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Milwaukee Bucks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Milwaukee Bucks were impressive a season ago, but came up short in the postseason. Can the Bucks improve or will the weight of expectations come crashing down on one of the NBA’s most interesting teams? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Milwaukee Bucks in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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A new offense and a new MVP headlined the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018-19, one that resulted in 60 wins and their first conference finals appearance since 2001.

But a season that may look successful from the outside is deeply disappointing from the inside.

The Bucks were on top of the mountain, up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors and appearing poised to represent the Eastern Conference on basketball’s biggest stage.

They proceeded to drop four in a row and watched from home as the eventual champion took advantage of a dynasty that became ravaged by injury. Now, back with virtually the same roster (save Malcolm Brogdon), the winningest team from a year ago looks to learn from last season’s mistakes and get to The Finals in the most wide-open NBA season of the past decade.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Many things this writer predicted last season were wrong, but picking Mike Budenholzer as Coach of the Year was spot on. He unlocked even more out of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a playmaker, using player perimeter gravity as a formula to let the Greek Freak drive down the lane and take it from there. It’s either a pass to the corner, ferocious finish at the rim or a drawn foul nearly every time. While keeping Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez was absolutely necessary, it came at the price of losing Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers. Jon Horst brought in Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Dragan Bender, as well as Thanasis Antetokounmpo, as his offseason acquisitions. George Hill agreed to return in addition. The Bucks are still in the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. Let’s see if they take the next step to the NBA Finals in Year 2 under Coach Bud.

1st Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Bucks were two games away from reaching the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, they proceeded to lose four straight games to the Raptors. With Kawhi Leonard now in the West, the Bucks presumably should be the favorites to come out of the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is only getting better, which is a scary thought considering how good he already is. The front office has done a solid job surrounding him with players that can all stretch the floor and shoot from distance. Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were big pickups. They’re going to miss some of the defensive edge that Malcolm Brogdon brought to the team, but they’re hoping Matthews can replicate some of that. A lot really hinges though on Antetokounmpo’s development. He’s the best player in the Eastern Conference and the one who Milwaukee’s Finals hopes depend on. With Kevin Durant injured, the Bucks are the clear cut favorite in the East, with only the Philadelphia 76ers coming close as a potential challenger. The Finals is the goal this season and anything less, barring any major injuries, would be a failure.

1st Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

Even though the Bucks didn’t win the Eastern Conference last season, they will still have a huge target on their collective backs in 2019-20. They will be graded harshly this season if they don’t win the Eastern Conference – and I’m not sure they have the requisite depth to do so. But with Kawhi Leonard moving West, the Bucks are at least expected to find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.

While they mostly flew under the radar, the Bucks offseason was more detrimental than most assume – namely because they lost their clear third option from 2018-19 – Malcolm Brogdon – to the division-rival Indiana Pacers. Signing Wesley Matthews is a low-risk move that could partially mitigate the hurt from losing Brogdon, but he’s a different player than he once was and you can’t expect too much from him (at least he only costs $2.56 million). The Bucks also signed Robin Lopez to back up his brother, Brook. It’s not a home run move, but it adds much needed depth up front. However, that isn’t the only pair of siblings on the roster. They also continued to try to appease Giannis by signing his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo – and as far as appeasements go, this isn’t a bad start toward resigning Antetokounmpo to a long-term contact. But ultimately the Bucks will have to prove they can win at a high level.

