The Los Angeles Clippers go into the 2018-2019 season with optimism. The team dealt with injuries throughout last season, often resorting to players called up from the team’s G-League affiliate. Despite the constant roster turnover, the team still played competitive basketball and only had their playoff hopes dashed in the final days of the season. Now the team hopes that bringing back a fully healthy roster plus a few new additions could produce a return to the postseason.
To make it back to the playoffs, the Clippers will have to adjust to the loss of long-tenured center DeAndre Jordan, who finally completed his departure to Dallas this offseason. Also standing in the team’s way is the increasingly competitive Western Conference. Numerous teams have objectively improved this offseason and will also be vying for a postseason berth. Count their locker room rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, among the teams that could squeeze the Clippers out of a lower end playoff berth.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
And just like that, it was over. Just one summer after Chris Paul began the teardown of the once Lob City Clippers, DeAndre Jordan put the final nail in that coffin when he agreed to (finally) sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Coming on the heels of Blake Griffin’s trade to Detroit before February’s deadline, arguably the greatest era in Clippers history has come to an end. A full rebuild, if there’s even interest in such a thing, would likely have to wait a year – high-priced veterans like Tobias Harris, Marcin Gortat and Avery Bradley will be on the books until then, with Danilo Gallinari on for another year after that as well. This doesn’t seem to be a strong enough squad on paper to do much more than threaten for the bottom West playoff seeds, and even that might be asking a lot. There might come a time next offseason where the front office has to choose between a full rebuild around names like Jerome Robinson and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, both acquired in the 2018 draft, and something of a hybrid plan for contention minus a true star on the roster.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Los Angeles Clippers’ upcoming season will be an interesting experiment in assessing the value of star players. The Clippers have quality players at every position and exceptional depth on their bench, but no star players. The NBA is a star-driven league, so it may be the case that the Clippers will be facing an uphill battle on most nights. However, the Clippers are well-positioned to pivot midseason and prioritize the future rather than chasing the playoffs this season should they lose pace in the Western Conference. Los Angeles has several players on favorable contracts who could be desirable trade targets for contending teams looking for a little help. Give the front office credit for making bold moves that positioned the team to have the flexibility to compete now and be free agent players next offseason, at which time they hope to land a superstar like Kawhi Leonard.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
During the Lob City days, the Clippers had plenty of star power but were held down by their lack of depth. Now that they have moved on entirely, they have done a complete 180. A roster once devoid of depth is now swimming in it, while the star power in Clipperland went from magnificent to non-existent – all due respect to Tobias Harris. The Clippers probably won’t come close to attaining the same success they did years ago. Yet, it’s hard not to like the versatility they added. What may help the Clippers is that now that Lob City is done, there’s not as much pressure on them. Better yet, for the first time in years, the Clippers are likable again.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Matt John
For the first time in a long time, Lob City is no more. With the departure of DeAndre Jordan to Dallas, there is nobody left from that era of Clippers basketball. It’s full speed ahead and a brand new challenge for Doc Rivers, whose roster now boasts a large collection of youth to go with a few veterans to guide them throughout the season. Patrick Beverley is eager to get back from injury and has already said his piece on who the best team in town is. Along with Lou Williams and Avery Bradley, he’ll be mentoring rookie guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. It’s also a year for Tobias Harris to ascend to the elite level. Unfortunately, the Western Conference will be too difficult to break into playoff contention.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
Ehh. The Clippers are such a hard team to buy into as anything more than a first-round playoff contender. Outside of Tobias Harris, who do the Clippers have in terms of star-level players? DeAndre Jordan’s exit will impact them defensively. Their draft was decent but lacked an impact player. There just isn’t anything that leads you to believe that the Clippers are gearing up for a serious run. They should be good enough to win 40-45 games, but what’s that mean in the West? The Clippers look more destined for the lottery than a serious post-season run. We’ll see how it ultimately plays out, but there just isn’t much to get excited about.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Tobias Harris
Should the Clippers make the playoffs, they will do so in large part based on their collective offensive versatility. Forward Tobias Harris is in position to lead the way on that end of the court. The Clippers acquired Harris from Detroit midway through last season in a trade that saw Blake Griffin depart from Los Angeles. Having already lost Chris Paul prior to last season, Griffin’s departure left the Clippers suddenly without star power. Lou Williams and Harris stepped up to fill the void. Harris essentially replaced Griffin and showed the ability to score down low when necessary, on the move and from the outside as an acceptable three-point shooter.
