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NBA AM: The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis

Here’s why it’s perfectly acceptable for Knicks fans to be overly optimistic about Kristaps Porzingis’ potential.

Tommy Beer

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The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis

A cynic might reasonably assert that Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet. He’s played relatively limited minutes in just nine games in his brief NBA career. He’s yet to score more than 16 points in any one contest. His team, the New York Knicks, sit one game below .500 at 4-5.

KristapsINside1Many pundits have scoffed at how so many Knicks fans have fallen head-over-heels so quickly for this rookie from Latvia.

Yet, such skeptics might be missing the point.

Yes, many Knicks fans are overly optimistic about the promise of Porzingis. But it could also be argued that many loyal Knicks fans have earned the right to get exceedingly, even irrationally, excited.

Context is important here.

Being a Knicks fan has been tough and often exhausting. Even in the “glory days” of the 1990s, the regular seasons were extremely enjoyable and entertaining, but playoff runs ultimately ended in heartache. Still, looking back, Knicks fans didn’t know how good they had it. For younger supporters of the team, being a fan of this franchise has been brutal. Teenage fans have seen basically nothing but drama and dysfunction. Oh, and losses. Plenty of losses…

Over the last 15 seasons, the Knicks have won a grand total of seven postseason games. They have lost 672 regular season games during this same stretch. Bill Clinton was President of the United States the last time the Knicks advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Still, it isn’t simply the sheer number of numbing defeats. The Knicks often found new and inventive ways to demoralize the fan base. The poor choices on draft day, moronic trades and inexplicable front office hires are simply too numerous to list. Even short-lived successes that generated genuine excitement would inevitably be followed by a crashing return to defeats and despair. The perpetual cloud of gloom that has hung over the franchise for nearly two decades has tended to deflate even the most buoyant and supportive spirits.

The coup de grace came last season. New Yorkers actually had a reason to welcome losses, but the Knicks somehow even managed to mess that up. Heading into the final week of the 2014-15 campaign, New York was in prime position to finish with the worst record in the NBA, which would have guaranteed them a top-three pick and the best odds of winning the lottery (to secure the services of stud prospect Karl-Anthony Towns). Alas, the Knicks won their final two road games of the season (the only time all season they won back-to-back road contests), which allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to back into the coveted No. 1 spot.

At the lottery drawing held in New York City the following month, only one team had the misfortune of “moving down.” It was the Knicks, who fell to No. 4 overall.

The top three picks in the 2015 draft were essentially no-brainers. Towns, the consensus top prospect, would go first. D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor would follow, in some order.

Then the consensus ceased. Most believed it was at that point where the draft diverted from “sure-fire stars” to “promising prospects with question marks.” Different scouts and pundits predicted the Knicks would take any number of players available. Some suggested it would be in the Knicks’ best interest to move down and acquire assets.

When Commissioner Adam Silver announced “Kristaps Porzingis” as New York’s selection, many fans in the crowd booed. Others shrugged. To be fair, the vast majority of New Yorkers had never watched the kid play a single game. Most could only base their opinion on limited YouTube footage. Moreover, Knicks fans had been conditioned to expect the worst.

Back in 1999, as we know, the Knicks selected Fredrick Weis – one spot ahead of NYC’s own Ron Artest.

Ten years later, in 2009, GM Donnie Walsh and all of Knicks Nation desperately wanted sharpshooter Stephen Curry out of Davidson. It was the worst kept secret in the draft. The Knicks were sitting at No. 8 overall and Curry teasingly lasted through the first six picks, before the Golden State Warriors snatched him up at No. 7. The Knicks had to settle for Jordan Hill, who played a total of 24 games for New York before they dumped him in a cap-clearing trade. Curry, obviously, won a title and the MVP award for the Warriors last season.

Many Knicks fans, possibly suffering from post-traumatic draft-pick stress, were hesitant to embrace Porzingis. Also, rumors immediately began circulating that franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony was furious the Knicks had gambled on a 19-year-old foreigner, which didn’t help matters.

But here is where this story starts to turn…

In interviews on draft night and in the weeks and months after, Porzingis spoke with an air of confidence and answered questions competently with a remarkable grasp of the English language.

New Yorkers got their first up-close look at the tall, skinny youngster during the Las Vegas Summer League. Yes, he was raw, but he flashed some impressive skills. Many fans began to shift from initially doubtful, to uncertain, to intrigued.

During training camp, and then into the preseason, the buzz began in earnest. The coaching staff heaped praise on Porzingis. His teammates raved about him.

During limited minutes in the preseason contests, he played well. Just as importantly, he played hard. Despite his thin frame, he was unafraid to mix it up in the paint. He repeatedly asked fans not to hold the past sins of previous “soft Euros” against him. He was determined to shatter the stereotype he knew existed here in the States.

