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Indiana Pacers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Indiana Pacers had an amazing offseason, but will that be enough to move them into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pacers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Indiana Pacers have boasted tremendous continuity over the past few years, going from inevitable rebuild to genuine darkhorse. That continuity will be put to the test again this season following a smorgasbord of moves over the summer.

After losing four of their five starters from last season, Indiana will have plenty of new faces that will need time to gel. Even with All-Star guard Victor Oladipo returns from his torn quad, the team chemistry will be rigorously challenged. On paper, the fit looks fantastic but until we see it on the court, no one can be sure how it will all work out.

In terms of returning players, the Pacers rank 28th in both minutes played and points scored from last season. Indiana’s first ten games are very forgiving, so the schedule Gods may help them get off to a good start this season. That will be key for them if they expect to secure one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.

With that said, let’s dive into another edition of Basketball Insiders’ season previews — this time, the focus lies on the Indiana Pacers.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Indiana is coming off an incredibly impressive 2018-19. But instead of resting on their laurels, the Pacers went in for a face-lift of sorts – and allowed Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph to leave as free agents. But the departing players were replaced by Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. A returning Victor Oladipo should add another level to the Pacers and their backcourt will be among the most versatile and dangerous in the NBA. Rookie Goga Bitadze should add something to the team with an incredibly efficient offensive game and great rim-protecting instincts. The Pacers have a high ceiling this year – but they will be thoroughly tested by the likes of the 76ers and Bucks in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Central Division

-Drew Maresca

The Pacers, despite losing Victor Oladipo, still had a great year. They finished just shy of 50 wins as the rest of the team came together and showed a lot of fight. This summer they made some very quality free agent signings with Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday, also adding a good trade for T.J. Warren. Each of these players should add to the Pacers depth, but they already must find players that can replicate the contributions of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.

With a healthy Oladipo though, there’s no reason why this team should take a step backward as he was well on his way to becoming a legit star. With him, and the surrounding supporting cast, they’re a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The next step for them is not only reaching the postseason but perhaps securing a top-four seed and possibly even winning a series — it could happen this season.

2nd Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

If there’s anything we know about the Pacers, it’s that when they’re down, they’re never out. You can throw a wrench into their plans and they just come out with a new blueprint. Last season, it was Victor Oladipo’s devastating injury. This time, Indiana lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young to free agency; two valuable pieces on the court and in the locker room. Kevin Pritchard acted on this quickly with the additions of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. The team still has dynamic, versatile big men in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who, according to Nate McMillan, will be playing together. If this altered version of the squad works and Oladipo comes back as the Vic everybody knows, this is going to be a dangerous group to reckon with.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Indiana Pacers might be the best team no one is giving credit to. If Victor Oladipo comes back after the All-Star break, the Pacers could be set up to secure home-court advantage in the first round. Indiana had a solid offseason by netting Malcolm Brogdon in a sign and trade, plus they even hung on to their young guys too. So if Oladipo is back to his All-Star form, the Pacers could be really good. if Oladipo needs more time, then maybe the Pacers are simply a playoff team — but, overall, the franchise is in a fantastic position going forward.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

I think that at some point this season the Milwaukee Bucks are going to second-guess not doing everything in their power to retain the services of Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon will bring a lot of value to the Indiana Pacers on both ends of the court and could form a dynamic duo with Victor Oladipo. Indiana also made other savvy moves, adding quality players like T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday. Between Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and now Goga Bitadze, the Pacers have a lot of depth at the center position as well and may need to make a decision on what to do between Sabonis and Turner. Despite making some nice moves this offseason, I don’t believe Indiana  has the talent or overall to match the firepower of the league’s top-tier contenders. I think Indiana can make a strong push this season and exceed expectations but I am not convinced that they have quite enough to make it to the Finals.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pacers used their cap room to bring in players like Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb. Having used their room exception on Justin Holiday, the team can only add players via minimum contracts or trade. Indiana is well below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with 15 guaranteed players, along with three camp invites (C.J. Wilcox, JaKeenan Gant and Amida Brimah) who are unlikely to make the regular-season roster.

Before November, the Pacers need to pick up team options on T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday. Domantas Sabonis is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Pacers are also heavily invested for the 2020-21 season, projected to be over the $116 million salary cap.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo

Since acquiring him in the high-profile trade for Paul George, Victor Oladipo has been the engine that runs this team. The energy, hustle and clutch performances have invigorated this Pacers team and their fan base. His days in Orlando and Oklahoma City were about learning and applying that knowledge to his game.

Oladipo burst onto the national scene during the 2017-18 season where he was named to the All-NBA third team. That same season, he made his first All-Star game appearance and was named to the All-Defensive first team after leading the league in steals. Not only has he lifted the Pacers franchise, but he has been carrying the offense quite well as indicated by his 17th-ranked player efficiency rating from two years ago.

