Around this time last year, Jahlil Okafor had just led Duke to the national championship and was on the verge of being selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He would go on to join the Philadelphia 76ers, emerging as a potential franchise cornerstone and then becoming the team’s go-to option on offense once the 2015-16 NBA season started.
These days, Okafor has seen his name surface in trade rumors, he’s been on the receiving end of criticism, he’s rehabbing his right knee after undergoing surgery for a small meniscus tear and Philadelphia’s 10-72 record makes this by far the least successful basketball season of his life.
The 20-year-old has certainly seen better days.
However, Okafor had an effective rookie campaign despite Philadelphia’s struggles. He averaged 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists (while shooting 50.8 percent from the field). These are very similar to his college numbers – 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 assists (while shooting 66.4 percent from the field) – which were often praised. And it’s important to remember that Okafor was largely drafted so high because of his potential, which remains largely untapped given his age and development.
Still, Okafor ranked second among all rookies in points per game, third among rookies in rebounds per game and fourth among rookies in blocks per game. It’s also worth noting that Okafor was playing some of his best basketball right before his injury, averaging 20.3 points per game on 63.4 percent from the field in the six games after the All-Star break.
He made the All-Rookie First Team and showed glimpses of brilliance throughout the season, reminding everyone why he was the top high school recruit in the nation just two years back and a top-three pick 12 months ago.
“I think I learned a ton – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “I think I continue to learn every day, but I definitely learned a lot throughout this year.
“Now, I’m just focused on rehabbing. I had the surgery on my knee about 12 weeks ago and the physicians have basically just told me take my time and take it slow. My knee feels really good, but the people in my circle and the Sixers are just trying to make sure that I don’t try to rush back. I’m confident though because my knee feels good.”
Without question, dealing with the 72 losses was the hardest part of this season for Okafor. He had 18 times as many losses during his rookie campaign as he did during his lone collegiate season at Duke, so it was certainly an adjustment for him.
“I think anybody who is a top pick knows they’re going to go to a losing team; the reason any team gets a top pick is because they didn’t do so well the year before,” Okafor said. “So when I got picked up by the Sixers, I talked to Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) about what I should expect so it wasn’t anything I was shocked about. Of course I thought we’d do better than we did, but I wasn’t expecting to make the playoffs or anything like that.”
Losing 72 games is obviously hard for any competitor, but even more so for someone who hasn’t really lost much throughout their life. That describes Okafor, and the people who are close to the big man said that he had to learn how to deal with that level of failure since the scoreboard had typically been his friend prior to being drafted.
“He’s been a winner his entire life,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “In third grade, he won the AAU national championship; his AAU teams were always one of the best. In high school, he won a state championship. In college, he goes 35-4 and was the leading scorer on our national championship team as a freshman. He has three gold medals. He’s a guy who isn’t used to losing. And, obviously, losing isn’t fun. So he had to deal with losing more games this year than he had lost in his entire life. A lot of players don’t go through that to that magnitude. I thought he did a good job of staying positive and controlling what he could control.”
“He’s won at every level, whether it’s high school or AAU or college or USA Basketball, so I think it was a different year for him,” said close friend (and former Duke teammate) Quinn Cook, who said he speaks to Okafor daily. “But he’s always positive. He’s a people person, who was always with his teammates; he has a great relationship with his teammates there in Philadelphia. And I know his mindset was on winning. It wasn’t about scoring or making himself look good, he was always most concerned about winning. Whenever they would get a win, he’d be extremely happy. Then, if they would lose, he’d try to remain positive and look for bright spots.”
There were times when Okafor let his frustration get the best of him, such as when he was involved in an altercation with a heckler (which resulted in a two-game suspension levied by the Sixers).
Two silver linings that Okafor tried to focus on throughout the tough season were the supportive fans and the fact that he was getting the opportunity to develop his game by playing big minutes.
“Being with the Sixers is special because there’s such a passionate fan base here,” Okafor said. “That was a big positive for me this year, and it motivated me because I want to do well for the city. It’s great to walk around Philly and see that everyone is so passionate. They really want me to do well, and that means a lot. On top of that, with us being so young, I was able to play a lot of minutes and develop a lot of different things. Some rookies don’t get the opportunity that I got on the floor. Those were the biggest positives for me.”
Another positive Okafor pointed out was the fact that the team became a close-knit group. As Cook mentioned, Okafor was constantly around his teammates and enjoyed their company off the court. Okafor felt that the team progressively jelled as the season moved on too.
“I think [our chemistry] got better every day,” Okafor said. “Obviously we had some bad games, but we also had some really good games. We’re all really good friends off of the floor, so that makes it easier when you’re trying to figure things out on the floor. Ish Smith came in December and it was great to jell with him. He’s a very good point guard and it was a lot of fun when he joined the team.