The Clippers are now the beneficiaries of the consistent year to year progression of Harris’s game. Harris doesn’t draw headlines the way Griffin did, but is an effective substitute who’s both younger and a more cost-effective lead option for the Clippers. Look for Harris to further settle into his lead role on the team and continue to build his game in his first full season with the team.
Top Defensive Player: Luc Mbah a Moute
Clippers fans are quite familiar with the nuances of Mbah a Moute’s game. Mbah a Moute played for the Clippers for two seasons before leaving last offseason to join Chris Paul in Houston. With Houston, Mbah a Moute showed the same defensive versatility and intelligence that made him a valuable contributor until he suffered a shoulder injury. The injury left Mbah a Moute unavailable at the start of the playoffs and unable to make the same contributions in a close playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.
Having just turned 32, Mbah a Moute returns to a deep Clippers squad that has a lot of talent on the offensive end and a few difference makers on the defensive end available to balance the team. Mbah a Moute has the size (6-foot-8), length, mobility and strength to cover on the perimeter and handle bigger players in the post when necessary. So long as injuries and age don’t significantly slow him down, Mbah a Moute is the Clippers’ top defensive option. Guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley are the other defensive specialists the Clippers will lean on this season.
Top Playmaker: Lou Williams
In the past, Lou Williams has generally played a more focused role — lead the second unit as a primary scoring option and secondary playmaker. As mentioned, last year’s Clippers squad was not exactly like most teams. The team spent the whole season overcoming injuries to other key players. With players missing left and right, Williams stepped up with one of his finest seasons. In 79 games (only 19 in the starting lineup), Williams averaged 22.6 points, 5.3 assists in 32.8 minutes per game, all career highs. In addition to his career-high assist numbers, Williams also shot and made career-high numbers from three-point range, making him especially potent on offense.
Williams took on a bigger role for the Clippers last season than he has for other teams in the past. He thrived despite often being the focal point of opposing teams’ defenses and, in doing so, earned himself his second NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. While the team has a glut of capable guards, Williams is coming off a career season and will again serve as a key playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Lou Williams
This title goes to Williams, who is one of the NBA’s best natural scorers. In the clutch, Williams can rely on his ability to break down his defender one-on-one, score from mid-range or effortlessly drop a floater near the basket. The attention Williams draws from opposing defenses can also be used to the team’s advantage with correct play calling. The Clippers have a bevy of options at guard, but none can put opposing teams on their heels like Williams. Also a quick shout out to Harris, whose shooting percentages are quite strong as defined by NBA.com’s clutch numbers, although Harris was involved in far fewer clutch games/minutes as Williams last season.
The Unheralded Player: Montrezl Harrell
This Clippers squad has a few players that have not received a lot of attention for their efforts and impact. With the Clippers having a limited number of national broadcasts this season, that may not change any time soon. Regardless, count Montrezl Harrell as a player that quickly made his impact felt last season when the team needed it the most. At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Harrell is quick and surprisingly light on his feet. Harrell measures up as a versatile power forward/center who can make a significant impact on any given night with his intensity, hustle and physicality.
