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Houston Rockets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Houston Rockets stayed true to their plan and remained aggressive in trying to construct a title winner, not just a quasi-contender. The question is will the combination of Russell Westbrook and James Harden get them to the promised land? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Houston Rockets in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

Basketball Insiders

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Hope wasn’t necessarily lost for the Houston Rockets, although they didn’t come close to capitalizing on a serious Kevin Durant injury in the 2018-19 Western Conference Finals. Again, no one was writing them off for this season, but an aging Chris Paul coupled with that fact that they blew a HUGE opportunity certainly made for plenty of skeptics this upcoming season.

Then the stories broke. At first, people didn’t pay much attention to the “Paul and Harden don’t get along” rhetoric. But before you knew it, Paul was on his way to Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook was headed to H-Town.

Did that trade improve Houston’s chances of winning a title? It wholly depends on how you value Westbrook and view his ability to play alongside Harden. Regardless, the trade was obviously one of the marquee moments of the offseason, and like-it-or-not, firmly places Houston in the conversation of 2019-20 NBA Champions.

Let’s continue Basketball Insider’s team preview series with a look at the Houston Rockets.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Rockets made one of the biggest moves of the summer when they traded away Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook brings a completely different dynamic to the team than Paul, and at this point in their careers, Westbrook is more reliable scoring threat. He’s a walking triple-double and he shouldn’t have much of an issue fitting in with James Harden. The Rockets are a team that have had title aspirations for a few seasons now but have fallen short each time, including last season’s playoff loss to the Warriors despite Kevin Durant getting hurt. They’re hoping this shakeup will give them a better chance, and now with the Warriors having seemingly come back down to Earth, they too have as good a chance as any to get to the Finals. Having Westbrook and Harden is a great starting point, and it’ll be interesting to see how/if the Rockets change their offensive schemes to fit their personnel.

1st Place – Southwest Division

-David Yapkowitz

The Rockets shook things up this offseason, swapping Chris Paul and future draft picks for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook and James Harden are an equally odd pairing as were Harden and Paul, but at least they’re good friends – which is more than can be said with certainty of Harden and Paul. Only four teams in the history of the NBA have boasted two MVPs and each time it’s ended in a championship. Harden, Westbrook, Clint Capella and Eric Gordon will power the Rockets to the Southwest Division crown, but how much farther can we expect them to go? There’s enough depth beyond their core-four in PJ Tucker, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green to provide a boost. But Nene’s contract looked like more of a future asset for trade purposes prior to the NBA altering its value – and that may hurt the Rockets down the road as far as adding additional talent mid-season is concerned. And that could dictate how far they go in the postseason.

1st Place-Southwest Division

-Drew Maresca

There’s plenty of intrigue in H-Town with the surprising arrival of Russell Westbrook. We already know how incredible and effective James Harden is as the best scorer in the NBA, but giving him his former Thunder running mate in the backcourt will be a sight to behold. While questions surrounding fit are warranted with two polar opposite shooters, it’s the opportunities with explosiveness and in transition that should excite fans of basketball everywhere. The new Rockets duo should be able to throw different looks at different defensive schemes, keeping teams on their toes at all times. Westbrook with the ball in his hands will form an instant chemistry with a rim runner like Clint Capela as he did with Steven Adams. P.J. Tucker comes back as the squad’s most gritty defender and top glue guy. Eric Gordon’s officially returning, keeping Mike D’Antoni’s go-to perimeter guy in the mix. Yes, the bench leaves plenty to be desired, however there’s opportunities to stagger with two All-Stars with the ball in their hands. It should lead to plenty of rest for both to save energy throughout a rigorous season.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

As the saying goes, “Go Big Or Go Home,” and that’s exactly what Rockets General Manager Dayle Morey did in trading for the massive contract of Russell Westbrook. The Rockets were by all accounts one game away from the NBA Finals, and while the West seems to have dispersed talent in a more equitable fashion, the window for the Rockets is now and they pounced. Time will tell if the pairing of two extremely ball-dominant players will work — the idea of two unstoppable offensive players makes the gamble worth it. The Rockets still have plenty of shooting and rebounding around their offensive duo, so barring injury, the Rockets should win the division, if not the entire thing this season.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

When the Rockets acquired Chris Paul, a lot of people were concerned that he and James Harden would struggle to run an effective offense together since both players are so ball-dominant. I was of the belief that Paul and Harden are both intelligent, talented players who would find a way to make things work. While there were some bumps in the road, Paul and Harden found a balance and were able to orchestrate one of the most potent offenses in the league over the last few seasons. I am not sure I have the same confidence in Harden and Russell Westbrook finding a similar balance. These two have historically high usage numbers and I’m not sure Westbrook is ready to take a backseat to anyone, including Harden. This combination has more upside than the Paul-Harden pairing had, but there is cause for concern. Having said all of that, I will not be surprised if the Rockets are one of, if not the most explosive offensive team in the league this season. I cannot wait to see what this new duo can do together, especially since this will be the first time Westbrook will have a strong core of reliable shooters around him in some time.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Rockets salvaged the broken relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul, sending Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for All-Star Russell Westbrook. The deal cost Houston significant draft assets but the team got the younger, more explosive point guard. The team will likely be over the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold once Nene re-signs, but he’ll reportedly ink a partially-guaranteed contract that might be used as a trade chip, or can be cut before July 8 to clear salary.