“Everyone was close though. It was a fun season. Yes, we were losing, but we’re a bunch of young guys who are living our dream so we still had fun.”
Not so fun was the slew of criticism that Okafor faced throughout the year. Some understandably stemmed from his off-court actions and he certainly can’t let hecklers or instigators get under his skin and give them the reaction they so desperately want. Even though Okafor turned only 20 years old in December, he is the face of a franchise and must carry himself that way. With that said, a lot of the criticism seemed to be in reaction to the Sixers’ record (which doesn’t fall solely on Okafor, by any means) or based on how his fellow rookies were performing. But those kind of doubters come with being an up-and-coming player in the NBA, which is something he is learning.
“As I’m watching these playoffs, I’m just realizing that winning cures everything,” Okafor said. “Obviously, we lost a lot, so with that being said, I’m going to be criticized a lot. But, look, I watched Golden State lose a few games and I saw some fans and reporters criticizing Steph Curry. LeBron James loses and then he gets criticized a lot. When you lose, you get criticized. And I’m obviously nowhere near as good as those guys, so I wouldn’t expect any less criticism for me.”
Cook heard the criticism of his friend, and was perhaps even more annoyed by it than Okafor.
“It bothers me,” Cook said. “I know he sees what people are saying about him and he knows what’s going on, but he’s always positive. He doesn’t let those things affect him. He’s just staying positive and being a professional about everything.”
Okafor finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Karl-Anthony Towns (who received every first-place vote), Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Devin Booker. While some players may have taken this as a slight and used it as motivation, Okafor said that he doesn’t need any extra fuel for his fire and actually said he sees where the panel was coming from with their votes.
“I understood it. We were losing a lot and I didn’t play the last 23 games, so it was understandable,” Okafor said of the Rookie of the Year voting. “I was fortunate to make the All-Rookie First Team, so that was good for me and for Philadelphia. I know people in the city were excited. I’ve always been someone who is self-motivated though [so I don’t need to use that]. Of course there’s been some people who want to doubt and criticize me. Either way, I’m just going to work hard every day and get better.”
The first thing that the aforementioned critics typically bring up about Okafor is his defense. For some time, that has been the knock on Jahlil’s game and understandably so since it’s his biggest weakness. He has always been a terrific offensive player who is skilled beyond his years when it comes to post moves and footwork, but he didn’t defend at a high level. At Duke, the coaching staff had him carry so much of the offensive load that he wasn’t asked to do very much on the other end (to conserve his energy), so they built a strong defense around him.
Now, he is being asked to do much more defensively and must step up to the challenge. He knows this, but also believes he made strides on the defensive end throughout his rookie campaign.
“I think I’ve learned a lot; I’m getting used to defending NBA big men,” Okafor said. “I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well.”
Many high-level players entered the league as sub-par defenders and later significantly improved once they put in the time and effort (and took advantage of NBA resources), and Okafor has the potential to do the same.
Okafor said that the toughest players to match-up against throughout his first NBA season were Pau Gasol (who was one of his favorite players growing up), DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Scheyer, who watched Okafor closely throughout the season, noticed significant defensive progress from his former player.
“He’s such a gifted scorer naturally, but I thought he made great strides on the defensive end,” Coach Scheyer said. “I saw consistent effort on that end, and that’s something that people tried to pick on about him. I thought defensively he improved throughout the year, with his ball-screen defense, help-side defense and all that. … He loves the work. He wants to develop, and he loves the game so he’s always trying to get better. He’s constantly doing what’s necessary to take that next step in his game.”
Cook saw significant development from Okafor over the last year as well.
“He looked very athletic to me this year,” Cook said. “People don’t give him credit for his athleticism, but I thought he was in great shape – especially for a 19-year-old who’s the face of the franchise and playing an NBA schedule for the first time. He handled that very well. His free throw shooting got way better too. I think he was able to show his outside touch a little bit more as well. I think at Duke, he didn’t really get the chance to show his elbow moves or mid-range jumper because it was just so easy for him to score backing down at the basket. I think he showed some more of those things this year. Most importantly, I think he showed he can carry a franchise.”
Cook is right about Okafor showing his elbow moves. In fact, Okafor finished the season ranked fifth among players averaging 30 or more minutes in points per game from the elbows – trailing only Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh. He also had the seventh-best point percentage from the elbows among qualified players – behind only Darren Collison, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder and Serge Ibaka. It’s clear that Okafor’s offensive arsenal, which already included a vast array of post moves, is continuing to expand.
Sometimes, it can be difficult for rookies to earn the respect of NBA veterans, but Okafor’s ability to score the basketball warranted double teams and made life hard for opposing players.
“I only played him once, but he is always in attack mode,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert said of Okafor. “Even if you block him twice, you know he is coming back at you.”