Although he only started three games last season, Harrell was a key impact player for the Clippers despite his lack of shot blocking. In stretches where the team would go stale, Harrell’s intensity, offensive rebounding and knack for finding the ball not only helped to keep the team afloat but often made him the best player on the floor. This season the Clippers will likely start center Marcin Gortat (acquired in an offseason trade for Austin Rivers) with Harrell coming off the bench. However, keep an eye on his minutes as the team will likely rely on Harrell just as much, if not more than, Gortat at center. With the addition of Mike Scott and the return of Danilo Gallinari, Harrell is more likely to play the majority of his minutes at center.
Best New Addition: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
In the 2018 NBA Summer League, fans got their first glimpse of the next crop of the league’s top rookies. Among this year’s lottery picks, Wendell Carter, Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stood out with their play, which raised the question of whether they each should have been picked sooner. Gilgeous-Alexander had flashes of brilliance in Summer League, using hesitation dribbles and off-speed moves to keep defenders off balance while allowing him to get to the basket seemingly at will. Around the basket, he showed a deft touch and the ability to set up teammates through dump off passes or kick outs to shooters on the perimeter.
Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a starting-quality lead guard with some star potential. While not the fastest or most explosive athlete, with his timing and length Gilgeous-Alexander could also grow into a strong defensive presence in the backcourt. The Clippers hope that both he and fellow rookie guard Jerome Robinson grow into the backcourt of the future.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Tyrone Wallace
Although these are the quiet days of the offseason, the Clippers did make a surprise move recently by matching an offer sheet on restricted free agent Tyrone Wallace. This was a surprise mostly due to the glut of guards the team already has going into next season. With the multitude of injuries that left the team bereft of talent, Wallace provided the Clippers with consistent production. Coming from the Clippers’ G-League affiliate team, Wallace used his length and creativity to score ball despite not having a particularly reliable jump shot. Wallace proved capable of playing heavy minutes later in the season while dealing with the restrictive rules surrounding travel and practice time that G-League call-ups have to deal with. With a new contract to stay in LA, Wallace will have to continue to develop his game and hope for another opportunity through trade or injuries to make an impact this upcoming season.
2. The defensive duo of Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley
Patrick Beverley came to the Clippers last season to help ameliorate the loss of Paul and to lead the way with his defensive intensity and leadership. Unfortunately, Beverley’s season quickly came to a close due to injuries. Likewise, Avery Bradley’s tenure with the Clippers hardly registered a blip as he was quickly shut down due to injury concerns. Now both players are apparently healthy. The duo may serve as the starting backcourt for the Clippers and could help to buoy a team that lacks a defensive anchor in the front court.
3. Boban Marjanovic
Hidden in the large haul the Clippers received for Blake Griffin is center Boban Marjanovic. Marjanovic has been and likely will continue to serve as a situational player capable of scoring in bursts. Unfortunately, when he hits the court, the risk is his slow speed and lack of mobility make him a huge target for opposing offenses. This risk-reward balance keeps Marjanovic from hitting the court on some nights. Regardless, Marjanovic continues to be a fan favorite based on his infectious personality and entertaining friendship with Harris. With Jordan gone, there are still opportunities for Marjanovic to make it on the court, especially if the Clippers are hunting for a few easy buckets against teams who don’t play a traditional center.
4. Jerry West and the Clippers’ front office
With the 2017-2018 season looming, the Clippers were at a crossroads. The team risked a huge backslide if Paul or Griffin, or worse both, would have left and signed elsewhere in free agency. As it works out, the team managed to turn Paul into numerous players and assets and did the same with Griffin a few months later. Instead of being locked far over the cap with a core that had peaked years earlier, the Clippers’ front office orchestrated a rebuild on the fly. The Clippers now have a potential backcourt of the future, numerous trade assets and the ability to sign one or two high profile free agents next offseason.
– James Blancarte
Depth, Versatility and Roster Flexibility
Should the injury bug strike again, the Clippers have the depth and versatility to not miss a beat. The Clippers also players on favorable contracts that contending teams may be interested at the trade deadline. The Clippers are well-positioned to compete now and make opportunistic trades mid-season should it become apparent that they are not able to maintain pace in the playoff race.