He splashed jumpers from all over the court. He rebounded in traffic. He handled the ball like a guard, despite measuring in at 7’3. He defended bigger, stronger pros down low, using his 7’6 wingspan to alter opponents’ shots.

Still, one of the most appealing aspects of the Porzingis experience is the kid’s composure on the court. He’s never in a rush. He moves quickly, but doesn’t hurry. He is shockingly confident. However, he doesn’t force shots. He is almost unselfish to a fault. It is clear he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone right now.

He manages to walk that fine line between being remarkably self-assured, yet still modest and humble.

A 20 year-old celebrity who doesn’t have his head on straight could easily get swallowed up in this town. Many have, and many more will. Porzingis just seems to “get it.” When asked about his favorite part about moving to America and living in NYC, he explained it wasn’t the exciting nightlife in Manhattan, but rather the fact that he could use an open gym at his leisure to shoot around whenever he wanted to.

Knicks fans were beginning to buy in.  He remains remarkably easy to embrace. He’s said and done all the right things since the day he was drafted.

Prior to the draft, he let it be known that it was his “dream” to be drafted by the Knicks. He wanted New York. He was ready for the challenge. New Yorkers wanted him to be good, so they could get behind the promise that exuded from his game. He looked good in Vegas and in preseason action, but how would he hold up once the real games began?

The Knicks played their season opener on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and cruised to an easy 25-point victory. Porzingis struggled from the floor (3-for-11), but still managed to pour in 16 points by getting to the line 12 times.

The excitement in New York was palpable.

In New York’s fourth game of the season, the Knicks hosted the San Antonio Spurs at MSG. Porzingis finished with his first career double-double, scoring 13 points and pulling down 14 rebounds. He also produced the first of what has been become his trademark highlight: an awe-inspiring put-back dunk, this time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

Porzingis was starting to go viral now. The bandwagon was gaining steam and supporters. Early expectations had been exceeded. Could he possibly keep this up?

Porzingis has posted double-doubles in four of the Knicks’ last six games. His per-36 minutes averages are incredibly impressive: 16.9 points, 13.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. As of Tuesday, he was one of just two players in the NBA leading his team in rebounds, steals and blocks (with Detroit’s Andre Drummond being the other).

Knicks fan are downright giddy, to the point where, in some circles, they are being ridiculed for being overly optimistic. “Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet,” the critics claim.

The doubters aren’t necessarily wrong. But that’s not the point.

Those Knicks fans who have stuck by their team though thick and (mostly) thin these past 15 years have earned the right to be irrationally excited. In fact, they should be encouraged to go crazy over the first handful of Porzingis highlights. Who knows when they will be in this position again?

Of course, Porzingis does have flaws. He fouls too much. His shooting percentage is still south of 40 percent. But the extraordinary talent and immense potential is impossible to miss if you’ve watched the kid play at all. And it’s been a very, very long time since Knicks fans have had the opportunity to invest emotionally in one of their own young players with such a high upside.

Over the past two decades, many people have been introduced as saviors to resurrect this woebegone franchise. Owner James Dolan hired Isiah Thomas to much fanfare, who immediately traded the farm for Stephon Marbury. Zeke’s next big move was trading two unprotected first-round draft picks to Chicago for Eddy Curry. After that experiment crashed and burned, Donnie Walsh was brought in as GM to clean up the mess and was tasked with luring LeBron James to New York. That didn’t work, so the Knicks ended up handing $100 million to Amar’e Stoudemire, who boisterously proclaimed that the “Knicks are back.” But Stoudemire’s well-worn knees soon buckled under the weight of expectations. New York next traded half their organization to bring in Anthony. The early returns were promising, but New York has failed to even qualify for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

It’s been even longer since Knicks supporters had a homegrown star to latch onto. New York has struck out on plenty of picks. They have also failed to develop and retain those promising players they did draft. Amazingly, the last player the Knicks drafted and subsequently signed to a multi-year contract after his original rookie deal expired was Charlie Ward, who was selected 24th overall in the 1994 draft.

Long story short, it’s been hard for Knicks fans to be hopeful.

The Knicks are once again part of the New York sports talk conversation. Many ardent fans have noticed that friends and brothers and uncles who hadn’t watched the Knicks in years have recently tuned in to catch a glimpse of this European dude that people are talking about. Porzingis is on the path to becoming ‘must-see TV.’

There is obviously no guarantee that Porzingis reaches his full potential and develops into a legit superstar in New York. He’s a long, long ways from even starting that discussion. He will have to hurdle countless road blocks before reaching those lofty heights. Maybe Porzingis gets hurt or flames out at some point soon or further down the road.

But the flip side of that coin remains a distinct possibility as well.

Maybe we are watching a truly great player take the necessary baby steps towards stardom?