1st Place – Central Division

-Drew Maresca

Lump me in with the group of people who think the Bucks are going to miss Malcolm Brogdon more than the Bucks will publicly admit. I might feel differently if Eric Bledsoe didn’t struggle so mightily in the playoffs, but that has been an ongoing issue and it’s hard to say with any confidence that will change this upcoming season. While losing Brogdon will be an adjustment for the Bucks, they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is still just 24 years old and improving seemingly every day. Milwaukee also did well in bringing back Brook Lopez and adding on his twin brother, Robin. The Bucks will need as much size and physicality as they can get with the Philadelphia 76ers adding Al Horford and now featuring a massive overall roster. I have been a believer in the Bucks for a long time and think the sky is the limit for this team this upcoming season. But I just think Milwaukee should have valued Brogdon more and done whatever was necessary to bring him back.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Stop me if you have heard this before – “He is wired differently, he’d never leave,” or, “He’s too loyal, he loves this market.” These have to be the phrases that strike fear into the hearts of the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office. Pick a superstar in the NBA that is no longer with the team that drafted him, and those phrases were said about them at this point in their careers too. While it is true Giannis Antetokounmpo has operated differently than almost anyone not named Tim Duncan, there is a reality that Giannis has just scratched the surface of how good he could be, and he was the runaway MVP a season ago. Imagine what he’ll be when he reaches his prime? That’s why the Bucks had to go all-in on their free agents this summer and why they can’t allow the season to get off the rails this year. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure for a franchise, especially a franchise that doesn’t have extremely bright lights and glamor appeal. The Bucks have an impressive win-now roster, which should make them one of the favorites in the East, but it also means there won’t be a big margin for error either.

1st Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Bucks made a significant sacrifice this summer, choosing to sign and trade Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, instead of forcing the guard to play the restricted free agent game with an offer sheet. Instead, the team dropped under the salary cap to re-sign Brook Lopez. Milwaukee also made a sizable investment in paying Khris Middleton $177.5 million over five seasons.

Now the franchise is right under the luxury tax line of $132.6 million. They have no additional spending tools, outside of minimum contracts, but could venture over mid-season trade. Before November, the team needs to decide on options for D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo. Looming over the horizon is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract which ends after the 2020-21 season. The clear goal will be locking him down to a Supermax extension when eligible next summer.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning league MVP also continues his reign as Milwaukee’s best offensive player as we move into 2019-20. Antetokounmpo won the MVP on the back of a season that saw his traditional counting stat averages finish at 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Antetokounmpo’s effective field goal percentage was a ridiculous 60.2 percent, his on/off difference was in the 92nd percentile at plus-8.7, and he was in the 98th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts at 129.9.

Giannis also led the NBA in player efficiency rating, and with a roster built exclusively around him, the Bucks were fourth in offensive rating and second in both effective field goal and true shooting percentage, trailing only Golden State in the latter two.

He did all of this despite still shooting 25.6 percent from three, which remains his only glaring weakness. However, last season Giannis took and made more threes than he ever has. He appeared to find a certain level of comfort stepping into them from the extended elbows during the back-half of the season; if he can get to league average on three or four attempts per game, it will really be over for the rest of the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Surprise, surprise: Antetokounmpo is also Milwaukee’s best defensive player. He was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, leading the Bucks to an NBA-best 104.9 defensive rating and finishing second in individual defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus.

He was also second in total rebounds and sixth in rebounds per game, the only non-Russell Westbrook perimeter player to finish in the top 15 in that category.

Antetokounmpo is the most physically gifted player in the league and uses his strength and size to switch across all five positions. You won’t find a more versatile defender, and this writer would bet on him beating out Rudy Gobert for a DPOY over the next few years.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This may be getting repetitive, but with a player this good, it’s hard to look anywhere else.

As mentioned, Milwaukee filled out their roster specifically to enhance Antetokounmpo’s strengths. Head coach Mike Budenholzer spaced the floor around Giannis (a la the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’s first stint with the team) and gave him all the room to drive and kick out to shooters. This resulted in Antetokounmpo leading his team in total assists and assists per game, and assisting on 29.3 percent of his teammates made field goals – in the 98th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Empowering Giannis to play as the de facto point guard for long stretches allowed him to become one of the better playmakers in the league. Entering year two of Coach Bud’s offense, it’s fair to expect him to be even better.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This isn’t a referendum on the rest of the team, but a testament to just how good Giannis was as a 24-year-old MVP. According to NBA.com, during clutch time Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring and shot 62.5 percent from the field while doing so. When the game is on the line, Milwaukee’s spread offense becomes even more pronounced, and they live and die by Giannis’s penetration and playmaking.

Their reliance on Giannis late in games was as evident as ever during Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs against Boston. Giannis scored 17 in the fourth quarter on his way to 39 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He was everywhere in the fourth – scoring isolation on the block, driving and kicking to shooter, and attacking the offensive glass. He’s the Bucks’ best player, and their best clutch one, too.

