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NBA AM: Miami HEAT 2017-18 Season Preview

With their sights set on returning to the playoffs, Basketball Insiders previews the 2017-18 Miami HEAT.

Basketball Insiders

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The Miami HEAT were one of the best stories in the NBA last season. For a team that fell just short of the playoffs, the HEAT certainly played as well as any team in the league in the second half of the year.

Of course, it wasn’t pretty during the first half of the season. The team went 11-30 during their first 41 games and were practically written off by most experts. But this group stayed together and continued to chip away and would compile a 30-11 record in the second half of the season to narrowly miss the playoffs.

This HEAT team opted to bring back most of its free agents this summer and they feel confident with this group moving forward. Will it be enough to return to the postseason?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Miami HEAT.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When Pat Riley is pulling the strings for your organization, anything is possible.

At least, that was the sentiment this summer when the HEAT organization was hopeful that it had a chance at landing prized free agent Gordon Hayward. Ultimately, Hayward wound up in Boston, but that probably won’t keep the HEAT out of this season’s playoffs.

With a healthy Dion Waiters alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, Miami has a formidable cast to make a run at the playoff spot they missed ever so slightly last season. Missing the playoffs last year did, however, allow Miami to land Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky Wildcat impressed in the summer league and should prove as a valuable reserve during his rookie season.

A weakened Eastern Conference plus an improved HEAT team looks to surely equal a playoff appearance this season.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Miami HEAT overachieved last year, finishing the season .500 and only missing the playoffs because the also .500 Chicago Bulls owned a tiebreaker. They invested significant cash in bringing back essentially the same team for another go and will probably play middling basketball. Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo are nice additions, but not necessarily the kind of star power that pushes a team into the next echelon of competition. Simply by removing some of last year’s competition, though, Miami should be a lower-half playoff seed. Even if they overachieve again this season, their ceiling is probably 47 or 48 wins.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with a respectable (and surprising) 41-41 record, by virtue of losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls, the HEAT was forced to watch last season’s playoffs from the confines of South Florida. After walking away from the draft with Bam Adebayo and signing Kelly Olynyk, though, Erik Spoelstra has a few more tools in the box to keep building.

With an identity and a foundational core that features Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and the re-signed Dion Waiters, the HEAT should rightfully enter the season with renewed hopes of returning to the postseason, especially with the considerable steps back that a few of the teams that finished above them last season have taken. If things break right in Miami and the team is able to stay relatively healthy, a finish as high as fifth in the conference isn’t out of the question. I’d probably still put the Bucks in that fifth seed, but they play the games for a reason… And when the games are played, rest assured, the HEAT will show up and put up a fight for the division crown down in the Southeast.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

After a strong stretch run to close the 2016-17 season, the HEAT will try to capture that magic for an entire year. Miami committed big money to guys like James Johnson and Dion Waiters, plus newcomer Kelly Olynyk, and they’ll need something close to that strong post-All-Star showing from their group to justify essentially locking this in as their team. They’ll continue to run out an offense strong on spacing, captained by Goran Dragic at the point. They’ll rely on Erik Spoelstra’s strong team defensive scheme, something new draftee Bam Adebayo should only help with. A big question will be how much Justise Winslow has to give after a shoulder injury last season—a strong showing could have the HEAT surprising some teams, while a disappointing performance could see them fighting just to make the playoffs in the East. Assuming the median outcome, they should finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeast.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Miami HEAT had limited options in terms of what do with their roster this offseason. Give the HEAT credit for investing in the core of players that overachieved last year, though. Sure, James Johnson’s deal will probably look bad after a year or two, and Dion Waiters will always be a risky player to invest in, nevertheless, with a strong culture in Miami and head coach Erik Spoelstra leading the way, this team has the tools to surprise the league again.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic

As the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, Dragic projects to again be the top offensive player this season. Perhaps it was Dwyane Wade leaving, but Dragic appeared to be more comfortable on the offensive end as the team’s primary ball handler last season.

Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season while shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range. He was afforded the opportunity to run the offense at a faster pace, which best suits his style of play.

In a time where three-point shooting comes at a premium, Dragic certainly has lived up to expectations. He was instrumental for the HEAT all season long and it seems reasonable to believe he’ll continue to be one of the team’s most valuable players.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Whiteside as the team’s top defensive player. He averaged a career-high 17 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season. Whiteside led the league in rebounds and finished fourth in blocks.

Much of what allowed the HEAT to boast a top-five defense last season was having Whiteside down in the paint. While his blocks were down last season from the year before, his presence in the paint still makes things difficult for the opposing players to get clean looks.