For Knicks fans that have had so precious little to get truly energized about in recent years, why not go all in? It’s understandable that New Yorkers have been reflexively attempting to curb their enthusiasm. Still, those fans that have suffered through the torment of the 2000s and beyond deserve the anxious excitement of unknown and untapped potential. Anybody can appreciate and root for an established star; getting in on the ground floor is always more exciting. It requires taking a leap of faith.

Porzingis’ on-court production thus far is undeniably impressive. He is one of just 11 players in the last 30 years to tally at least four double-doubles of points and rebounds in his first nine career games (Patrick Ewing only had three). He is also the only player of those 11 to post four double-doubles while averaging fewer than 25 minutes per game. Kristaps is the first player in Knicks franchise history to grab 15 rebounds in a game before celebrating his 21st birthday. He is also the first player in NBA history with at least 100 points, 80 rebounds and five three-pointers in his first nine games.

And although the numbers are remarkable, it’s far more than just the statistics that have fans in all five boroughs so encouraged and enthused. It’s the sense that Porzingis is merely just scratching the surface.

After beating the L.A. Lakers last Sunday, Porzingis sat at his locker and coolly answered questions from the gathered media. At one point, I asked him if he, like the rest of us, was surprised at just how well he’d played this season. He responded with a one-word answer: “No.” He wasn’t bragging; he was simply relaying his belief in himself.

It’s justifiably difficult for dubious, downtrodden Knicks fans to believe in Porzingis as strongly as he does in himself, but fortunately for those fans, they hopefully have the rest of his bright career to be persuaded.

For anyone on the fence, feel free to jump on the bandwagon. There’s still room, but seats are filling up fast.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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Who Will Be King Of LA?

With the NBA season upon us, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the two favorites to win it all – who both happen to hail from the City of Angels – and points out why a certain team could end up on top.

Jordan Hicks

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As we all know, since the Lakers lost last night, they are overrated, don’t have nearly enough shooting and are overall an ugly fit on the court. If the Lakers would’ve won, they’d be the front-runners for a ring, gel perfectly and could score from anywhere on the court. The best part of the NBA is that it’s a marathon – not a sprint. Sure, all 82 games matter, but it’s not very likely that a single regular-season game holds much of anything come playoff time.

What we are going to explore in this article will be a look into who really has what it takes to be the top-dog out of Los Angeles this season. Both teams are considered to be top-three finishers in most people’s rankings, but who has a better chance of getting a higher-seed, making it further in the playoffs and – in the end – hoisting the Larry O’Brien?

Let’s first take a look at some of the predictions featuring these teams that stem from Basketball Insider’s yearly NBA Predictions article (found here) and break them down, starting with the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Lakers will not be a top-four seed in the Western Conference

At first glance, this take seems off. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis – how could they finish anything other than the top two? But when you dig into the facts, it seems plausible.

LeBron’s last season in Cleveland ended as the fourth seed. The year prior – although they were the best team out East – they still nabbed just the second seed.

Anthony Davis has never finished higher than a sixth seed and only ever helped New Orleans to the playoffs twice since being drafted in 2012.

Combining Davis and James certainly improve the chances of the Lakers getting a higher seed in the playoffs, no one will argue that, but things are different this time around, too. LeBron is a year older. He and Davis have yet to play any official basketball together. And, most importantly, they are in the Western Conference. Yes, the same conference where non-playoff teams would be a top-four seed in the East.

LeBron’s wake-up call in the West was missing the playoffs for the first time since his second season. Yes, he missed a chunk of the season due to injury, but they still lost enough key games with him on the floor to not use it as an outright excuse.

Is this is a hot take? It should be considered lukewarm at best. The Lakers have enough talent to finish as a top-four seed, but there’s a real chance they won’t. They’ll be directly competing with the Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers for home court in round one, and I don’t think anyone apart from LeBron superfans will be surprised if they fall to a fifth-or-worse seed come playoff time.

Despite the eventual whispers about Frank Vogel’s job security, he will end the season as head coach of the Lakers

This one is interesting. Vogel was not the sexy name coach that many had envisioned when he was selected to head the Lakers. He had success early on in his career, leading Indiana to back-to-back conference finals appearances, but was most recently coaching Orlando to just 25 wins in the 2017-18 season. To say he was the Lakers’ first choice is laughable, but he wasn’t a horrible hire considering who was available.

Yes, there may be whispers of him being fired if they get off to a slow start, but the Lakers have too much talent to assume Vogel won’t make it until at least the offseason before they consider letting him go. Then, maybe the dream of every NBA Twitter user will come true and the Lakers will hire Magic Johnson as the head coach for the 2020-21 season. No? Yeah, that definitely won’t happen.

Now, moving on to the Clippers.

Los Angeles Clippers – NBA Champions

Clippers over the Philadelphia 76ers seems to be the consensus when it comes to the ending of the season. And how can you see it another way? On one hand, we can’t keep expecting LeBron to turn in these super-human performances. One of the few players who kept up exceptional play deep into his career was Karl Malone, but even he started playing professionally after multiple years of college ball. LeBron came straight from high school. The man has literal MILES on his body.