“Offensively, I just thought he kept getting better and better,” Coach Scheyer added. “He had games where he was very efficient, even though he was being double-teamed as a rookie. The double-teams say a lot about how talented he is as an offensive player.”
Next year, it may be tougher for defenders to double-team him since the team will add reinforcements in the coming months. New general manager Bryan Colangelo is hoping to accelerate the rebuilding process, which means the Sixers could be active in free agency. Philly also used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on Ben Simmons, and seems poised to get recent lottery picks Joel Embiid and Dario Saric on the floor for the first time.
As far as Embiid’s progress goes, Okafor believes he’ll be ready to play next year.
“He looks hungry and motivated,” Okafor said of Embiid. “He’s obviously been criticized for some stuff that happened to him that he can’t control. I don’t like the criticism. But I see that he’s working extremely hard and, as far as I can tell, he’s ready to play next season.”
Which brings us to the trade rumors that have been making headlines. Because the Sixers have so much talent in their frontcourt and numerous holes elsewhere, trade speculation has been rampant.
Rumors have indicated that the Sixers have explored trading Okafor, with the Boston Celtics often being mentioned as a possible suitor. The two teams reportedly discussed a potential Okafor deal at the deadline and talks could resurface at some point this summer, especially since Boston has so many attractive assets that could entice the Sixers. Nerlens Noel has also been mentioned as a possible trade chip – perhaps because the two big men haven’t played very well when they’ve shared the court. Colangelo recently admitted that trade talks with other teams have taken place and that the centers have been discussed.
“I would just simply tell you that there’s been conversations and there’s been a lot of interest expressed in some of the players that we have, but nothing that’s made enough sense to pull the trigger on,” Colangelo told NBA.com. “We’ve talked about the five position in particular.”
When asked about the trade rumors, Okafor stated that he can’t tune them out completely. In this day and age, information spreads quickly and it’s very hard to ignore these things.
“Well, of course you hear it,” Okafor said of trade rumors. “You hear it because of people texting you and asking you and all of that stuff. There were trade rumors involving me throughout the season. Then, at the All-Star break, there were some more trade rumors. So I talked to my head coach, Brett Brown, and he just told me that as long as I’m in the NBA, that’s going to be part of my life. I try to block it out, but being an NBA player, it’s just something you have to deal with.”
Okafor spent this past season learning what it’s like to be an NBA player, experiencing both the good and the bad. His rookie season wasn’t always easy or enjoyable, but there were plenty of lessons to take away from the campaign, which should help Okafor and the Sixers in the long run.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Pacific Division
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Pacific Division.
In less than a month, the NBA is set to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida. And, in just a few short days, teams are set to report for an abbreviated training camp. With that in mind, we started a new series here at Basketball Insiders.
With basketball seemingly at our doorstep, we’re taking a look at some of the more pressing issues each team are set to face as they either make the trek down to Florida or wait at home for an abbreviated offseason. We’ve already covered the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions and, today, we’ll go over the Pacific.
The Golden State Warriors are the lone team that isn’t set to take the trip to Orlando. That said, they have plenty on their plate, as do the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. Let’s get into it.
Golden State’s Draft Decisions and Andrew Wiggins Future
If the season does in fact resume without any COVID-19 interruptions, the 2019-20 playoffs are going to feel different without the Warriors. The team that has represented the Western Conference in the past five NBA Finals was dealt a major blow with injuries to both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They spent much of the season trotting out young players and funky lineups, winding up in a good position to take home the No. 1 overall pick for their trouble.
Of course, what to do with that potential pick is the issue they must address. Both Curry and Thompson are expected to return to the court next season and the two of them, paired with a motivated Draymond Green, should find themselves in the midst of postseason contention. So, do the Warriors draft a player who they’ll potentially have to wait on to develop, or do they trade the pick, perhaps a veteran that could contribute right away?
The incoming rookie class is looking relatively top-heavy draft, with the potential to nab a possible star with a pick in the top five. Make the right pick, and Golden State could set themselves up for seasons to come. And, considering the franchise’s success with the draft (Curry, Thompson and Green were all drafted by the team), it’s easy to envision them making the right pick. That said, would they sacrifice that long-term success for a more immediate impact?
Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins is another matter the Warriors may have to address. In somewhat of a shocking move, the Warriors traded away D’Angelo Russell after only half a season and got Wiggins in return. Wiggins is a talented player, albeit one that hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations as a former top pick and has seen continued criticisms of consistency.
That said, Wiggins is perhaps one of the keys that could accelerate the Warriors’ path back to contention. He’s a talented scorer and should prove a better fit with the team than Russell had and, with Curry and Thompson set to shoulder the offense, they won’t need him to do too much to return to prominence. But, his contract could become cumbersome — how long are the Warriors going to pay Wiggins’ salary for production that may prove no better than Harrison Barnes’ during his time with the team?