Whiteside finished fourth in the league in defensive rating (99.9), fourth in defensive win shares (5.3) and fifth in block percentage. He held opponents to 51 percent shooting within six feet of the rim. To put that into context, Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green held opponents to 48.3 percent shooting at the same distance.

Whiteside squashed any doubt about how he’d perform after signing a monster contract summer. Now, it’s time to show that he can maintain his dominance on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

Without Dwyane Wade in the picture, Dragic proved to be a great leader for the HEAT on the court. He benefited by the opportunity to get out and run last season and was very effective getting his teammates involved.

Dragic has proven over his nine years in the NBA that he can be very good at attacking the basket and kicking out to the open man when needed. As we’ll cover in the next section, he led the team with 81 total points in clutch situations and came up with several big plays throughout the season.

When the HEAT needed a big play, the team could count on Dragic to make it.

Top Clutch Player: Tyler Johnson

While we could have highlighted Dragic here, we are going to take a look at Johnson during clutch moments last season.

Of course, we can’t forget when Dion Waiters hit the game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors with .6 seconds left to continue the team’s 13-game winning streak. Memes were created with Waiters’ pose following the shot, t-shirts were made and Twitter exploded after it. It was arguably one of the top moments of the season for the HEAT.

As Waiters came up with the shot of the year against the Warriors, Johnson was quietly one of the team’s best clutch performers last season. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Johnson ranked as the team’s second-best player in these moments.

While Dragic led the team with 81 total points last season in clutch situations, Johnson was second on the team with 67 points. He shot 44.9 percent (22-of-49) from the field and 45 percent (9-of-20) from three-point range in clutch situations.

Johnson’s percentages were actually slightly better than Dragic’s and he was the team’s top three-point shooter during these moments. Many HEAT fans may remember his performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he scored eight of his 24 total points during overtime to help the team to a key win.

For the HEAT, having all three of these players in Dragic, Johnson and Waiters on the roster has been very beneficial. An argument can be made for each player as the team’s best clutch player and it’s likely a good problem to have for head coach Erik Spoelstra.

The Unheralded Player: Udonis Haslem

Each year, we highlight players in this category that don’t receive nearly as much love as they should. Haslem is a perfect candidate for this title and it isn’t even close.

Haslem serves as the team’s captain and is the leader in the locker room. While Haslem hasn’t played much over the past couple of seasons, he serves a much larger role than that. Haslem is the HEAT’s voice and heart and soul of the team. The leadership that he brings to the team is clearly very valuable to the HEAT to bring him back for a 15th season.

Ask any current or former HEAT player what Haslem means to the team and it likely won’t take long before they mention his leadership skills, toughness and professionalism. It speaks volumes for his character for the team to bring him back for another season.

As the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, Haslem has become a strong mentor for the team’s younger players. He even spoke to members of the summer league team on exactly what it means to be a part of the HEAT culture.

It’s obvious that Haslem has earned a place among the franchise’s all-time greats and he’s back for at least one more season.

Best New Addition: Kelly Olynyk

Given that the HEAT opted to retain most of its roster, the best new addition candidates basically came down to Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo. While Adebayo certainly has potential, we opted to highlight Olynyk here.

Now, the decision to sign Olynyk to a four-year, $51.2 million contract was a bit out of left field, but his addition figures to help bolster the team’s frontcourt depth. With the addition of Olynyk, the team now has Hassan Whiteside, Olynyk and Adebayo on the depth chart in the frontcourt.

Olynyk figures to be a welcomed addition to the team given his ability to space the floor, which is something the HEAT have lacked in recent years. He averaged nine points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists per game last season for the Boston Celtics while shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range.

HEAT fans may remember one signature performance by Olynyk during last season’s playoffs. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Olynyk recorded 26 points, four rebounds and four assists on 10-of-14 shooting from the floor to help the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While those sort of performances may not happen regularly, Olynyk has proven that he can be an effective scorer off of the bench or as a starter.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

It is becoming a yearly tradition to highlight head coach Spoelstra for the HEAT. It was easy to disregard the accomplishments he had with the Big Three, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that he can coach very well no matter who is on the team.

Coaching a roster that didn’t boast too many household names, Spoelstra nearly led one of the best comebacks in regular season history. As the team once sat at 11-30 last season, it would have been easy for the team to throw in the towel and begin looking ahead to the offseason. In fact, many believed the HEAT were better off tanking and positioning themselves for a better draft pick.

Instead, Spoelstra stuck the course and so did his players. After beginning with a lowly 11-30 record, the team finished by going 30-11 in the second half of the season. It was the best second-half record ever by a team that missed the playoffs. Many even believed he had a legitimate argument to win Coach of the Year–he finished second.