The Unheralded Player: Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez was a revelation last season. After Los Angeles inexplicably let him walk, Lopez came to Milwaukee and fully transformed from post-up specialist to seven-foot spot-up shooter. Lopez hit from three at a 36.5 percent clip on 6.3 attempts per game, often the beneficiary of Giannis drives. Lopez even extended his range and regularly hitting from far beyond the line and thus giving Antetokounmpo even more room with which to work.

Lopez’s ability to shoot as a big was invaluable in Milwaukee’s offense, but he was effective when he posted up as well. He may well be the second most useful offensive player on the Bucks’ roster, and he too should see a bump in production and efficiency in his second year in the offense.

Best New Addition: Kyle Korver

We’ve talked a lot about Milwaukee’s offense, both stylistically and as a vehicle to augment Giannis’s gifts. Not many players fit this bill better than all-time great shooter Kyle Korver. Korver enters his 19th season fourth on the all-time three-pointers-made list and with a career three-point percentage of 42.9 percent. He will provide another floor spacer on the perimeter and will likely be a factor down the stretch of tight games.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

After averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2017-18, Middleton regressed a tad last season. But, he still put up a line of 18.3/6.0/4.3 and was named to his first All-Star game. Middleton is the clear-cut second option to Giannis and operates as the Bucks’ secondary playmaker. Expect Middleton to bounce back and push for another All-Star bid this year.

2. Ersan Ilyasova

In his second stint with Milwaukee, Ilyasova had a quiet 2018-19. He averaged just 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game but continued to be reliable from three, shooting 36.3 percent. He’s been a dependable role player and has deep ties not only with the Bucks organization, but with Mike Budenholzer, and will remain a steady and trustworthy stretch big.

3. George Hill

Hill is another player who had a down 2018-19, playing his fewest minutes since he entered the league in 2008. His effective field goal percentage dropped below 50 percent to 49.3, and he shot 28 percent from three. So why is he a guy we like? Because Hill flipped a switch in the playoffs and became one of Milwaukee’s best players during their run.

In 15 games, Hill put up 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest on 53.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 61.9 percent and stepped in as a ball-handler when Eric Bledsoe performed his disappearing act.

Hill, like Ilyasova, is a seasoned veteran that can be counted on when the games matter. Last year was likely an aberration, and his play will level out again in 2019-20.

4. Sterling Brown

The full effect of Malcolm Brogdon’s departure has yet to be seen, but one place it will inevitably show up is in the form of opportunity for Sterling Brown. Brown played 58 games last season, starting seven and playing just under 18 minutes per game. He has a similar physical profile to Brogdon, and they have somewhat comparable per-36-minute averages. While Brown is certainly less efficient than Brogdon – who is sneakily one of the most efficient in the league – he should be able to fill some of the gaps left behind with his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Milwaukee’s strengths from last season will be the same this season. They will lean heavily on Antetokounmpo and, to a much lesser extent, Middleton. They should hold their ground as a top-five team in both points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage offensively and defensively. Even in a stronger Eastern Conference, they will likely again push for 60 wins and the top overall seed in the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

What were the Bucks’ strengths during the regular season became their weaknesses in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the four straight losses to Toronto, Giannis struggled (under his standards), and as a result, Milwaukee struggled mightily. The supporting cast was unable to pick up the slack. In a league where stars are doubling and tripling off for, the Bucks have only a fringe All-Star behind their MVP. When playoff defenses tighten up and force Giannis to shoot, can the role players do enough to get over the hump?

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Milwaukee get to The Finals after last year’s disappointing Eastern Conference Finals exit?

The 2018-19 season was filled with stretches that showed us how good Milwaukee could be. They won 60 games, had a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and looked sure to move on to face the Warriors in the championship. And then, they collapsed. No matter how well they space the floor and shoot threes, no matter how much better Giannis is, the same issues will arise.

Even with Kawhi Leonard’s departure and Kevin Durant’s redshirt year in the East, the lack of star power outside the MVP probably hurt them again. Philadelphia looks more Finals-ready than the Bucks.

Unless, of course, Giannis starts hitting threes. If he does that, all bets are off; Milwaukee could be back in The Finals for the first time since 1974.

– Drew Mays

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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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