Top Defensive Player: Myles Turner

You won’t find a better rim protector in the league today than Myles Turner. The 23-year old center led the league in blocks last season and found himself in serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. While his offensive game and rebounding are the focal point of most conversations, Turner has long been a steady defensive force throughout his four-year career.

Turner’s numbers go much deeper than blocks, however. Last season, the big man ranked seventh in the league in defensive win shares and had the third-best defensive plus/minus in the NBA. His overall defensive rating was fifth-best in the league and greatly contributed to the Pacers being ranked No. 1 in opponent points per game a year ago.

Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon

Despite not having the burden of being the playmaker in Milwaukee, Brogdon is going to be forced into that role from the very beginning in Indiana. With Oladipo out for at least the first couple of months, Brogdon will be thrust into the creator role. It will be an adjustment for the former Rookie of the Year, but it is a challenge that he’ll welcomes. The task is even more difficult when you consider the roster turnover Indiana has gone through from last season.

Brogdon’s biggest strength is his ability to go downhill, straight to the basket. This penetration will open up kick-outs to shooters and many swing-swing plays on the perimeter. Last season, Brogdon’s usage rate was around 20 percent. He will now become the ball-dominant guard that he never had to be next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can expect plenty of pick and roll plays with Sabonis too. Brogdon has an exceptionally high basketball IQ and uses it to his advantage. He gets to the line, wherein which he’ll make opponents pay dearly. His 93 percent free throw rate was best in the league last season.

Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo

His full name is Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo, but his middle name may as well be Clutch. Before he went down with his ruptured quad tendon, Oladipo was leading the league in clutch field goal percentage (63.2 percent). He ranked second in the NBA in points per clutch possession with 1.59 on 39 such possessions. During the final minute of fourth quarters last season, the star guard was 4-of-5 shooting on lead-altering shots, which were all three-pointers.

In a memorable Nov. 3 contest against the Boston Celtics last year, the All-Star put the Pacers on his back and got them in the lead with a 22-foot jumper with 52 seconds remaining. He followed that up with a pair of crucial free throws, plus a game-winning three in the final seconds. He hit a ridiculous game-tying shot against the Rockets two nights later and ripped out the hearts of Bulls fans with two clutch buckets in the final minute – one of which was the game-winner with one second remaining.

Needless to say, Oladipo is not shy of the moment and has proved on multiple occasions that he’ll raise his game when the brightest lights are on him.

The Unheralded Player: Aaron Holiday

Indiana drafted Holiday with the No. 23 overall pick last summer and the former UCLA guard displayed plenty of promise over his 50 games with the team. Holiday averaged nearly six points, two assists and had an effective field goal percentage of 48.3 during his 13 minutes per contest. His role will increase this year, providing him with more time on the floor with the second unit. As the backup point guard, he will be responsible for getting his teammates involved in the offense, which can be difficult for a 22-year-old in his second season.

The biggest hurdle for Holiday will be improving his shooting. Last year, he shot 40 percent from the field and just under 34 percent from behind the arc. For a guy that is viewed as instant-offense off the bench, those numbers will have to improve in his sophomore season. Indiana had the third-most roster turnover from this past season, so the only guys remaining that Holiday played with last year are Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis, Doug McDermott and TJ Leaf.

Best New Addition: Malcolm Brogdon

Indiana paid a steep price for Brogdon’s services, but it was money well spent. For the Pacers, a swift upgrade at the starting point guard position has never been more clear. Darren Collison was a fine player that could do a few things proficiently, but replacing him with Brogdon will be like going from a Honda to a Ferrari.

The most significant area of improvement will be on the defensive end. Collison was small by every definition of the word. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Brogdon has a much better frame for defending multiple positions. Even better, the promising newcomer was arguably the best defender on Kawhi Leonard during the playoffs.

– Chad Smith

WHO WE LIKE

1. Myles Turner

The time is now for Turner to make his biggest leap yet. With Oladipo out to start the season, he is the guy that needs to step up his game. If he can graduate to more than just a pick-and-pop guy on offense that also blocks shots, it will go a long way toward Indiana’s ultimate successes. Often a half-step behind, Turner just needs to hone in his skills and be more effective inside 15 feet.

Being a reliable second or third option on offense should be a goal for Turner this season. The Pacers like to spread the ball around and don’t exactly score at an amazing clip and the team finished 22nd in points per game last year. He looked engaged in a couple of FIBA games this summer, but he also had some poor performances. Like many players in the league, consistency will be key for Turner.

2. Domantas Sabonis

After nearly winning Sixth Man of the Year last season, Sabonis will move into the starting lineup with the departure of Thaddeus Young. A bump in minutes may come as well, provided he can stay out of foul trouble. The big man ranked 12th in personal fouls last year, 14th the season before that. He must refrain from the temptation to reach in or bump inside. Sabonis also tends to pick up cheap fouls away from the ball and that will need to be remedied.

Another area of concern for Sabonis is on defense. Playing the power forward position, he must be able to guard quicker, more athletic big men on the perimeter. Turner needs to stay near the basket for rim protection, so Sabonis may be on an island at times. As for the offensive side of the ball, there is not much than he cannot do. His offensive game is smooth and he is easily one of the best passing big men in the league. That is something this Pacers offense will need desperately in their All-Star’s absence.