The team is hoping they can ride that momentum into the 2017-18 season and it seems reasonable to believe they’ll pick up right where they left off.

2. James Johnson

The HEAT prioritized retaining most of its roster this offseason and most fans were delighted to see a new contract for Johnson. After having a career year, Johnson made the decision to hand him a new four-year, $60 million contract an easy one.

In 76 games last season, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. It was by far the best season of his eight-year career after having stops in Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento and Memphis.

The team signed Johnson to a one-year, $4 million deal last offseason and it’s safe to say he exceeded expectations by a longshot. He committed to himself by getting better on the court and off of the court. He transformed his body by dropping nearly 40 pounds of weight and nearly eight percent of body fat thanks to the HEAT’s training staff.

Based on his progress and improvements during his first season with the HEAT, we expect Johnson to become a valuable piece to this team.

3. Josh Richardson

Richardson is just the latest in a long line of success stories in the NBA. As a former second-round pick by the HEAT two years ago, it was reported earlier this week that he has agreed to a four-year, $42 million contract extension with the team.

Although Richardson was hampered by injuries last season, the HEAT have seen enough in him that they believe he can continue to develop and become a meaningful player in the future. In 53 games last season, Richardson averaged a career-high 10.2 points.

Richardson has proven to be one of the team’s best shooters. During his rookie campaign two years ago, he shot 46.1 percent from three-point range. He struggled shooting last season after converting on just 33 percent of his three-point shots, but that dip in shooting could be due to dealing with knee, ankle and foot injuries.

He did show flashes of great play during the final month of the regular season. In six April games, Richardson averaged 15 points, 3.2 rebounds and three assists while converting on 53 percent of his three-point attempts. It should be fun to see his progress should he stay healthy this year.

4. Dion Waiters

Waiters has already established himself as a fan favorite after just one season in Miami. Of course, it helps that he hit a game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. His pose after hitting that shot has been plastered on memes, t-shirts and social media. It’s safe to say that HEAT nation has fully embraced him.

Waiters opted to sign a one-year, $2 million contract with the team last year, in essence, betting on himself. It worked. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $52 million contract.

Last season, the guard turned in nearly his best season to date after averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 46 games. He also shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. As he begins his second year in Miami, look for him to continue to make the highlight reels and stir it up on social media.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

Miami went under the salary cap this summer to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to multi-year deals. The HEAT still own their $4.3 million Room Exception but may be invested already in a full roster of 15 (with 13 guaranteed players plus two partials in Rodney McGruder and Okaro White).

Next summer, Miami projects to be over the cap with heavy investments in Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and their recent signings. Before November, the HEAT need to pick up Justise Winslow’s 2018-19 team option.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The HEAT had excellent chemistry on and off of the court last season. With the additions of several new players last season, it seems remarkable.

They showed this strength during the team’s improbable second-half run. Multiple players stepped up during this stretch to help the team rise up in the Eastern Conference. Some teams may have opted to give up once they went 11-30, but this group stayed together and nearly made the playoffs.

Based off of the success the team had in the second-half of last season, the front office opted to bring back the majority of their free agents. They re-signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson, while they opted to keep Wayne Ellington on the roster, as well.

The team now has a ton of depth and appears to be in good shape for next season.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

If you look at this HEAT team on paper, they don’t project to have many weaknesses. The offense ranked 16th in the league in efficiency. The defense was ranked inside the top five and head coach Erik Spoelstra is widely regarded as one of the best head coaches in the game.

But one area in which can be seen as a weakness could be the team’s lack of superstar talent. While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are certainly good players, they’re not superstars. The HEAT have serviceable players at each position, but is it enough to get them deep into the playoffs?

Many have wondered if this HEAT team will be able to duplicate its second-half success with its current roster. Of course, the team has certainly tried to sign some of the league’s top free agents over the years, but have come up just short in doing so.

The HEAT figure to be in the race for a playoff berth all season long, but the lack of superstar talent could be what ultimately prevents them from making a deep playoff run.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

After keeping its core together, will that be enough to make a run at the playoffs?

In what many project to be a weaker Eastern Conference this season, the HEAT will find themselves back in the postseason this year. They came up a tiebreaker with the Chicago Bulls short from making the playoffs last season and likely would have been a problem for the Boston Celtics in the first round. Now, they’re armed with a few more weapons and have depth all across the board. It’s not a matter of if they make the playoffs, but rather a matter of how high they can climb up the standings and whether or not they have what it takes to advance.

— Cody Taylor

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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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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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