On the other hand, the Clippers are downright good. The team is largely the same from last season where they won two games on the road against a healthy Warriors team that included Kevin Durant. Add to that roster one Paul George and one Kawhi Leonard – those are *pretty* solid additions. The Lakers may have added AD, but they had to gut the core of their roster to do so. The Clippers didn’t lose all that much if we are being honest. Danilo Gallinari is nice, but not essential, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be really solid one day, but he wasn’t necessarily moving the needle. Even better, the Clippers held on to the most valuable rookie on their roster last season in Landry Shamet. He shot 45 percent from three last season after being dealt to the Clippers!

The Lakers will be good, no doubt. But the Clippers just might be better. And that will be enough to get them to and past The Finals as champions.

Andre Iguodala will be traded – but not to the Lakers or Clippers

This seems very realistic. Iguodala will likely be on the move. He won’t want to play for the Grizzles and in turn, Memphis will gladly accept any asset that Iguodala returns, but it’s just doubtful that either Los Angeles team will have the best offer.

Virtually every other team in the West will have someone or something that exceeds what the Lakers or Clippers can offer, so neither franchise will be able to net the veteran forward for some significant playoff help.

Whose roster is better?

The Clippers have the superior head coach in Doc Rivers, superior duo (very slightly) in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and the superior role players in Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley, to name a few. It wouldn’t be out of pocket to say that both LeBron James and Anthony Davis are individually better than both Leonard and George.

What this means is that the George-Leonard duo meshes better. In that, you have two elite defenders, as well as two incredibly talented shooters and playmakers. They are both long and athletic, and both have the ability to change the flow of the game at almost every level. LeBron and AD may be objectively better players, but no matter how well they play together, it likely won’t be on the same field as PG and the newly-dubbed “Terminator.”

The last few paragraphs make it seem like the Clippers are hands-down better than the Lakers, but that just isn’t the case. If LeBron can get back to the same form he had during the 2017-18 playoff run, the Lakers will be scary good. Davis is still young and should be plenty healthy with his lack of play last season. The same goes for LeBron. If those two can find a groove, there isn’t a single team in the NBA with a duo that is defensively skilled enough to stop them. The Lakers’ defense will certainly be called into questions at times, but both JaVale McGee and AD are ample enough rim protectors to keep it from becoming too much of an issue.

Another factor that may push the Lakers past the Clippers is the injury issues that could end up haunting the red and blue brand. George will miss the first 10-plus games recovering from dual shoulder surgery. Kawhi, on the other hand, has quite a history of random injuries and more-than-normal load management DNPs. If they lose key games due to inactive players, it could really mess up their seeding and cause them to lose a seven-game series largely due to missing out on homecourt.

With all this being said, it seems plausible that Clippers come out as the kings of LA. The Lakers just don’t have the overall talent to match the Clippers.

But if anything, the game you witnessed last night will have loads of information to analyze and digest moving forward. Just, please, take the results with a grain of salt. As previously mentioned, the NBA season is long. But one thing is certain: we as viewers are in for an incredible ride this year!

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The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the season finally here, Matt John takes a look at what the NBA was like ten years before, and the implications it had on today’s league.

Matt John

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Here we go again!

Last year, this writer dove into what the association was like ten years before the incoming season. Now here we are again. We’re traveling back to the year 2010. Back when the iPad was first sweeping the nation, the economy was still in the toilet, and the Toy Story trilogy had concluded on a high note. Or so we thought.

Coming into the 2009-2010 season, it seemed the season itself wasn’t what everyone was paying the most attention to. What was on everyone’s minds was the upcoming free agency of one LeBron James.

Following Cleveland’s shocking playoff exit in the Conference Finals, there started to be rumblings that James’ days as a Cavalier were numbered. We all know what happened the following summer, which is worth discussing next year. At the time, however, Cleveland’s top competitor for James’ services was believed to be the New York Knicks.

Even though the Knicks hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, and were still washing off the stink of Isiah Thomas’ managerial tenure, they still had their prestige of being a legendary franchise by their side. Meanwhile, everyone else in the league was gearing up for an upcoming epic free agency period.

This may sound irrelevant now since we didn’t get our answer until after the season ended, but this hoopla all started circulating just before the 2009-2010 season started, and it would never go away. In fact, we saw several cap-clearing moves by teams in order to facilitate a potential deal for James, so how could it? As for the season itself, we still got one entertaining enough that James’ decision didn’t distract all that much.

Now last year, this started off by asking how well the team who won the championship in this specific year would do in the modern NBA. The Lakers repeated as champions in 2010 with almost the exact same team, so there’s not much use in asking if they could do it in today’s league, so we’re not going to start there.

Where we’re going to start, however, is the little change the Lakers made before they went on their road to repeating — Replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest.