– James Blancarte
Star power and Defense.
The trades of Griffin and the offseason loss of Jordan leave the Clippers lacking in star power and national recognition. However, even without star power, the team does have the depth and offensive weapons to stay competitive. But the team’s defense may also be an Achilles heel. As mentioned, the team does have notable individual defenders but lacks a reliable shot blocking presence around the rim.
– James Blancarte
The Burning Question
Can the Clippers make the playoffs with this year’s roster or will they look to the future?
As mentioned, the team has talent across the roster to compete for the playoffs after coming close last season. However, injuries could slow down a team that can ill afford to fall behind the intense competition. In addition, the Clippers start their season with an extremely tough first few weeks, which could derail the season early on. If this is too much to overcome, the team might start looking to the future. Despite assurances from the front office that the team will compete at a high level, not making the playoffs will allow the Clippers to keep their top-14 protected first round pick next season. Plus, the team could find it opportune to trade away one of the team’s other guards to make way for the team’s rookie guards.
– James Blancarte
NBA Daily: The Conference Final Losers’ Outlook
After being ousted over the weekend, Matt John takes a look at what went what Boston and Denver have to think about as they enter this offseason.
First off, let’s take a minute to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami HEAT for making the NBA Finals. It’s funny how this was a matchup everyone had dreamed of circa 2010 and, ironically, we finally have it – but LeBron James is on the opposite side this time! Also, it is certainly cool that this year two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year managed to work all the way up to the championships. We’ve seen NBA finalists who missed the playoffs the year prior, but we’ve never seen both sides do just that.
There will be plenty of in-depth analysis leading up to when the finals begin tonight, and you can find it anywhere easily. That won’t be found here. Here, we’re going to discuss the teams that came the closest to the final round, and some of the uncertainty they are going to face heading into next season.
Getting to the conference finals can be a big deal depending on where your team is at. For Boston and Denver, even though both are pretty young, getting to the conference finals has different gravity to both of them. Let’s explain.
Boston – So Close, Yet So Far
Should we be impressed or have cause for concern that Boston has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals? They’ve been able to do that with very differently constructed teams between all three of their appearances since 2017, but not getting over that hump after that many tries makes it less and less of a milestone.
The first two were defensible. In 2017, they were firmly in the “Just happy to be there!” camp, and, unless LeBron had all four of his limbs severed, there was no way that team was beating Cleveland. Those LeBron/Kyrie Cleveland teams were superteams overshadowed by the super-duper Warriors. With or without a healthy Isaiah Thomas, that Cavaliers team was going to roll all over them.
They definitely had a better shot the following year. The East was substantially weaker with Kyrie out of Cleveland, and Boston overachieved, but they were relying on a pair of young wings to take them not only to the finals, but to beat the best player of this generation too. The Cavaliers were definitely vulnerable, but not much can be done when inexperience is going up against arguably the most dominant version of LeBron James we’ve ever seen.
This time feels different though. Miami definitely had fewer holes – if not, none at all – that could be exploited on their roster. Even so, Boston, it seemed, had the more talented team. This was a much closer series than the final outcome made it look. It all simply came down to late-game execution. You’d think Boston’s more upfront talent would have given them the edge in that department, but the HEAT were the ones who made the big shots when it mattered.
That’s why this time, it doesn’t feel like a moral victory. This time, they are left with questions. Like, why did it take them until Game 3 to run plays through Jaylen Brown? Why is Marcus Smart taking the second-most shots in the most crucial game of the season? Should they keep their five best players if they haven’t shown they can play together? If they are serious about winning a championship, how are they going to make sure their opponents take as little advantage of Kemba’s defensive inadequacies as possible?
As disappointing as the season ended for them, Boston still has to feel good knowing that they have the league’s most talented young wing combo in the entire league and has built an excellent core around them. They could chalk up losing the conference finals to bad luck more than anything. The Bubble deprived them of playing in front of their fans. Gordon Hayward’s absence forced the team to have to exert a lot more for the majority of the playoffs than they expected to. Not to mention he clearly wasn’t 100 percent physically when he came back. Still, this was a golden opportunity to take another step forward and they blew it.