Kelly Oubre’s Future in Phoenix
When the Suns make the trip to Florida this month, they’ll be without one of their key players in Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre, who went down with a torn right meniscus just before the NBA’s pause in March, will spend his time at home, recovering from said injury.
The 2020-21 season is going to be a big one for him, however.
Set for the final year of his contract and based on his play, Oubre would appear to be in line for a nice payday. Prior to the injury, Oubre was in the midst of a career year: 18.7 points per game, 45.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.2 percent shooting from the three-point line. It would seem to be a no-brainer to keep Oubre, who is only 24, as part of this young core.
The only thing that may complicate that a bit is the emergence of Mikal Bridges. In his second year in the NBA, Bridges impressed as he moved into the starting lineup and is poised to take advantage of Oubre’s absence from Orlando. And, next summer, just as Oubre is set to hit the market, Bridges will be eligible for an extension.
With Bridges in line for a rise, would Phoenix also pay Oubre to play much of the same role? The team re-signed him last summer to just a two-year deal, rather than something more long term and, next summer, they could risk losing him if they offer significantly less than some other teams are willing to pay.
Sacramento’s Push Forward
The Kings have been synonymous with futility for nearly a decade — lottery finish after lottery finish and they have almost nothing to show for it. They’ve been hampered by poor decision roster management. Their decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over say Luka Doncic is still up in the air, although many would tell you that it was a horrible choice.
What the team and fans can, and should, take to comfort however is that they are one of the teams being selected for the Orlando restart. When the NBA season was put on temporary hiatus, they were only a mere 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They have a potential franchise cornerstone in De’Aaron Fox. They must do everything in their power to ensure that he stays a King. They ran DeMarcus Cousins out of town, they cannot afford to do that with Fox.
Whatever happens in Orlando, they need to continue their push forward, to maintain an upward trajectory. If they lose Fox, they may never recover as a franchise. They need to ensure that the franchise has nowhere to go but up, or they may risk losing the team to somewhere else entirely.
Lakers Championship Window and Anthony Davis Free Agency
When the Lakers signed LeBron James two years ago, there was little question that they were looking to get back on track as a championship contender. After a few years of lottery-bound teams and high draft picks, they managed to package those assets and bring in Anthony Davis to pair alongside James last offseason.
And, while James has shown no signs of slowing down, at 35 years old and with two more years left on his current contract, there are questions as to how open the Lakers’ potential championship window is. Had this season been scrapped altogether, that would’ve been another year lost for the Lakers and James.
What complicates matters further is the fact that Davis is set to hit free agency this offseason. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was adamant about his decision not to sign a contract extension and allow himself to become a free agent. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense for him to do so — he can re-sign with the Lakers and earn even more money in the long term. But, if the Lakers fail to take home the title, could Davis turn into a potential flight risk?
Logic would say no, as the teams that stand to court Davis can’t offer nearly as much as the Lakers. But, if Davis doesn’t believe the roster can support him and his championship aspirations in the long term, anything is possible.
It may be unlikely, extremely so, even. But stranger things have happened, and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Clippers Championship Window
Who would’ve thought we’d ever say this, but the most pressing issue facing the Clippers is the exact same one as their across the hallway rivals, how big is their potential championship window? Injuries have been a bit of a concern for the Clippers this season, with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing time for various reasons. Both have dealt with major injuries in the past and the “load management” the two may require going forward should be at least mildly concerning.
They also face the same scenario as the Lakers in that, were the season to be scrapped, 2020 would be another year down the drain, a year of health (something that is never a given in the NBA) wasted. And, aside from the injury possibility, both Leonard and George can enter free agency next offseason.
Both players have options on their contract, so the Clippers would probably like to take advantage of this restart and push for a title as quickly as possible. If they fail to win either this season or next, then the possibility of Leonard and George reevaluating their options could become a likely scenario.
If for some reason, the NBA is forced to scrap their plans for the season resumption, each of these teams will be affected. Perhaps none more than the Clippers and Lakers who, due to roster makeup, have to push for a title run as soon as possible.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Atlantic Division.
The NBA’s return grows nearer, but new doubts bubble up each day thanks numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 tests and surging virus numbers in numerous states — including Florida, where games will be hosted. Regardless as to whether or not we all agree with its return, we are fewer than 30 days away from NBA basketball. With that in mind, we at Basketball Insiders are going through each division and identifying “6 Situations” we feel are worth keeping an eye on. We’ve wrapped up work on the Northwest, Southwest and Central. Today, we get to the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division is unique in that it’s the only division with four teams currently seeded in the NBA Playoffs (and one of three divisions with four teams returning for the final eight games). Still, many of the Atlantic Division’s major plotlines are rooted in the future and not the remaining eight games or the playoffs. There’s a lot of questions surrounding roster composition, coaching staffs and draft picks. So without further adieu, let’s explore the most compelling situations the Atlantic Division has to offer.