More Talent Does Not Equal Higher Ceiling

In the summer of 2009, we saw quite a few (declining) stars who went to new situations either to rehabilitate their career image and/or to get a ring. Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson all found new homes before the fall of 2009. It was so repetitive among aging stars that we were quite shocked when Grant Hill opted to re-sign with the Suns when contenders were inquiring about his services.

Because of this, the ceilings for all the teams involved — minus Memphis, who Iverson was employed with for exactly three games before his release — was projected to be even higher than they already were.

The Lakers were adding a 17-point scorer and a former defensive player of the year. The Celtics were adding a big who made the all-star the previous season that was coming off their bench. The Cavaliers were adding a reigning all-star and all-NBA center. The Magic were adding an electric 20-point scorer. The already elite teams managed to get better on paper.

But when they took the court, they weren’t. At least not really. The star-studded additions didn’t hurt the teams too much when their seasons ended, but they didn’t add any new dimensions.

Before coming to the Lakers, Artest was usually a focal point in the offense, so he was used to doing things his way. That’s what made him such an awkward fit in LA since the Lakers already had an established pecking order with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. They wanted Ron to be a 3&D wing, but he was used to being so much more. Artest would later hit two enormous shots in the Lakers’ playoff run, but he never really found his stride in Los Angeles.

Rasheed Wallace should have been a perfect third big off the Celtics bench. He had plenty of playoff experience, and his skillset alone should have made it easier for Boston to weather Kevin Garnett’s recovery following a devastating knee injury. Instead, ‘Sheed came into the season out of shape, played lackadaisical on both sides of the floor, and didn’t really try until the postseason came around. Though he gave his all when it counted, his frustrating play made him one of the least-liked Celtics in recent memory.

Of the stars that have been brought up, Vinsanity did the best for what his team asked him. Vince Carter was handed a bigger role than the previous two mentioned. He was supposed to fill in for the departed Hedo Turkoglu. He put up pretty good numbers, but he just wasn’t the same player at 33 nor could he do what Hedo did. Vince definitely tried, and he did an adequate job. In the end, Orlando acquired him just a year or so too late. Sadly, if it weren’t for Nick Anderson, these two free throws would have been the most infamous in Orlando Magic history.

As for Shaq’s time with the Cavs, well that deserves a conversation on its own, which leads us to our next topic.

Less (Shaq) Is More!

When Orlando proved in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that they could handle whatever LeBron and the Cavs threw at them, it was clear they needed someone who could stop them, or more specifically Dwight Howard, in their tracks. The recently resurgent Shaq could definitely suffice.

Shaq was coming off of his best season in years, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while also staying on the court for 75 games. Even at 37, it looked as if Shaq had some juice left after all. Sure, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but he looked like a valuable asset to have nonetheless. Cleveland thought as much when they traded for him and, best of all, he was traded for spare parts.

Unfortunately, he didn’t bring the same production as a Cavalier. In fact, Shaq was probably the last player you’d want on that team. The early James years in Cleveland were a team that relied on running the floor. A younger Shaq would have been just fine in a system like that, but the 38-year-old iteration? Not so much. He wasn’t useless when paired with James, but he could not keep up with him.

The Cavs still had the best record in the entire league, but they actually won five fewer games with Shaq than the previous year. In the end, it was all for naught because the Cavaliers never got their rematch with the Magic in the playoffs. A few months later, Shaq would leave Cleveland for the team that eliminated them — the Boston Celtics

As for Phoenix, many thought this was the end for them. Steve Nash wasn’t getting any younger, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract was up soon and selling off Shaq for basically nothing made it seem like the Suns were Run-n-Done.

But that wasn’t what happened. With Shaq gone, Phoenix re-discovered its style. Nash and Stoudemire were free to run their pick-and-roll game again, while Hill, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were excellent complementary pieces on the wing. Add Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, youngsters Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and, suddenly, the Suns had an elite squad again.

With a fully healthy season from almost everyone, Phoenix worked its way to a 54-28 record, placing them third in the Western Conference. The team managed to get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, then stunned the Spurs in a sweep in the second round. The Lakers later stopped the Suns in a hard-fought conference finals.

It’s just amazing how, when you look back at both the Cavs and the Suns in 2010, Shaq, one of the greatest players of all-time, affected both of their seasons because of how badly he fit with both of them.

It’s also depressing to note that ten years later, the Suns have yet to reach the playoffs again.

About The Label “Future Star”

The 2009 draft had some studs coming out of the woodworks. They still have plenty of basketball left in them, but Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin have all done enough in their careers to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Even players below their tier, e.g. DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, have had pretty impressive careers in their own right.

But, back in 2010, not much attention was put on any of those five. To be fair, Blake was out for the season was a fractured patella, while Harden was a mere bench player for the Thunder and Curry had a satisfactory rookie campaign on a crappy Warriors squad. Holiday was just a rotation player for Philadelphia, and DeRozan was highly regarded for his highlight-reel dunks and not much else.