Among the multitude of reasons for why they fell short, this series also served as a subtle reminder that even in a smaller league, you can only get away with a lack of size for so long. The Celtics ran the center by committee approach about as well as they could have reasonably expected, but it was clear as day that the Celtics lacked a reliable big behind Daniel Theis. Enes Kanter and the Williams bros. all had their moments, but Brad Stevens never really trusted any of them over the long haul. They got away with that before facing Miami because Joel Embiid consistently ran out of gas, and Toronto’s frontcourt was designed more to stop elite size than to take advantage of a lack of it. Bam Adebayo killed Boston all series long on both ends of the floor (minus Game 5), and we’re only seeing the start of his potential superstar career.
With Jayson Tatum taking the leap and Jaylen Brown emerging as an elite two-way wing, the Celtics are no longer playing with house money and firmly entering the win-now phase. If their progress continues to stagnate, then some changes may be in order.
Denver – The Beginning or a Fluke?
They built this small market team from the ground up as opposed to having superstar players join forces to form a contender. There’s nothing wrong with that considering the players that do that just want a winning legacy, but seeing a team build a contender from scratch just feels purer when they make it to the top. That’s also why seeing a team like Milwaukee fail miserably in the playoffs is pretty heartbreaking.
On the surface, the Nuggets have all the ingredients in play to create both a dynasty and their most successful run as a franchise. We know that as long as they have Nikola Jokic, who has solidified himself as the best center in the league, Denver should always be near or at the very top of the Western Conference for the next decade. Although, being a top seed in the conference and being a contender can be two mutually exclusive terms.
The Nuggets’ progress has been far more encouraging than discouraging since last season. They were within inches of making the Western Conference Finals last year, and were a Mason Plumlee brain fart from potentially being up 2-1 on the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray finally found his consistency. Outside of some ill-advised comments about his coach, there’s a lot to like about Michael Porter Jr. Jerami Grant’s going to get a nice paycheck this offseason. Gary Harris changed the entire landscape of Denver’s defense. Monte Morris and Paul Millsap were actually pretty reliable in the roles they were given. Oh, and they competed to the very end without one of their most important players, Will Barton.
Really, the concerns with Denver don’t pertain to them but more specifically to their surroundings. Everyone outside of presumably Oklahoma City is going to try to make the playoffs next year out West. Golden State will have a clean slate of health. As will Portland. In Year 3 of Luka, Dallas’ ceiling will only get higher. Pretty much every team that didn’t make the playoffs has room to grow, and the ones that did aren’t going to just give away their spot.
Still though, there are loose threads in Mile High City. We won’t know if Murray’s play was a young stud taking his next step into superstardom or if it was a facade from someone catching lightning in a bottle inside the Bubble. MPJ’s returns are extraordinary, but let’s see if his body can hold up long-term. What exactly are they going to do with Bol Bol?
Now that their offseason has arrived, they have to decide if they should run it back or make changes to strike while the iron is hot. History suggests that there’s no right or wrong answer. Miami did the latter mid-season, and now they’re in the finals. The Los Angeles Clippers also did the latter mid-season, and they’re sitting at home. Boston did the former, and you can argue both sides for them. Not having enough bench help hurt them, and yet a healthy Gordon Hayward could have put them in the finals.
Denver’s come along nicely since the start of the Nikola Jokic era, and they still haven’t hit their ceiling yet. What matters most is that they do everything to get to their ceiling. How they do that is the real question.
Making the conference finals is a massive stepping stone for young teams. For Boston, this was an all too familiar territory. For Denver, this was monumental. What both need to focus on is how they’re going to take it one step further next season. Or, at the very least, make sure they don’t take a step back.
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.
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.
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.
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.