Knicks face another pressure-filled draft
The Knicks really, really need to make the right pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily need to win the draft lottery, but they must add another cornerstone player. They missed out on the opportunity to land a guaranteed star last year when they fell to the third overall pick in 2019 despite owning the worst record in the entire league — and that draft featured really only two sure things. They had almost as bad luck in 2018, when they won only 29 games (in 2017-18) and finished with only the ninth-worst record in a relatively star-studded draft. And so on and so forth.
But it’s not as if the Knicks are starting from scratch. There’s Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, who has exceeded any and all expectations set for him. There’s also RJ Barrett, who looks the part of at least a legitimate NBA starter – and maybe even, dare I say, a star. But that’s about all they can count on. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are promising, but possess red flags that hurt their standings with New York and their trade value around the league.
Much of the Knicks’ 2020 draft will be luck. They have the sixth-worst record in the league, so they possess only a 9% chance of winning the lottery and a 27.6% chance of landing a top-three pick. As much as “best player available” is an overused cliché (to the extent that it actually describes a bad strategy almost as often as it’s good), the Knicks should adhere to it. After all, they have so many needs and there’s really only one guy they’d prefer over everyone else (LaMelo Ball). Assuming they aren’t lucky enough to draft him, there’s still Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin — of whom plug into the Knicks lineup nicely. Even James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards would be nice additions, although their fit is redundant with Robinson and Barrett already in two, respectively.
Long story short, there are lots of options for the Knicks. New York must: A) not slide down in the lottery, which is out of their hands; and B) avoid making a bad selection. Ultimately, a number of teams will consider trading away lottery picks, and the Knicks have a number of other first-round picks they can pair with their 2020 pick to move up. There are lots of options they can consider. They just can’t mess this one up.
While the draft is only partially in their control, the Knicks must also select the right coach
The Knicks have had five head coaches since Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher in 2014, and they’ve had three team presidents. New team president Leon Rose appears to be fully invested in this coaching search though, lining up a number of interviews with some candidates, some of whom could also be auditioning for assistant roles. There are presently at least eight candidates, but there are clear front runners — and then ones who should remove themselves from consideration fairly quickly. The Knicks should almost certainly avoid chasing gimmicky candidates in hopes of them attracting additional talent — Jason Kidd is a good example. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds great, but the Knicks have been burned chasing star free agents before — and it’s definitely not a reason to hire a head coach. Another candidate the Knicks should probably avoid is Mike Woodson. Woodson is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he’s already led the Knicks. Granted, he led them farther than any other head coach since Jeff Van Gundy; but the Knicks need a coach to come in and motivate and teach their young roster — and while Woodson is seen as being player-friendly, he’s not thought of as a developer of talent.
Kenny Atkinson should get a long look. He was an assistant coach with the Knicks from 2008-2012, and he’s familiar with the pressure that goes along with being a head coach in New York (Brooklyn). More importantly, Atkinson is thought to be excellent at player development, which bodes well for his candidacy. Tom Thibodeau is another candidate thought under serious consideration. His relationship with Rose, his former agent, should make for a warmer interview. The young Knicks are probably not entirely ready for Thibodeau’s intensity, but he would improve team defense, (probably) mold Frank Ntilikina into a DPOY candidate and bring unparalleled professionalism to the locker room.
There are other candidates who deserve a fair look, too – including interim coach Mike Miller, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley and Becky Hammon. There are almost too many candidates, but that’s a good problem to have. Now, all the Knicks have to do is pick correctly.
Can Jacque Vaughn solidify his future in Brooklyn?
The Nets were riding incredibly high this time last year (although we all were, relatively speaking). Now, not so much.
The Nets will return to action as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There was essentially no chance of them leapfrogging Philadelphia, but they’re only a half-game up on Orlando. As much as we in the media built up the idea that Kevin Durant might return, that was always a very long shot. Even Kyrie Irving was unlikely to return given that he underwent shoulder surgery in early March. But still, Brooklyn’s young core could benefit from the opportunity to jell under coach Jacque Vaughn.
But much of what Brooklyn (and Vaughn) hoped to accomplish was predicated on the notion that the team was able to learn its recently appointed interim coach (and vice versa). Instead, they learned about Spencer Dinwiddie’s positive COVID-19 test, which will likely result in him missing the NBA’s return. Their (relatively) newly-appointed starting center DeAndre Jordan also announced that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and that he’ll sit out the remaining games. They also received the unwelcome news that Wilson Chandler was opting out of the remainder of the season. Oh, and rookie Nic Claxton will also miss the rest of the year due to shoulder surgery. So can Coach Vaughn still make a case to return as the Nets head coach next season?
