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Five Big Questions As Training Camp Looms

Buddy Grizzard looks at five intriguing NBA storylines entering training camp.

Buddy Grizzard

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Training camp is so close you can almost taste the arena hot dogs and beer. But we’re not there yet. So while we wait for these last few weeks to tick away to have the NBA back in our lives, Basketball Insiders will look at five burning questions that face the NBA, its players and its teams as a brand new cycle is set to begin.

1. Is Derrick Rose the answer for Cleveland?

We’ve already explored the question of what moves the Cavaliers might make to ensure this season’s team is a contender. Cleveland’s fate, with LeBron James set to enter free agency next summer, provides some of the most compelling drama for the upcoming season. The Kyrie Irving trade provided the Cavs with a movable asset in the Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick which could be used to address whatever is the team’s greatest position of need.

Thus, Derrick Rose must try to show early on that point guard is not that position. The question is, can Rose be a complimentary player? In his best seasons, Rose was the centerpiece of Bulls roster that appeared to be on its way to contending for championships. Post-injury, the Cavaliers must discover if Rose is willing and able to operate in the shadow of James, a shadow that grew too long for Irving. If Rose can’t thrive in a complimentary role, the Cavs may still need to address the point guard position. The organization has been ominously silent about Isaiah Thomas’ timeline for a return to action, so it may not be able to afford to wait to see if he can be the answer either.

2. Can Russell Westbrook coexist with another star?

Anytime an NBA team has three of the top 10 players in the world, the reasonable expectation is that the team will win multiple championships. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be forever known as a team that was given that opportunity and failed to capitalize. The reasons for that failure will remain matters of debate for the foreseeable future, so it might be best to analyze it in terms of results.

After Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, during which James Harden attempted only six shots, Harden complained about his lack of touches. The result was a rift in the locker room which led to a messy divorce that sent Harden to Houston in one of the most second-guessed trades of all time. With Harden gone, OKC’s remaining top-10 players — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — failed to return to the NBA Finals. As a result — since Durant’s goal is to win NBA championships — Durant sought greener pastures and found a championship formula in Golden State.

As a result of Durant’s departure, Westbrook was free to take as many shots as he wanted and pursue individual accolades such as MVP. But this offseason, the Pacers unexpectedly threw the Thunder a lifeline by offering Paul George in a trade. With George’s arrival, the Thunder — on paper — have the talent to compete in the stacked West. But can Westbrook coexist with another star player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective? During every previous opportunity, the combination has failed to produce a championship for the Thunder.

3. Can Kemba Walker unlock Dwight Howard?

In stops with the Lakers, Rockets, and Hawks since leaving Orlando, Dwight Howard has always sought a return to his glory years when he carried an average Magic roster to the NBA Finals. To hear Howard tell it, circumstances have conspired to prevent that return from happening.

In Los Angeles and Houston, Howard failed to mesh with star teammates. In Atlanta, a roster with more role players and complementary pieces — rather than superstar egos — awaited. But Howard says he still didn’t receive the role he was sold on when he signed. Regardless of who is to blame for Howard’s inability to recapture his Orlando form, it falls to Kemba Walker to incorporate him into a Hornets team that hopes to put last season’s disappointment behind it and make the playoffs.

To do that, Walker will need to form a consistent pick and roll partnership with Howard. Long gone are the days when throwing the ball into the post and expecting Howard to manufacture a bucket was an efficient use of a possession. Howard is dramatically more efficient when operating as the roll man in pick and rolls. But for some reason, Howard used fewer than 100 such possessions in Atlanta last season. Who is to blame for that? Was it Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder’s lack of proficiency or Howard’s lack of willingness? Who knows and who cares? For Walker and the Hornets, all that matters is results.

4. Will Dennis Schroder wreck Atlanta’s tank?

Speaking of Dennis Schroder, despite being outplayed by John Wall in last season’s first round, he showed real signs of maturation in his first season as a full-time starter. Schroder’s assist-to-turnover ratio improved dramatically in the postseason despite facing a top-flight defender in Wall. Meanwhile, he’s in a neck-and-neck race with Goran Dragic to emerge as the most outstanding player at the ongoing EuroBasket 2017.