3. Jeremy Lamb

Speaking of Oladipo’s vacancy, enter Jeremy Lamb. The long, versatile wing does not do one thing exceptionally well, but he can do what the Pacers need. He can score, rebound and defend in a positive way with his large wingspan. He should slide into the starting lineup until Oladipo is ready to return, and his fit should be excellent.

When Oladipo does reclaim his starting position, Lamb should have no qualms about moving back into the sixth-man role that thrived at down in Charlotte. Lamb has only missed a total of five games over the past two seasons and went from 12.9 points per game to a career-high 15.3 points per game last season. His three-point shooting still needs to be more consistent, but he can score in multiple ways from many, many spots on the floor.

4. T.J. Warren

The wild card for the Pacers this season just might be T.J. Warren. The offensive weapon has shown that he can score, but how much of that was fool’s gold playing on a terrible Suns teams? The big question with Warren is his three-point shooting. In 2016-17 he shot 26.5 percent from behind the arc and two years before that, it was just 22.2 percent. Last season, however, he shot 43 percent from three-point range, which definitely raised some eyebrows around the league. He has averaged 31 minutes per game or more in each of the last three seasons, but how much time he gets in Indiana is yet to be determined. There are a bunch of assets competing for minutes, so there could be a proverbial log jam brewing. Warren should enter the season as a starter, but for how long will depend on his shooting and whether or not his subpar defense improves.

– Chad Smith

STRENGTHS

Like many Pacers teams of the past, this group will hang their hat on defense. They have some outstanding individual defenders and guru Dan Burke has gotten many to play much better on that end of the floor. Between Turner’s rim protection and the lockdown defense in the backcourt with Brogdon and Oladipo, Indiana should stay close to their defensive rating from last season, which was third-best in the league.

The talent on this roster is also still very young. Oladipo is just 27, Brogdon is 26, while Turner and Sabonis are both 23 — hell, even Warren is only 26. In fact, every player on Indiana’s roster is 27 years old or younger. Most everyone is under contract for after this season and they have loads of flexibility that Kevin Pritchard can work with.

The rotation is solid, rife with contributors that can slide into different, flexible positions. Rookie Goga Bitadze should see ample minutes behind Turner and will be a nice pairing with T.J. Leaf on the second unit. Indiana should have more offensive firepower this year with the additions of Lamb and Warren. Their offense went stagnant far too often during the playoffs last year, but the front office has addressed that very nicely.

– Chad Smith

WEAKNESSES

The offense went through stretches last season that were often difficult to watch. Without Oladipo generating things, they fell flat on their face, especially against good defensive teams. The additions of Brogdon, Lamb and Warren should alleviate those concerns to some level. Still, the absence of their franchise player at the beginning of the season will be a major concern. The Pacers need to be at or above .500 by the time Oladipo makes it back. Even when he does return, he will likely be on a minutes restriction, sitting out on back-to-backs too, presumably.

Perhaps the biggest concern with the defense is this: Who guards Giannis? Who guards LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Ben Simmons? Young was usually that guy, but it’s a legitimately important question. Today, it’s hard to be convinced that anybody on the roster that can handle those assignments right now.

Indiana ranked 24th in pace last season, which was a likely reason for their 22nd-ranked scoring offense. That might not improve much, but they have the pieces to push the ball more if they so choose. It is difficult to imagine that without their All-Star on the floor though.

– Chad Smith

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Indiana’s version of the Twin Towers work?

They might not be Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but the Pacers do have themselves two very talented big men. Head coach Nate McMillan has stated that he wants them to play together, even if they have not done much of it in the past. Last year, they never practiced with the two on the same team, so that could be a starting point to figuring this thing out.

Thankfully, they play off each other pretty well as Sabonis is the better offensive player and Turner is the fiercer defender. Turner excels away from the basket on offense, while Sabonis is a force inside. Feeding Sabonis the ball inside can only net positive results for both parties. Turner will need to make his open looks though as he has only scored 1,000 points once over his four seasons.

Leaf and Bitadze are going to work similarly when they are on the floor together too. Still, a whole lot of this will ride on the shoulders of McMillan and his staff. Look for him to incorporate Turner in the corner more, especially on pick and roll opportunities with Brogdon and Sabonis.

Should things ultimately not work out there, the Pacers do have some options. Sabonis is extension eligible as this is the final year of his current contract. It would be wise for them to find a new deal before the season begins. Importantly, he’d be far more appealing to other teams if he already has a long-term deal signed. Doing so would also mitigate the risk of letting him become a restricted free agent next summer, forced to match a higher salary if a team makes an enormous offer.

In the end, the two should figure out how to not only co-exist but to complement each other. If they can do that –plus, obviously, with a healthy Oladipo — the Pacers could be looking at advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years.

– Chad Smith

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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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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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