Ultimately, the Nets were never going to advance without Durant and Irving. Will it be even harder for Vaughn to prove his worth now? Maybe. Without Irving and Durant, the Nets were never going to advance beyond the first round, regardless of if they draw the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks. But the Nets front office, led by general manager Sean Marks, has been particularly adept at reading between the lines. They traded for D’Angelo Russell when his value was at its lowest, drafted Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and picked coach Kenny Atkinson. While it’s unclear if Vaughn is the best man for the job, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to make his case for it.
Will the 76ers’ “Process” come to fruition?
After taking the eventual 2019 NBA Champions to the last second of regulation in a game seven, the Philadelphia 76ers were identified as one of a select few teams to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. After a strong start that was solidified with an exclamation point in a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, they lost their way — going 16-16 after the holiday.
Their struggles resulted in (or from) injuries to their two best players — Ben Simons and Joel Embiid, who missed 11 and 21 games, respectively. It got so bad that rumors surfaced about the 76ers potentially moving one or the other as soon as this offseason.
But the play stoppage may result in some positives for Philadelphia. Both Simmons and Embiid had time to heal from their ailments. And while they are in the unfortunate position of being tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker. Fortunately, Philadelphia has a pretty easy schedule with games against San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. They also play Indiana on Aug. 1. So the 76ers control their own destiny, at least as far as securing the fifth seed.
Unfortunately, their consolation prize would be a first-round matchup against Miami. While that’s a tall task for any team outside of the greater-LA area, Philadelphia needs to demonstrate progress. Organizationally, they’ve invested a lot of time in this rebuild. They’d like to see progress. In fact, the fate of this iteration of the 76ers might depend on at least advancing beyond the first round. If they don’t, Embiid and/or Simmons, coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand could all be elsewhere as of next season.
Does a deep run mandate that the Raptors bring back their core, again?
The Raptors have been the biggest thorn in the side of this writer – pretty much all season. I saw a golden opportunity for them to rebuild on the fly. Masai Ujiri knew better. He brought back most of the 2018-19 lineup and, sure enough, Toronto is entering the final eight games as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
That alone is far from a major victory, especially for the defending champions. Expectations traditionally remain high after winning. Even with Kawhi Leonard leaving town, the Raptors were clearly confident they could make a run. Further, there is the financial side of the business that probably factored in – remember, playoff games bring in significantly more revenue than the regular season. While that is in question now with games being hosted exclusively in Disney World, no one could have predicted the arrival of a pandemic when decisions were being made in the summer of 2019. And next year’s finances will present complications, too. Will the Raptors agree to continue spending without the guarantee of revenue? You can bet that the Knicks and Lakers will. Beyond them, nothing is certain in terms of spending.
But regardless if you believe in the direction taken by the Raptors for 2019-20 or not, they’ve out-performed expectations. If they fail to advance past even the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a strong case to be made for a quick rebuild. But if they advance the to the Conference Finals or beyond, can Ujiri convince ownership to get on board with dismantling a team that would have played in at least two straight conference finals and secured its first NBA Championship? In total, the team is only on the hook for about $85 million next year, but Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all enter unrestricted free agency. The Raptors will have to open up their wallets to retain even two out of those three, which would be a necessity if they hope to compete again next season — and that could make their 2020-21 salary untenable.
Another interesting aspect – will Ujiri even return? Rumors circulated – as they always do when New York is involved – that the Knicks were preparing Ujiri a monster offer. But they’ve since moved forward with new team president, Leon Rose. However, there are other high-profile teams that could use his help. Our very own Matt John wrote about a few in his The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference this past March. Philadelphia would be a great fit given how much talent they’re sitting on and their (likely) desire to improve if they don’t at least qualify for the conference finals. The Chicago Bulls are another team that could entice Ujiri to jump ship. Regardless, Toronto faces tough decisions following the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Boston’s present looks great. But what’s next?
Like Toronto, the Boston Celtics are looking down the barrel at some interesting salary cap implications. Boston’s roster looks well-structured considering its relative youth and versatility. But the challenge lies in its future — can Boston add to its core to the extent that it builds a serious contender?
As mentioned above, freeing up the cap space needed to sign another star will be made more complicated by the restrictions that a smaller cap will introduce. Gordon Hayward has a $34 million player option for 2020-21. Prior to the monumental financial challenges presented by COVID-19, this writer expected him to opt-out and sign a long-term deal. But the salary cap will take a significant hit, and the days of teams handing out $30 million per year are probably over for now, at least for players who aren’t major difference makers. So, expect to see Hayward on Boston’s roster next season, as well as on their payroll. Ultimately, the Celtics will have approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary next season, which includes Enes Kanter’s player option and Tatum’s $9.89 cap hit, but not counting any other team options like Daniel Theis ($5 million), Robert Williams ($2 million) or Semi Ojeleye ($1.75 million).
