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How D’Angelo Russell Fits Within The Golden State System

After acquiring D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, Steve Kerr and the Golden State staff will look to maximize his talents in their offensive system. The final product may take some time, but there is a reason to believe that he could thrive in the new role, writes Quinn Davis.

Quinn Davis

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For the first time in four years, the Golden State Warriors will enter the campaign as underdogs to win the championship. After losing the 2019 NBA Finals to Toronto, Kevin Durant joined Brooklyn and will spend a season rehabbing his Achilles before chasing a championship with new teammate Kyrie Irving. During Game 6 against the Raptors, Klay Thompson landed awkwardly on a fastbreak layup attempt, tearing his ACL and leaving his status uncertain for the entire upcoming season.

The Warriors were able to marginally re-tool by turning Durant’s departure into a sign-and-trade with the Nets, receiving 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham. Golden State also sent a protected 2020 first-round pick to Brooklyn as part of the deal, while Napier and Graham were flipped to Minnesota for cap purposes.

Of course, Russell is coming off his best season as a professional, having just led a feisty Brooklyn squad to the postseason with a barrage of pull-up three-pointers and nifty passing. He spent the season as the lead ball-handler for the Nets and was often asked to create shots for himself and others during his time on the court.

Now the young showstopper will need to coexist with Stephen Curry, a future Hall of Famer that happens to be a decent lead ball-handler in his own right. How head coach Steve Kerr fosters this relationship — and how Russell performs in the role — will be a major factor in the Warriors’ positioning come playoff time in the Western Conference. While it could take some patience, there is some reason for optimism in the Bay Area.

Since Kerr took over coaching duties in the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have been a bastion of ball movement. They led the NBA last season in both assists per game and assist percentage. Brooklyn, meanwhile, finished 21st and 18th in those respective categories.

When looking at just Russell, he was assisted on only 29 percent of his total shots, and just 53 percent of his three-pointers, putting him in the 91st and 96th percentile of those categories, per cleaningtheglass.com. Russell was liable to pull up from deep at any moment last season, one of the best among non-James Harden players at canning triples off the bounce.

Needless to say, Russell will not carry the same creative burden in Golden State. The gravity Curry creates, combined with the team affinity for passing, will lead to a plethora of catch-and-shoot opportunities — a skill in which the Ohio State product has shown proficiency on.

Per NBA.com, Russell hit a touch over 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last season.  For comparison, Klay Thompson shot just over 40 percent on these attempts.

This is not to say Russell can stand in as a Thompson replica — that’s an impossible task. Thompson had almost double the volume on those attempts, while his lightning-quick release allows him to shoot in tight spaces and when coming off screens. The majority of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers came from a standstill position as teammates found him with the extra pass. What Russell can do is provide the spacing necessary for Curry to operate, plus drill open looks when given the opportunity.

While Russell cannot perfectly emulate one of the best shooters ever, the Warriors could utilize him in ways they weren’t able to with Thompson.

Russell’s largely-successful stint as the creative orchestrator in Brooklyn will afford him plenty of chances to run the show this season as well. Even better, Russell may find it easier to create with a two-time MVP attracting multiple sets of eyes out at the three-point arc. Unsurprisingly, Curry shot a blistering 44.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, so Russell should see a less-crowded paint when he penetrates toward another patented floater.

Additionally, there’s the interesting wrinkle of using Curry as a screener with Russell running the pick and roll. Curry is a great screener for a guard and the Warriors have thrived with him off-ball, a decision that often leads to — you guessed it — freer looks around the three-point line. In the past, Golden State opted for Curry setting on-ball screens, mostly with Durant as the ball-handler. Those scenarios watch Curry slip the screens and dart to the three-point line, always leaving defenses in scramble mode.

Russell could slot into this role now, offering the ball-handling ability and pull up threat that Durant possessed. Last season, the Warriors scored 1.40 points per possession when Curry was the screener in a pick and roll, per NBA.com. They only had 0.6 of these possessions per game, but that is an elite number, and something they could look to for a basket in a close game.  Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ head coach, typically paired Russell with Spencer Dinwiddie and the fluid, intentionally confusing movement helped Brooklyn surprise the league over and over again.

It’s easy to picture Curry playing the role of Dinwiddie here, setting a screen for Russell to start the action, then relocating to the three-point line as Russell goes into a 1-5 pick and roll.

The Warriors are not only getting someone who could complement their stars, but also a player that could lead the offense when Curry is resting.  This is where Russell’s experience from this last season in Brooklyn will be most useful.

In 2018-19, the Warriors had a paltry 100.6 offensive rating with both Curry and Durant off the court, per cleaningtheglass.com. The backup point guard position was usually manned by Quinn Cook or Shaun Livingston. Both were serviceable, but not without their limitations. Cook operated as more of a floor spacer and was not asked to create for teammates, while the savvy Livingston moved the ball but mostly looked to score in the post. Russell will provide the combination of shooting and point guard skills to control the floor and bend defenses.

Per NBA.com, the Warriors ran the fewest pick and rolls in the league last season.  With Russell now in the fold, they could add some of that to their playbook for a little more offensive diversity. Russell showed a keen ability to manipulate a pick and roll last season and these clips show the type of playmaking he could bring to his new team.

Presumably, Kerr will want one of Curry or Russell on the court at all times, especially until Thompson returns. It’s also possible that Curry is asked to spend some time with the bench, with Russell and the remaining starters playing while the superstar rests. Either way, the staggering of their minutes will be an important puzzle for Kerr to solve this offseason.

There are still areas of concern for the Russell addition. While all signs point to easy offensive assimilation, it is not a foregone conclusion that Russell can slide into the role of secondary playmaker and floor spacer after a full, All-Star-worthy year as the lead dog. That said, Kerr has dealt with multiple stars every year and always passed with flying colors — on top of that, Curry is as selfless as they come. What might become a major concern for other teams may not even register as a speed bump for this Warriors franchise.

Still, there is also the other half of the game and Russell will not be able to replace what Thompson brought defensively. Although Draymond Green is a master at covering for teammates mistakes, a Curry-Russell backcourt could be problematic on that end. Even the impenetrable Green will struggle to plug every gap for this year’s iteration of the Warriors.

Notably, Russell did do a good job last season of not fouling, finishing in the 91st percentile in this category per cleaningtheglass.com. A 6-foot-10 wingspan allows him to contest well and swipe the ball from unsuspecting opponents.

If he can improve his off-ball instincts under the tutelage of the Golden State’ staff, and exert a little more energy on that end, he could mitigate some of those defensive concerns.

All in all, the positives easily outweigh any concerns here. Russell will bring extra playmaking to the Warriors that was sorely needed with the Durant departure, and he can also slide in next to Curry rather seamlessly.

There will be work to do for Kerr and his coaching tree, but his track record signifies that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.  If Russell keeps evolving at his newest hurdle — and the Warriors have a healthy Klay Thompson come playoff time — the fight for supremacy in the conference could be hotter than ever.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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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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