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LA Clippers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The LA Clippers had the dream off-season landing not only Kawhi Leonard but also Paul George. If both are healthy, could the Clippers be the favorite in the West? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the LA Clippers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Los Angeles Clippers exceeded expectations last season and pushed the Golden State Warriors to a Game 6 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The Clippers had high hopes entering the 2019 offseason, aiming to land two top-tier stars, with Kawhi Leonard as the top priority. While it seemed as though the Clippers had been edged out in the race for Leonard by the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers, it was the Clippers who secured Leonard’s services by trading a valuable haul of players and assets in exchange for star forward Paul George. The Clippers now enter the 2019-20 NBA season as one of a handful of top-tier title contenders. Oh how times have changed.

Let’s take at a look at the Los Angeles Clippers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Clippers are the clear favorites out west. They have three top-five wing defenders. Let that sink in – three of the league’s five best wing defenders are on the Clippers. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the defensive abilities of Moe Harkless, Montrezl Harrell, Mfiondu Kabengele and others. Further, they have incredible offensive versatility – most notably from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but there’s also Lou Williams for opponents to worry about. It’s hard to imagine the Clippers finishing with less than 55 wins, and their ceiling is obviously far higher – especially considering Doc Rivers is in charge of setting the tone and motivating the club to perform.
14
1st Place – Pacific Division

-Drew Maresca

To say the Clippers had a winning offseason would be a major understatement. They had perhaps the best summer out of any team in the league. Not only did they land arguably the marquee free agent in Kawhi Leonard, but they managed to pull off a trade for Paul George, whom nobody assumed was even on the market. And to top it off, they didn’t really have to give up much of the already established core. Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are all still there. They went from being a fun team to watch who gave the Golden State Warriors all they could handle in the first round, to being a championship contender. The only real question mark is the center position, but they have a promising young big man in Ivica Zubac. This team is primed for a championship run, something that seems unreal when talking about the Clippers. Steve Ballmer and the front office have put their money where their mouths are and have proven they’re serious about bringing a title to the Clippers franchise. They should be considered the preseason favorite to come out of the West.

1st Place – Pacific Division.

– David Yapkowitz

Who isn’t excited for this new, exciting rivalry in Hollywood? Already with momentum from a highly successful year and first-round series in the postseason, the Clippers landed the two big fish of the 2019 free agent class in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. We don’t need to tell you what those two can do individually, but together in the prime of their careers? That is going to be a tandem for the ages. Perhaps even more impressive is that when that duo is sitting, another one-two punch awaits in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. LA’s second unit did the brunt of its damage last year. With shooting and defense – Patrick Beverley’s tenacity being the tone-setter – from top to bottom on this roster, there’s no reason to see that slowing down. Doc Rivers hasn’t had talent like this since his days in Boston, which is ironically where he won his last NBA Championship. Could history repeat itself over a decade later?

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The Los Angeles Clippers are the winners of the 2019 offseason. Many will argue that the team gave up too many talented players and draft assets in the Paul George trade, but failing to do so could have been disastrous. If the Clippers failed to land George, Leonard could have moved on and re-signed with the Toronto Raptors or, even worse, the Los Angeles Lakers. With the options of either making the deal and landing Leonard and George, or failing to make the deal and allowing Leonard to create a Big-Three with LeBron James and Anthony Davis across the hall with the Lakers, the Clippers seemingly had to go all in. In doing so, the Clippers now have a deep roster led by two star forwards and a championship window of at least two seasons. Injuries could derail the Clippers’ upcoming season, but the team will likely be extremely careful in managing its star players’ respective health situations. Buckle up for what should be the most exciting season in Clippers’ franchise history.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Clippers may have won the off-season with the landing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while being able to keep most of the core that got to the playoffs last year. The problem with buying the Clippers hype is that George had both shoulders operated on and Leonard still does not seem like his leg is right. If both are hobbled with injuries then all of this was for nothing in a Western Conference loaded with would-be contenders. If both players get back to looking like the MVP vote-getters they were last year, then the Clippers could be scary good because of their depth and star power.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Clippers invested heavily over the summer, acquiring two stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while giving additional deals to Ivica Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Rodney McGruder. The team will probably hover right below the NBA’s 132.6 million luxury tax line, and while they have no other spending tools to add free agents above minimum salaries, Los Angeles could look to make midseason trades to bolster the roster as needed.

Given that Maurice Harkless is making just over $11 million in the final year of his contract, he could become important salary ballast if the team can find a deal. Montrezl Harrell will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he plays as well as he did last year, he’ll be the team’s top priority in July.

Before November, the Clippers need to pick up team options on Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

It’s tough to not go with Kawhi Leonard here, especially considering he was a one-man offensive force throughout the 2018-19 postseason. But Paul George was a legitimate MVP candidate throughout most of last season and was particularly effective on offense. George posted 28 points and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three-point range.