Houston has multiple trade exceptions but the largest is $3.6 million for Brandon Knight. The team also only has nine fully-guaranteed players heading into training camp, though Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark have half of their salaries locked in. Along with Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, the Rockets have over $105 million invested in just four players this coming season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Best Offensive Player: James Harden

There might not be another team in the NBA with a choice that is this obvious. Despite other offensive talents on the Rockets, James Edward Harden is simply in a league of his own.

You’ve seen some of the statistics, but let me recap some of them for you. Last season Harden scored 50-plus points nine times. He scored 30+ points for 32 consecutive games, something that hasn’t been done since Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged 36.1 points per game on the season with a mind-boggling true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent. Harden averaged 43.6 points in the month of January.

The above paragraph could be quite a bit longer, but we’ll spare you the reader as the Rockets still have other players to touch on and you don’t have all day to read about The Beard.

Let us just mention this. Harden is arguably the best offensive player of all-time. His ability to get buckets and the efficiency with which he does so is out-of-this-world. He’s strong, fast, smart, and above all fearless. As long as he’s in the NBA, whatever team he plays for is an automatic threat.

Best Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Averaging 1.5 blocks and 8.2 defensive rebounds per game, Capela is the top rim protector on a team that doesn’t necessarily harp defense.

PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon certainly have the ability to be ball-stoppers in their own regard and Tucker especially has an exceptional motor, but neither player consistently impacts the game on defense as Capela does. Elite rim protectors are a dime-a-dozen in the NBA, and when a team doesn’t employ one on the court it shows. As much as the NBA loves three-pointers, they still aren’t as efficient as a good old fashioned, wide-open slam-dunk. So when you have a player that can stop them, it automatically makes them indispensable on the defense.

He’s still young and at times, it shows. His defense absolutely has room to grow. But he’s long, overly-athletic for his size, and gives opponents fits at the rim. Look for him to have an even bigger impact this upcoming season.

Best Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

He’s averaged over 10 assists a night for four straight seasons and in his 11-year career, he’s never dipped below 5 per game. Much can be said about his inefficient shooting spurts, but his ability to create looks for his teammates is unmatched. Age may be finally catching up to him, but his current state still probably places him in the top-15 most athletic players in the league and he definitely uses it to his advantage when running an offense.

What’s funny is prior to the trade, Chris Paul could have very well been considered for this recognition. In all reality, Westbrook is a better playmaker than Paul at this point in their respective careers, mainly because Russell still has more left in the tank than the elder Paul.

Last year for OKC, Westbrook led the team in assists, assist percentage at 44 percent and usage percentage at 30.1 percent. All those marks last season outside of usage percentage were better than Harden who would be considered the second-best playmaker on the roster. Harden can dish it, but not quite as well as Westbrook.

Top Clutch Player: James Harden

89.4 percent of made field goals for Harden in the clutch were unassisted. This means he was able to generate just about every single point he scored by himself without the help of teammates – apart from the occasional screen, at least.

He led the Houston Rockets averaging 4.9 points in clutch situations. Outside of Victor Oladipo who played significantly fewer clutch minutes, that 4.9 mark led the entire NBA.

He had a 49 percent usage percentage which not only led the team but the entire NBA and was a full 5 percentage points higher than the next most used player. It’s very clear that Harden is the go-to guy for this Rockets squad and with Westbrook’s all-over-the-place statistics with late-game heroics it shouldn’t change anytime soon.

The Unheralded Player: PJ Tucker

If James Harden is the motor that keeps this team going, Tucker is the glue that makes sure it doesn’t fall apart. There’s a reason his name wasn’t included last summer in trade talks when the Rockets were trying to get Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves. This guy can flat out play.

He’s ferocious on defense and can easily guard multiple positions when asked. He is very reliable on the corner three and can heat up from distance better than just about anyone in the league. Not to mention teams send swarms of defenders towards Harden to Tucker is usually wide-open on his attempts.

He’s a bully on the ball, easily plays with the most effort on the team, and constantly seems to have a chip on his shoulder.

As far as players that played the entire season, he led the team in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent taking over 4.5 three per game. He was an even better 43.2 percent from the right corner.

Tucker never puts up astounding stats, but he puts out massive effort every night and always leaves it on the court. He’s incredibly valuable for this Houston team and will be a central part of any championship run they may have.

Best New Addition: Russell Westbrook

Anytime you can add a former MVP to your roster who is still in his prime, you should probably do it. Regardless of the baggage Westbrook carries with him in the form of efficiency and poor shot selection, the guy can still flat out ball. He isn’t tall by NBA standards and has still averaged a triple-double of points, assists, and rebounds for three straight seasons.

