defensively, he has never been a great rim protector or pick and roll defender. Another concern for Cousins is that he is going to pick up a lot of fouls. His slow feet are bad enough, but he compounds that by reaching in a lot and hacking when he is frustrated. You can also be sure that savvy international teams will be flopping against him at every opportunity. It is also possible that Cousins is still struggling with the bruised knee he suffered in practice last week.
Drummond on paper provides the skills Team USA needs. He is a great pick and roll finisher and an amazing offensive rebounder. Defensively though he is not the greatest at protecting the basket despite his quick feet, huge wingspan and hops. Per NBA.com’s SportVu tracking system, opponents converted at a 52 percent mark on shots within five feet against Drummond this year, and he struggled to stop the Dominican Republic’s guards at the rim on Wednesday, although he did do well to get into position.*
*One problem for Drummond is he tries to block every shot with his left hand. That works sometimes, but it’d be nice to see him change up when expedient.
Drummond has the least experience defensively, but has done well moving his feet in pick and roll defense when he has been out there. He played very well in his one game, but the level of competition was so low it is difficult to say how much that matters. Another potential wart for Drummond is his free throw shooting, but I believe that is an overblown fear. Plumlee is almost as bad from the line anyway.
Ultimately, I would bring all three of those bigs with the team to Europe to see if someone emerges, cutting one before the games start. However, Coach K has said the preference is to bring only 12 players. If that is the case, I would still put all three on the team, not out of merit but in the hope one distinguishes himself in pool play. It appears from his postgame comments that Krzyzewksi is leaning that way.
That leaves room for one more player, with the main candidates being Damian Lillard, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons and DeMar DeRozan. It appears Gordon Hayward is pretty much out of consideration. Among that group, Parsons does offer the ability to play as a stretch four in theory because he is taller. But he has not played well and looks a little thick at the moment. Korver to me is redundant with Thompson and Curry already on the team. If Rose is not a concern health wise, Lillard does not serve much purpose with Curry having the ability to slide to the one. However, given the slight uncertainty, Lillard should probably be brought along if possible and potentially cut before the tournament if Rose is okay. But assuming Rose is healthy, there is little use for him.
That leaves DeRozan, who provides some of the athleticism on the wing that is usually Team USA’s biggest advantage internationally. He has played very well when he has been on the floor, and also provides a dynamic aspect running the wings in transition that the other players do not.
Of course, I have not had access to the practices so my opinion might well change if I had more information available. But based on the exhibitions, DeRozan would be my final pick.
So my final roster:
–Thankfully the team ran less “floppy” tonight against Puerto Rico. This is a set in which the bigs set up at each block and set screens for the wings to pop out for jumpers. The US typically ran this for Curry, Thompson, Harden and Korver, but it has not resulted in good looks. The big trouble is it takes them forever to get into it, with the action not even starting until there is about 10 on the shot clock. If the primary action fails, it leaves little time for another and devolves into an isolation. Moreover, with the amount of talent on this team a jump shot for a player moving away from the basket as the primary goal of a set is not particularly useful. Fortunately they only ran it a couple of times against Puerto Rico after using it much more often against Brazil.
–The best offensive set for USA is unquestionably a high pick and roll with any of their myriad ballhandlers and Davis. But we only saw that used sparingly during a short period at the start of the fourth quarter when he took the floor with Gay. Otherwise it was often the power forward setting the screen, which compacted the spacing.
–Curry had 20 points on nine shooting possessions.
–Team USA’s defense really struggled to adjust to Puerto Rico’s five-out strategy in the first half, giving up 47 points on 42 possessions. Davis had been a terror defensively in the first two exhibitions, but looked strangely out of it to start the game and picked up two quick fouls. The big problem in general was over-aggressiveness on the pick and roll, a crime of which Plumlee was most often guilty. That tightened up in the second half (39 points on 41 possessions) as Puerto Rico struggled to score unless they were getting bailed out by USA fouls out on the perimeter. And it should also be noted that Puerto Rico was making some crazy shots in the first half. Overall the defense has been excellent, with Tom Thibodeau installing his strongside zone and ICE pick and roll defensive concepts (in which the defender forces the ball handler away from the screen). Those should prove even more effective with the lack of defensive three seconds in FIBA play. In fact, with the presence of Davis I expect this team to play much better defense than its 2012 counterparts, which only played one defensive big man (Tyson Chandler) any kind of minutes. The 2012 team was still good enough to just outscore teams, but they looked bad defensively in games against Lithuania and the gold medal match against Spain. Since this team lacks that sort of firepower, they will have to be better on defense. Superior coaching and defensive talent in the frontcourt should make that happen.
–Thompson seems like a great shooter, but somehow his misses don’t really seem to register on the consciousness, especially inside the arc. He had 12 points on 12 shots, missing all three of his two-pointers.
–The fact that a relative NBA non-entity like Plumlee is even in consideration for this roster shows that a poor job was done selecting the player pool this time around. Team USA added Paul Millsap late, but he does not really excel in the five core skills I noted, nor is he a center. However, many Americans could have provided these skills. Taj Gibson and DeAndre Jordan have both been on the Select Team in previous years–it is unclear whether they were invited and if not, why. They both provide superior defense to any of the three backup centers on the roster. While Larry Sanders had a disappointing year, his skills are also exactly what the team needed and he could have gotten at least a chance to try out. He is also a former Select Team member. So too is Derrick Favors, another player whose skill set might be a better fit. Even Amir Johnson could have gotten a look. All of these players could have superior skill sets for what this team needs, even if Cousins or even Drummond is the superior NBA player.
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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