Looking past next season, Tatum will almost certainly sign a long-term extension (this offseason, but his 2020-21 cap hit will be unaffected) that cannibalizes much of Boston’s future cap space. There’s also the new CBA, which will be hurt by COVID-19, and the NBA and Daryl Morey’s dust-up with China, which originated last summer, to factor in.
So that leads us to an interesting question: Are the Celtics good enough to win a championship as is? If they decide the answer is no, they’ll be severely restricted in what moved they can make. Long-term implications are difficult to anticipate; but in the short-term, Ainge and the Celtics should look to add veterans willing to sign lucrative, short-term deals, looking to chase championships. Players like Danilo Gallinari – although many in the know believe Gallinari will sign with Miami – or Derrick Favors would be good additions to the already talented Celtics. They’d add much-needed talent and (hopefully) accept slightly smaller roles for the opportunity to contend. And getting Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to help with recruiting would go a long way.
Like all divisions, the Atlantic Division’s teams possess their share of issues to sort out. No Atlantic Division team is poised to win now, but many are on the right track. If these six situations are handled correctly, all five teams will be in better places in the near future.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Central Division
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by taking a look at issues that teams in the Central Division will have to confront in the near future.
Bringing up situations for the Central Division feels a little more suitable, seeing how three of the eight teams that were left out of the 22-team bubble are from that group of five. 60 percent of the division’s season is already over and looking towards what next year’s plans are. However, that doesn’t mean those in this division whose seasons will continue next month don’t have pressing issues that need to and will be addressed soon enough.
Let’s take a look.
Milwaukee Bucks – Can they convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around?
That’s right, Bucks fans. You’ve probably heard it about a thousand times by now, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more between now and next summer. Giannis’ next deal will be on everyone’s mind for the next year. The Bucks can dominate the regular season all they want. If that dominance doesn’t translate into any substantial postseason success, then that could be all the motive for Giannis to jump ship.
Giannis has pledged his loyalty to Milwaukee on numerous occasions, and the Bucks have built a team that fits around him like a glove. Yet, there still seems to be this stigma that’s making everyone uneasy when talking about his long-term status with the team. Oddly enough, this unease hasn’t stemmed from anything Giannis has done, but from what some of his compatriots have done over the past decade.
LeBron James set the standard for superstar players choosing to leave their original upper-tier teams for greener pastures, and since then, we’ve seen the same happen over and over again with players who followed in his footsteps. Kevin Durant did it. Kawhi Leonard did it. LeBron’s done it twice more since “The Decision.” No matter what Giannis says or how the Bucks fare, no one knows how this will play out until the Greek Freak signs his name on the dotted line.
Of course, if the Bucks win the championship this year or next — which as we all know is definitely in the cards — then all of these concerns most likely will be put to bed easily, but we’ll have to see it first. It won’t be long now before we see if the Bucks can do enough to keep the best player the franchise has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Indiana Pacers – How will they approach the Victor Oladipo contract situation?
This is a potential issue that needs to be brought up more than it has been. Oladipo has been the symbol of the Pacers’ new era of basketball — bedazzling the masses, grinding out the games, and above all else, exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of whether he can be the same player he was before his knee balked may put him at odds with the Pacers when they discuss his next extension.
The ‘Dipo we got from 2017-18 would definitely be worth every penny of a max extension, but the Pacers had that guy for only one season. No one knows if that version of Victor Oladipo will resurface. The playoff bubble will be a golden opportunity for him to show that he can still be that guy, and even if he’s not, he’s got another season to do the same. Come to think of it, there may not have been an individual player who benefited more from this time off than Oladipo did now that he had even more time to rest and rehab his knee.
Oladipo definitely showed some encouraging signs before the season halted, but what if he doesn’t get back to that level? Do the Pacers give him a max extension on good faith and/or sentiment? Teams have done that, and some came to regret it. It’s worth mentioning that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Oladipo gets back to full health, but is not quite able to get back to where he was. He was an above-average player before his surprise ascension in Indiana. There’s nothing wrong with having a guy like that locked up long-term…at a modest price.
Knowing his story, no one in the world should be rooting against Oladipo rediscovering his old form. We do have to ponder what his and the Pacers’ options are if he doesn’t.
Indiana Pacers – Will they end the Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner pairing once and for all?
All signs certainly point to yes. The two of them have gotten better as a pairing — together they have a plus-2.1 net rating which is a step up from the past — but that may have to do with Sabonis continuing to stake his claim as one of the league’s best young bigs while Turner has stayed the same, give or take. They still aren’t a great duo, and they probably never will be.