Schroder showed out in a round of 16 victory over France, shredding every defender that tried to slow him and flying all over the court to help his team advance. After Spain defeated Turkey in the first round of the knockout stage yesterday, it set up a meeting with Schroder’s Germany on Tuesday in the round of eight. Spain’s roster is packed with NBA players while Schroder is the only major NBA talent on Germany’s roster. The meeting with Spain will be an opportunity for Schroder to show how far he’s come.

In the meantime, ESPN’s Zach Lowe joined the Woj Podcast Friday with Adrian Wojnarowski to talk about the NBA’s latest proposal to reform the NBA Draft Lottery (more on that below) and casually threw out the Atlanta Hawks as a team that may be deliberately tanking. If the Hawks are tanking, the organization has a strange way of going about it after signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova as free agents. They give the Hawks depth and starting experience in the power rotation. If Atlanta is really determined to lose games, why not stick with Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala?

Beyond the steps new Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has taken to ensure Atlanta has a fairly complete roster, Schroder may be too good to allow the Hawks to tank. Judging by his performance at EuroBasket, Schroder could have a breakout season and drive Atlanta’s tank right into a ditch.

5. What’s really behind the NBA’s lottery reform proposal?

Lowe and Wojnarowski had a fairly thorough discussion of the NBA’s latest lottery reform proposal, but it raised as many questions as it answered. Both seemed to agree that nobody around the league really thinks the proposal will put an end to tanking, which is the stated purpose. If nobody believes reform will stop tanking, then what’s the real reason behind the proposal?

“If the point of tanking is to get stars and you want to eliminate tanking, in theory, you can’t just look at lottery reform,” said Lowe. “You have to look at, how can we enable these other teams to get stars in different ways?”

With those two sentences, Lowe cut to the heart of the debate. The issue isn’t tanking. The issue is, which teams have access to star players and how do those teams have access to star players? Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers recently argued that the league’s latest lottery reform proposal won’t create parity. The reality is that parity in the NBA is impossible. Here’s why:

Championships in the NBA are won by what we’ll refer to as “dynastic” players. A dynastic player is a player that has been central to multiple NBA championships. Putting aside any arguments about the definition of “central” for the moment, here are the dynastic players since 1980 and how many championships they’ve won:

Magic Johnson, 5
Larry Bird, 3
Isiah Thomas, 2
Michael Jordan, 6
Hakeem Olajuwan, 2
Tim Duncan, 5
Kobe Bryant, 5
Shaquille O’Neal, 4
Dwyane Wade, 3
LeBron James, 3
Stephen Curry, 2

Since 1980, only four teams — about 10 percent — have won an NBA championship without a dynastic player: The 1983 76ers (Moses Malone was Finals MVP), 2004 Pistons (Chauncey Billups), 2008 Celtics (Paul Pierce) and 2011 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki). Almost 90 percent of the time, a team needs a player capable of winning multiple championships to win an NBA title. Of 34 NBA champions since 1980 that featured a dynastic player, 27 (79 percent) included one that was selected in the top three of the NBA Draft. That means only a small percentage of teams will EVER compete for an NBA championship. In contrast to Major League Baseball and the NFL — where parity is possible because no single player can drive the fate of an entire franchise — the NBA is a completely star-driven league.

And stars are in too short a supply for parity to ever happen in the NBA.

Thus, since the consensus is that tanking will continue no matter what sort of lottery reform the NBA institutes, the proposal appears to be aimed at impacting what teams have access to star players. In a sort of Trojan Horse, the reform proposal includes a provision that would increase the odds for a team that barely misses the playoffs to receive one of the top three picks. This proposal was part of the league’s last attempt at lottery reform that was voted down by league owners. It’s unclear who is pushing this effort to give borderline playoff teams a better shot at a superstar, but it’s clear from the league’s persistent efforts that this is the end game.

And that’s something that nobody is paying enough attention to. With the fate of NBA franchises so dependent on ultra-rare generational talents, which teams have access to those players should be the focus of the debate, not the smokescreen of tanking.

With a new NBA season just around the corner, these are some of the storylines that will be at the forefront. As this offseason proved, however — with Irving’s unexpected trade request and the forced retooling of Cleveland’s contending roster — it’s impossible to predict what new storylines will emerge at any given moment.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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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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