When the 2009-2010 season came around, the players who were believed to be the future stars from the group were Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.

Evans had one of the best rookie seasons the NBA had ever seen, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Those were numbers repeated only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James in their respective rookie seasons. A team like Sacramento, who needed any kind of excitement after giving away Ron Artest to the Rockets the year before, needed someone who could promise a good future. Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered.

But sadly, that first year was Evans’ peak. Injuries sustained over the years halted his progress as a player and he never approached the status of a future star ever again.

In Brandon Jennings’ case, his status as a future star was even more short-lived. Jennings, who created controversy when he decided to forego college to go play overseas before the NBA, exploded when he first arrived in Milwaukee.

His first full month in the league, Jennings averaged 22.1 points on 42/49/78 splits, which included a 55 point explosion against the Warriors. Because of that, it seemed as though that Jennings would become the player we now see in Stephen Curry.

But, as it turned out, those numbers were just a flash in the pan. Jennings didn’t come close to matching those numbers throughout the remainder of his rookie season. He had a fine year, and even finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but Jennings failed to match the hype.

No matter how good or bad a rookie may look, we never know a young player’s future until we truly see it for ourselves. It may sound odd now, but there was a legitimate belief that Evans and Jennings were future superstars because of their performances. We now know that’s not the case but, because of their stories, patience is now preached as far as player development and growth are concerned, for better or worse.

What Could Have Been

We talked about how Phoenix and Cleveland did during the 2009-2010 season. But did you know that they almost agreed to another deal at the trade deadline in which the Cavs would have acquired Stoudemire for JJ Hickson?

James and Stoudemire would have been an interesting pairing as both were set to enter free agency. Stoudemire was an offensively stout rim runner who absolutely could have dominated the fast break with James much like he did with Nash. The Cavs opted to take a half measure by trading for Antawn Jamison and retaining Hickson’s because they believed in his potential. But we’ve already gone over what happened after that.

That wasn’t the only almost trade that could have changed a lot. Before Jamison was traded to Cleveland, Washington had discussed trading both him and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen and cap filler. Jamison and Butler would have given the Celtics a lot more scoring depth. Plus, at the time, NBA players could go back to the teams that had just traded them, so adding them and getting Ray back could have pushed them over the top. As we’ve previously established, more talent does not lead to a higher ceiling.

But enough about mega-trades that fell through. What about teams that failed to reach their potential because of unfortunate circumstances?

People forget how good the Bucks were during that season. Brandon Jennings’ strong rookie campaign helped them, but Andrew Bogut coming into his own as one of the league’s best all-around bigs as well. Add newly acquired John Salmons, and Milwaukee was a team nobody wanted to face.

That was until Bogut suffered a freak elbow injury just before the playoffs started. Before that, Bogut was on his way to All-NBA honors because of his excellent play on both offense and defense. With him gone, the Bucks never recovered. Bogut himself was never quite the same. Had that injury never happened, the Bucks could have had something special on their hands, which probably would have led to a lack of Giannis Antetokounmpo for them now.

Every year, we wonder what could have been had certain things gone the other way, and the 2009-2010 season was no exception.

There were other storylines that were going on. The NBA suffered a PR crisis after the Wizards had a gun standoff between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden. As awful as that was, it inadvertently won them the John Wall sweepstakes. Looking back, who knows how the landscape of the NBA would look today had that not happened?

We talked about stars joining good teams, but one that falls under the radar was when San Antonio traded for Richard Jefferson. Many believed the Spurs were going to take it to a whole new level when they acquired him in the offseason, but Jefferson was bizarrely awful with Gregg Popovich. Thus, the Spurs fell apart and were swept by the Suns in the second round.

The last thing to note was that the 2009-2010 season was when Kevin Durant and the Thunder finally put it together to earn their first playoff berth. While the Lakers eliminated them in the first round, we knew that it was just the beginning for them.

Of course, everything mentioned here culminated in the infamous summer of 2010. But that will be tabled for next year.

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NBA

50 Predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Season

Drew Maresca and the Basketball Insiders team offer their annual 50 predictions for the NBA season.

Drew Maresca

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Thank god, basketball is back. And with it comes Basketball Insiders’ latest attempt to throw down 50 bold predictions. Even better, it’s this writer’s second go-around with predictions. And with that familiarity comes unwarranted confidence. So, as always, get ready for red hot takes – significantly hotter than last years – from everybody, yours truly and the broader team included.

Over the summer, the site added some new members to the team. Thusly, we’re expanding the “Predictions from Insiders” section of the article to accommodate all of our brilliant minds. Unfortunately, that means fewer picks for me — but on a positive note, bonus predictions for you! Spoiler alert: Some of my teammates’ predictions contradict mine. One of us will be right and only time will tell.