So the next move would be to trade one of them, with the odd man out indisputably being Turner. Sabonis has morphed into an All-Star this year while Turner’s progress continues to stagnate. At the same time, it’s a nice privilege to have two young bigs who, even if they don’t play well together, can alter the course of the game with their individual skill sets.
In all honesty, they don’t have to trade either of them if they don’t feel a pressing need to. They have both locked up on reasonable contracts. Neither has expressed any issues playing with one another. They would have to figure who would be better for which matchup, but that’s not the hardest task. Until someone wants out, Indiana can ride this out with the duo intact.
Odds are, Turner probably will get traded in the near future, but it’s not like the Pacers will be beyond desperate to get rid of him.
Chicago Bulls – Is Jim Boylen the next man to go?
Again, the obvious answer should be yes. This season alone, Boylen’s created quite a track record for baffling decisions that have led to a disconnect in the locker room, bizarre choices at the end of games, and of course, another season ending with a sub-.500 record. The only difference between this season and last is that there was quite a bit of optimism coming into this season.
A coach who’s done what Boylen has would usually get the first ticket out of Chicago once the season has concluded. Even with his job security remaining a hot topic for a good chunk of the season, he is still employed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, puzzling pretty much everyone in the NBA outside of Bulls’ ownership.
Chicago has already made some shake-ups in their front office by replacing Gar Forman and John Paxson with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. To some degree, this is tough for the Bulls seeing how they extended Boylen after last season, but this is about team progress more than anything. If the Bulls think Boylen is the man for the job despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, well then that’s their choice.
It just seems like, at this point, they’re being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate.
Cleveland Cavaliers – What direction exactly are they going in?
The Cavaliers were bad this year in general, but strangely enough, there were some signs of encouraging play both early on and at the end. They actually started the season okay — going 4-5 in their first nine games — before the whole John Beilein saga commenced (#SlugLife). Then, following Beilein’s resignation, the team actually started picking it up a bit before their season prematurely ended. Even if they wound up with the worst record in the Eastern Conference — 19-46 — they won half of their last 12 games.
Their outlook for the future is kind of difficult to see. They have a promising arsenal of young talent — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. — and they also have a fair amount of veterans on the team in Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson that makes their roster pretty confusing. Love’s been on the trade market since pretty much the start of last season, yet is still on the team. Then, when the team’s already way out of playoff contention, they go out and get Andre Drummond because… well, why not get Andre Drummond? Especially at the price Cleveland paid?
Now, they are in discussions to extend Drummond and Tristan Thompson’s free agency is coming up. They also have a potentially high lottery pick coming their way. The results J.B. Bickerstaff got as the coach were promising, albeit too short to draw conclusions. So, what exactly is the plan going on in “The Land?” Their roster is full of guys who are on different timelines right now. Are they going to commit to the youth movement, or are they going to cash in to acquire a star or two? Because there are definitely going to be some available this summer.
Even though the Cavaliers have been pretty bad since LeBron’s second departure, since they’ve kept a good chunk of their veterans, they haven’t embraced a rebuild. Perhaps they’re preparing to make a big splash, or maybe they are delaying the inevitable. No matter what, they could be an interesting player in what’s going to be a pretty boring offseason.
Detroit Pistons – What do they do with Blake Griffin?
You know, Detroit definitely has one of, if not the bleakest outlook in the league right now. They only have three players on the roster that have the potential to be more than they are right now: Christian Wood, who they lucked into; Luke Kennard, who they tried to trade(?!); and Sekou Doumbouya, who is largely raw and not much else. Other than that, they have mostly roster filler and veterans whose services would be better used elsewhere in Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway. They paid the price for waiting too long to trade Andre Drummond, and now, they might be stuck with Blake Griffin for the duration of his max contract.
Getting a nice shiny lottery pick will probably help things a bit, but whether prime Blake is coming back or not, he really does not have a place on this roster anymore (not that he really had one before?), and that might be the exact problem in Motown. With all the surgeries accumulating, it’s tough to foresee if we’re going to get the same Blake that we’re used to seeing. Granted, prime athletic Blake will never be back, but the one that accommodated his game because of said lost athletic ability may not be there, either.
If, by some miracle, Blake shows enough to draw interest, Detroit should take the first offer it gets because this team is definitely headed for a rebuild and has absolutely no use for the former MVP candidate. The chances of that happening are not good in the slightest. Blake’s injuries continue to pile up, and that contract is pretty expensive to take on. It would have been easier to take on before Coronavirus got in the way, but that’s like saying a turtle will race better than a snail.
It’s a shame that a great player like Blake Griffin may have to spend the remainder of his prime — if his prime is still here — on a team that has no use for him, but that’s life in the NBA.
Unlike our previous installments, these situations are going to be looked into much sooner than later. Much like our previous installments, none of them have straightforward solutions.