George is arguably a more polished playmaker and can effectively lead an offense as a point forward for long stretches. Both players can do it all on offense, but George is a bit more fluid with the ball in his hands, has better vision as a playmaker and his efficient high-volume shooting from distance sets him apart from Leonard. Leonard is the better overall player, but George is arguably a bit more advanced overall offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard and George are top-tier perimeter defenders but Leonard, when healthy and motivated, is arguably the best defensive wing-defender in the league. Leonard can lock down an opposing star guard or forward, is an intelligent team-defender, has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and, at times, can be an effective weak side rim defender. Leonard isn’t quite the defender he was earlier in his career due to the leg injury that caused him to miss nearly the entire 2017-18 season and 22 games last season (load management).

Leonard insists he is healthier than he has been in some time and will not need aggressive load management this upcoming season. If Leonard is closer to full strength than he has been in the last few seasons, we could see an uptick in his defensive impact this upcoming season. This is especially true considering that George can pick up some of Leonard’s responsibilities on offense and the Clippers have a deep team that can fill in for Leonard and keep his minutes in check.

Top Playmaker: Lou Williams

A strong case can be made that this designation should go to Paul George but he gets plenty of praise throughout this preview and Williams has a strong case to make as well, so we are going with Williams on this one. Many may think that Williams is just a high-end chucker coming off the bench for the Clippers, but that sells Williams short.

First, Williams averaged more assists per game (5.4) last season than George (4.1) and Leonard (3.3) in less minutes per game (26.6) and dished out 7.3 assists per 36 minutes last season. Second, Williams forms a devastating pick-and-roll game with Montrezl Harrell and is able to either score out of this set, drop easy dimes to Harrell or find open shooters consistently. Third, Williams is such an explosive offensive player and reliable shooter that the attention he draws in isolation often creates breathing room for teammates. With all of this in mind, we are confident in giving Williams the nod for top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

Paul George has proven himself to be a clutch player throughout his career, but Leonard set himself apart during the 2018-19 postseason.

Despite being labeled a system player early in his career, Leonard has established himself as an elite offensive force and is now able to get almost any shot he wants in isolation. Also, in case there’s any doubt, let’s recall Leonard’s series-winning jumper over Joel Embiid in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. If Leonard had not hit that extremely difficult shot, the Raptors could have been eliminated in the second round and been prevented from winning its first NBA championship.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Beverley

On most nights, Patrick Beverley will probably be matched up against a point guard that is widely considered to be a better overall player. But here’s the thing – on this particular Clippers team, Beverley is arguably the perfect fit at starting point guard. Beverley is one of the most aggressive and effective defensive point guards in the league, is able to play off the ball and has developed into a very reliable shooter.

With George and Leonard needing the ball in their hands often, Beverley will have plenty of opportunities to work off the ball and spread the floor with his shooting. Additionally, Beverley has set the tone on defense for the Clippers in the past and is now teamed up with two of the best overall wing defenders in the league. The Clippers have the chance to be an elite defensive team this upcoming season, and Beverley will be an integral part of that dynamic, though he’s unlikely to get the kind of credit George and Leonard will.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard just led the Toronto Raptors to its first NBA Championship, earned the Finals MVP award and was the most coveted free agent this offseason. In any other offseason, George would have likely been the best new addition for the Clippers or likely any other team. But in this case, George was the lure to get Leonard on board. Leonard is arguably the best overall player in the NBA, and even his harshest critics wouldn’t list him outside of the top four.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Doc Rivers and the Front Office

There is plenty of praise for George and Leonard throughout this preview, so we will use this section to highlight some of the other Clippers we like. Let’s start with head coach Doc Rivers and the team’s collective front office. Rivers had his team playing at a high level last season and made some noise in the first round despite not having a single star player. Additionally, in a column by Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times, Rivers stated that during the team’s meeting with Leonard, Kawhi told Rivers, “I want to play for you.”

Rivers credits the entire front office and Lawrence Frank in particular for putting in the work throughout the last year to be in a strong position to convince Leonard to sign with the Clippers. The Clippers’ front office has made smart, disciplined moves throughout the last few years to have had the trade assets to land George and the roster to convince Leonard he could win at the highest levels in LA.

2. Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell was a top candidate for last season’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, but was edged out by teammate and pick-and-roll partner Lou Williams. Last season, Harrell and Williams became the highest-scoring bench duo in NBA history. Harrell posted 16.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.3 blocks in just 26.3 minutes per game. The big man is well-equipped to be a high-energy force off the bench, especially when he is in a rhythm with Williams.