As always, we’ll revisit our predictions following the season. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@DrewMaresca) about any of the predictions — and do so with all of our staff, as well. The more feedback, the better. And with that, let’s commence with some predictions.

Awards + Other Individual Predictions

1. Stephen Curry leads the league in scoring. This is a pretty popular one. He’ll have so many more opportunities without Klay Thompson (knee surgery) and Kevin Durant. Sure, D’Angelo Russell will take some shots; Draymond Green too. But who else is going to get buckets? Curry might need to average 40.

2. And Curry will also win the 2019-20 NBA MVP. This one’s a little less common. And it hinges on my confidence in the Warriors team as a whole. But let’s be honest, the MVP race will be between Curry, Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis – and maybe Damian Lillard. Russell Westbrook and James Harden probably play themselves out of contention given the inherent stat sharing. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

And that’s literally all of the favorites. I don’t see a world where Nikola Jokic wins MVP even though he will deserve serious consideration. Joel Embiid could get in on the fun, but I expect him to get his share “load management” with the team prioritizing winning over personal glory.

3. Rudy Gobert will repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. It’s just really hard to anticipate anyone outperforming him. I believe that Draymond Green will be asked to do a little too much in terms of guarding bigs this season. And he’s another year older. And he just got paid. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverly are all very impressive, but they’ll split the burden of defending an opponent’s best wing so it will water down their efforts. Of course, that leaves Gobert as the obvious choice.

4. But Mitchell Robinson will lead the lead in blocks. This isn’t really a hot take when you look at last year’s results, right? Robinson finished fourth last season and he played less than two-thirds as many minutes as any as the three guys ahead of him. He looked more patient in the preseason, which allowed him to remain on the court for longer periods of time. And if he can continue that, he’ll be a defensive force.

5. Spencer Dinwiddie will be named Sixth Man of the Year. It’s not that I don’t love Lou Williams. But the league tires on handing the same guy an award over and over. Williams was the winner for the previous two seasons and in three of the last five. And Williams isn’t getting any younger, either. Ultimately, it may be somebody else’s turn.

6. Jonathan Isaac wins MIP.

7. Luka Doncic is named to a 2019-20 All-NBA team

8. Trae Young will lead the league in assists. The competition will be too tight at point guard for Trae Young to qualify for an All-NBA team like fellow sophomore Doncic, but he’ll have a wildly impressive second season.

And what’s more, Young will average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game. He’ll shoot 36 percent from three-point range  — up from 32.3 percent — and he’ll break his own record for made 30-plus foot shots. This feels like multiple predictions tied into one and I got myself in trouble with these types of predictions last year… oh well.

9. Zach LaVine will be an All-Star. Look, I predicted LaVine as MIP last year – and I was wrong. So I’m doubling down. I really like LaVine’s game. He’s dynamic and super athletic, but with just enough polish. And with the Eastern Conference’s lack of All-Star-level guards, LaVine may be a shoo-in.

Rookie Predictions

10. Zion Williamson will play less than 70 games. Williamson’s unique combination of speed and power are among his best attributes. But they’re also going to be his biggest hindrances, too – at least until he’s able to lose a few pounds. Williamson simply puts too much stress on his body, enough that this may become a reoccurring theme. He’ll miss a few games throughout the season – including to kick off the year – as he needs extra rest to recover from the wear and tear of the season.

[Sorry, guys, I’m taking credit for this one because it was written at least a week before the injury was announced.]

11. RJ Barrett will win Rookie of the Year. Barrett was primed for an inefficient season following summer league. Well, fast forward a few months and he looks far more prepared for the NBA. He’s proven that he can initiate the offense, while his ability to attack the rim won’t falter as a professional. And, probably just as important, his confidence is through the roof. Already, Barrett looks like a star in the making.

12. Tyler Herro and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will both be named to an All-Rookie team.

Team + Playoff Predictions

13. The Houston Rockets will win fewer games than last season – and the highest they’ll end the year is at the No. 4 overall seed.

It’s not their fault and I’m not blaming the Westbrook-Harden pairing at all. Truthfully, injuries and depth will be the main culprits. Their starting five is actually great: Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela. I love those five — but it falls off a cliff from there, especially after Gerald Green’s injury. Austin Rivers is a known commodity, but they’re going to struggle to generate much when they go to their bench.

14. The Philadelphia 76ers will nab the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

15. And they win the Eastern Conference.

16. But they’ll lose in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Clippers.

17. The 76ers will be joined in the playoffs by the Bucks, Celtics, Nets, HEAT, Pacers, Magic and Pistons, in no particular order.

18. The No. 8 overall seed in the Western Conference playoff race will come down to the Mavericks, Spurs, Pelicans and Kings, decided by 1.5 games or less. And the Mavericks will prevail.

19. The Clippers and Mavs will be joined in the playoffs by the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Warriors.