His fit next to Harden will be spectacular at best and horrendous at worst, and it’s hard to see any sort of a happy medium between those two. If it works out, Morey will be considered a genius and the trade will have been deemed a success. If it doesn’t? Well, only time will tell.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1. James Harden

Despite his quirky offensive moves, his lethargic pace of play in the isolation, and his ability to draw fouls that upon review still don’t seem like fouls, Harden is stellar. Every time he suits up we have the pleasure of watching what could be the best offensive player to ever play the game.

He has transformed the stepback three into something that is both unguardable and efficient. He forces teams to scheme their entire defensive plan around what he’ll do night in and night out. His gravity opens up looks for his teammates that for some teams seems unfathomable.

He’s the heart-and-soul of the Rocket’s franchise. Their success is tied directly to him and what he does.

2. Eric Gordon

Gordon inked himself a nice little extension recently and it isn’t without reason. He’s played exceptionally well for Houston and was a huge reason they even made it past the first round last year. His defense on Donovan Mitchell, coupled with his outrageous true shooting percentage of 61.9 percent, was a major reason Harden’s less-than-ideal play was covered up as Houston trounced a solid Utah team in five games.

Having an offensive weapon as strong and diverse as Gordon as your third or possibly fourth-best option is a great place to be. He can get to the rim on almost anyone, play bully-ball where necessary, and shoot at a high mark from three. He’s as close to a big three as Houston is going to get. Gordon is a key cog to the starting unit.

3. Daryl Morey

The statistical wiz himself, Morey pulled off one last stunt that could help Houston hoise the Larry O’Brien for the first time in many years. It’s funny, you’d think that on a statistical level – at least as far as scoring is concerned – that Westbrook would be the last player Morey would want on his roster. But clinging to an aging Paul (and his scary contract) for another season might actually be worse than an inefficient-at-times Westbrook, and Morey knew that.

He made the trade, which was a blockbuster by all accounts that no one saw coming, and he’ll just have to live with the results. Russell could alter his game, it could work harmoniously, and the Rockets just might be champions. Despite what happens, Morey executed the right move and made a daunting situation – with Paul’s contract and all – actually turn out to be a bright spot moving forward. And if it doesn’t work out so well, at least the Harden-Westbrook duo will be a PR team’s dream for the first half of the season until it all implodes.

4. Mike D’Antoni

This is the man that turned Harden into the league’s best point guard – at least on a production standpoint. He’s led the charge on multiple franchises now to make offense the key ingredient to a championship run. He’s revolutionized the three-ball and how many you can shoot in a game. But has any of it paid off yet?

You can definitely argue that they were just a Chris Paul hamstring away from going to the finals two seasons ago, but would they have made it past LeBron? Regardless of your opinion on D’Antoni’s coaching style, he’s proven himself to be one of the better coaches in the league today. He schemes incredibly well for opponents and hides certain weaknesses as good as any coach out there. If anyone can make Westbrook and Harden click on the court it will be him.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

Offensively they are the best team in the NBA. James Harden is a flat-out monster and adding the hyper-athletic Westbrook to the mix will only make the cogs spin faster. They have solid shooting from three at every position outside of the five and have the means to get players open looks better than any team in the league.

Besides Westbrook, the core of the team now has a good three-plus years of playing together so their continuity will for sure help them get places. If they can ease Westbrook into the fold and get him comfortable quickly, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with early on. They don’t have many old veteran players and health shouldn’t be much of an issue, either. If Westbrook can stay healthy, their starting unit will be solid.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

Their biggest weakness could end up being their egos. Although nothing was officially said, there were plenty of reports about how Harden and Paul never got along. Westbrook has as big of a personality as the next guy, so there are skeptics out there that believe the Harden-Westbrook connection won’t work out. The last time they were teammates they were both young and figuring out their way in the league.

If their personalities don’t clash and their style of play gels on the court? Look out, because they will be very good. But if history has shown us anything, we absolutely should not assume they will get along until it plays out.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Was Westbrook’s acquisition, coupled with Paul’s departure, enough to get Houston a championship?

In a vacuum, adding a player with the accolades Westbrook contains is tremendous. But unfortunately for the Rockets, it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Westbrook’s game is everything the Rockets have tried to avoid. He consistently takes bad shots, he’s never been a good three-point shooter, and he often tried to take over games. Has he had success in small spurts? Yes. Is he incredibly talented at almost every aspect of the game of basketball? Absolutely. But his fit with Houston’s system is curious.

Ultimately, he’ll help Houston win games and they’ll remain in the top three out West going into the playoffs. But it’s unlikely he’ll morph his game into what Houston needs, and by failing to do so Houston won’t make it out of the second round. Let’s be real, Westbrook is a huge reason OKC struggled in the playoffs the last two seasons despite Paul George being on the roster. Why should we have any reason to believe he’ll change his game?

– Jordan Hicks

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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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