Harrell has developed into a dynamic pick-and-roll partner, aggressive finisher at the rim and underrated post player. Harrell is also aggressive on defense, but his lack of size does often put him at a disadvantage against some of the bigger post players in the league, like Joel Embiid. Harrell isn’t necessarily a liability on defense, but he isn’t a defensive anchor or elite rim protector either. Nevertheless, Harrell is a big-time contributor for the Clippers and will at times be the most impactful player on the court for LA this upcoming season, even with George and Leonard also on the court.

3. Landry Shamet

Remember how we mentioned that the Clippers’ front office has been making smart, disciplined trades over the last few seasons? One such example includes the Clippers trading Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanović and Mike Scott to the Philadelphia 76ers last season in exchange for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet – as well as Philadelphia’s own protected 2020 first-round pick, the Miami HEAT’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick and the Detroit Pistons’ 2021 and 2023 second-round picks. The Clippers used some of these acquired assets in subsequent deals, such as the trade for Paul George. LA also flipped Muscala for starting center Ivica Zubac.

Shamet turned out to be a nice prize in this deal as well. Shamet quickly earned the starting shooting guard position and established himself as a knock down shooter from distance (45 percent on six three-point attempts per game). Shamet is a bit undersized to guard some of the more physical shooting guards in the league, but is an overall effective defensive guard and was unexpectedly effective guarding Stephen Curry in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs.

At just 22 years old, Shamet is well-equipped to fill the role that JJ Redick played so well for several seasons with the Clippers. Shamet is skilled at coming off of screens and getting three-pointers off quickly. He is also skilled as a secondary playmaker off the dribble. With George and Leonard now in the starting lineup with him, Shamet should be able to get cleaner looks more consistently and may have more room to operate off the dribble when teams overload their defensive attention on George and Leonard.

4. JaMychal Green

JaMychal Green has a strong case for the unheralded player designation as well, but we gave that to Patrick Beverley, so we will highlight Green here. Green is a versatile forward who can play both as a power forward and as a small-ball center who can stretch the floor. This is a particularly important role for the Clippers this upcoming season since it’s unclear whether Zubac can matchup against lethal three-point shooting teams like the Houston Rockets.

Doc Rivers went away from Zubac in the 2018-19 playoffs against the Golden State Warriors and turned to Green as an alternative option. Green filled in admirably, knocking down big shots against the Warriors and effectively guarding in space and at the rim as the team’s small-ball center. Additionally, Green will have to fill in and play more minutes throughout the season whenever George and Leonard are resting or injured. Don’t be surprised if Green ends up playing a big role for the Clippers this upcoming season, especially in the postseason.

– Jesse Blancarte

STRENGTHS

Defense and depth. With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley all in the starting lineup, the Clippers have the talent to be an elite defensive team. Ivica Zubac will need to improve as a defensive anchor and rim protector at the center position, but there is reason to believe he has the tools to make that leap this upcoming season. Moreover, the Clippers have few, if any, players in the rotation who can be considered defensive liabilities outside of Lou Williams. When the game matters most, opposing teams are going to find it difficult to get a clutch bucket against this team.

Additionally, the Clippers have exceptional depth. Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, Rodney McGruder, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Montrezl Harrell, Mo Harkless, Patrick Patterson, Iviza Zubac and JaMychal Green are all established players who can play at least 14 minutes of quality ball each night. The Clippers also have young, talented players who could develop into reliable rotation players as early as this season, including Jerome Robinson, Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Injuries.

Paul George may miss the beginning of the upcoming season after undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders earlier this year. Kawhi Leonard missed most of the 2017-18 season and 22 regular-season games last season, in part, because of the injury issues related to his right quad. Patrick Beverley missed most of the 2017-18 season due to a knee injury that required microfracture surgery (though Beverley notably played in 78 regular-season games last season). Landry Shamet has had foot issues in the past, which required surgery as well.

Any significant injuries to either George or Leonard will knock the Clippers down from a title favorite to legitimate title contenders, though the same can essentially be said for any team if one of their respective star players goes down with an injury. Fortunately for the Clippers, the team has depth at every position and can use that depth to manage the minutes for the team’s top players.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Clippers effectively integrate Leonard and George into the team’s existing structure and win it all this season?

The Clippers pushed their chips into the middle of the table and went all in to win championships as early as this upcoming season. LA is banking on Leonard and George turning into one of, if not the most devastating star duo in the league. Leonard and George’s respective skill sets overlap in significant ways, but both stars have demonstrated an ability to play with other star players in the past. Both players also face injury issues that will be closely monitored by the Clippers’ medical and training staff throughout the upcoming season.

Having said all of that, the Clippers have the coaching, talent, depth, experience and star power to win the title this upcoming season. Other teams will push the Clippers and will stand in their way, but there is plenty of reason to believe the Clippers are the favorites to win it all this upcoming season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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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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