20. For the first time in 10 seasons, there will be no 60-win teams in the NBA.

21. And there will be more than 10 teams with 50 or more wins for the first time this decade.

22. All qualifying Western Conference teams win at least 50 games – a slight uptick from last season when the eighth-seeded Clippers won 48 games.

23. All eight Eastern Conference playoff teams win at least 44 games – last season, the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons finished 41-41.

Trade + Coaching Change Predictions

24. The HEAT will trade either Justise Winslow or Goran Dragic before the deadline. Miami was already star shopping this summer when they expressed interested in Chris Paul. One or both can help them get that other star. Dragic’s contract is very tradable as it is more than $19 million and expires following this season. Winslow’s contract is even more movable at $13 million per year and a team option in 2021-22.

25. Speaking of Paul, he is not traded this season.

26. The Cavaliers finally move on from Kevin Love.

27. Andre Iguodala will be traded – but not to the Lakers or Clippers. The Grizzlies will look to collect as many assets as possible for Iguodala and the two Los Angeles-based franchises have limited draft capital left to include. The Rockets are reportedly out, too, as his salary is highly prohibitive for a team that’s already in luxury tax territory.

28. I predicted Scott Brooks would be fired during last year’s go-through, so we’re doubling down here, too. He’ll be let go before the All-Star break.

29. Despite the eventual whispers about Frank Vogel’s job security, he will end the season as head coach of the Lakers.

Other Predictions

30. At least three teams will average more than 40 three-point attempts per game. Last season, only the Rockets surpassed the 40-plus mark at 45.1 per game. But as we’ve seen in recent years, teams have become even more smitten with the three-point shot. Hard to say with certainty who it will be, but…

31. Back to the Rockets, they will lead the league in three-point attempts with more than 50 per game. This would’ve sounded ridiculous just a few years ago; but since Mike D’Antoni joined the club, they’ve hoisted 40, 42 and 45 per game over the last three seasons, respectively. Predicting five more three-pointers per game is aggressive, but they can do it.

32. Moreover, teams continue to crank the pace. Franchises eclipsed 100 possessions per game last year and that trend will continue this season, ultimately ending the 2019-20 season with between 103 and 105 per game.

33. Spencer Dinwiddie’s attempt to securitize his “Athlete Investment Token” *(PAInT) is allowed by the NBA, breaking ground on a new era of investing in professional athletes.

34. And the NBA-China situation does not subside. Thus, the 2020-21 salary cap shrinks by at least 10 percent.

Insiders’ Predictions

35. Pistons trade Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond

— Matt John (@MattJohnNBA)

36. Matisse Thybulle will break the starting lineup for the 76ers and be in the discussion for All-NBA Defensive Team.

37. The Portland Trail Blazers will be the No. 3 overall seed in the Western Conference and will have a third elite scoring options to end the season.

— David Weissman (@dwize04)

38. Denver is the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference.

39. Karl-Anthony Towns becomes the seventh player ever to average at least 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 65.0 or better.

— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter)

40. Giannis Antetokounmpo will not be the only player in the upper-Midwest to lead his team in all five major statistical categories this season as Karl-Anthony Towns will, as well.

41. Robert Covington will creep into more trade rumors than just about anybody else in the NBA, but he will not move this season.

— Doug Farmer (@D_Farmer)

42. Lonzo Ball to win Most Improved Player in 2019-20.

43. Caris LeVert is an Eastern Conference All-Star.

— Ben Nadeau (@Ben__Nadeau)

44. The Chicago Bulls win a playoff series.

45. Quin Snyder will win Coach of the Year as the Jazz secure the top seed in the Western Conference; Mike D’Antoni will not finish the season as the Rockets’ head coach.

— Chad Smith (@Chad200)

46. The Denver Nuggets will lead the league in Net Rating.

47. The Hawks will be last in defensive rating.

— Quinn Davis (@Quinn_DavisNBA)

48. Los Angeles Lakers will not be a top-four seed in the Western Conference.

49. Ben Simmons will shoot above 25 percent on three-pointers (but on less than one attempt per game).

— Jordan Hicks (@JordanHicksNBA)

50. The Celtics finish with the No. 3 overall seed in the Eastern Conference and Gordon Hayward is an All-Star.

51. The Hawks and Bulls qualify for the playoffs, but Pacers and Warriors will miss out, despite Curry’s heroics.

52. And the Denver Nuggets finish the season as the No. 1 overall seed out and the New Orleans Pelicans squeeze into the eighth and final spot.

— Shane Rhodes (@Share_Rhodes1)

53. The Raptors start off strong, but fizzle out around midseason and miss the playoffs.

54. And they trade either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol.

— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies)

And there we have it: another year of predictions in the books. Let’s all celebrate by binge-watching basketball for the next eight or so months. Remember, we’ll reference specific tweets in our “50 Predictions: Revisited” piece following the season, so make sure to connect with us on Twitter about how good or bad you think we’ve done.

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