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NBA Daily: Beilein, Cavaliers Set On Steady Rise

The Cleveland Cavaliers understand where they’re at entering another rebuilding season, and staying mentally tough throughout will be imperative to ensure they achieve their goals. Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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One year removed from the second departure of LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ shift in course has never felt more comforting.

With players wearing smiles, showing their humorous sides and taking pictures at various stations, it wasn’t hard to tell how clear the air in the building was at Media Day. After all, we’re officially into October, meaning that NBA training camps and preseason have gotten underway.

This time of year signifies a fresh start for all teams and optimism is at its highest. Regardless of what happened in the previous season or during the summer, there are clean slates across the board in the wins and losses column. For a Cavaliers group coming off a discombobulated, injury-riddled 19-win campaign in 2018-19, it’s especially relieving.

“I felt we had almost like three seasons to be honest with you,” Jordan Clarkson said Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.

Clarkson remembers Tyronn Lue’s firing six games into the year. He remembers Larry Drew taking over as the voice of the team before agreeing upon interim head coaching duties through the finish line. He can’t help but shake his head, snickering at the thought of how many bumps and bruises the team gathered along the way, leaving no choice but to lean on a collection of two-way players and 10-day contracts.

New Cavaliers head coach John Beilein, however, did not go through that tumultuous time with the wine and gold. Instead, he was leading the Michigan Wolverines to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament run in their second straight season with at least 30 wins. Beilein surprised many when he decided to take a stab at making the jump to the pros after 41 years of coaching in the college ranks, but he’s never been more excited to dive right in with his first NBA squad.

“There’s a lot of opportunities here instead of challenges,” Beilein said when asked about what would be the most difficult aspect of his transition.

No longer will Beilein have to live in a suitcase while taking plane rides to various states on recruiting trips, nor will he have to worry about factors outside of teaching his players hands-on. At 66 years old, he’ll be embarking on a new journey with more energy than he’s ever had before in order to turn the tide in Cleveland.

Beilein will have plenty of assistance in all of this. He constantly reminds everyone of how J.B. Bickerstaff, Antonio Lang, Dan Geriot and Lindsay Gottlieb are playing just as important of a role as he is. Still, don’t exclude the guys on the court doing their part either.

“When we have a player-led team, that’s when we’re a really good team,” Beilein said. “Whether it’s Kevin [Love], whether it’s Tristan [Thompson], whether it’s Collin Sexton, whether it’s Darius Garland, anybody can move into that leadership position. So it’s really important that we’re connected with them, so they can take over and we can just adapt to changes we need to make.”

Beilein understands how demanding of an endeavor it will be. He knows that the Cavaliers ranked dead last defensively a season ago, the worst rating in NBA history. Making such improvements on both ends will not happen overnight. He’ll have about one-third of the practice time he’s used to and nearly three times the amount of games to accomplish what he wants.

Whatever lies ahead, he’s prepared for it by having in-depth conversations with Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens — two coaches that also leaped to the pros from Division-I — and his staff as a whole.

“We’re coaching a lot of veterans, we’re coaching a lot of young men. There’s very similar strategy to those,” Beilein said. “You learn from defeat. You get better from defeat. Defeat doesn’t kill you. It’s going to make you better. You don’t want to lose too much, but it’s that same thing. Handling adversity is easier than handling prosperity. You’ve got to be mentally tough to handle a winning streak, too. And so, all those things come into play as you’re reading the pulse of the team.”

Beilein’s top priority in his debut year is to get Cleveland on a steady rise, ensuring development and true growth out of his players, both young and old, with a focus on fundamentals. He maintains if that vision comes to fruition, the wins will take care of themselves.

Needless to say, tied with the Phoenix Suns for the second-worst record in the league, the wins did not take care of themselves last year. There were flashes of progression here and there, and the team was noticeably better when it had healthy players soaking up the majority of the minutes — but there was no hiding the fact that the Cavaliers were a level below everybody else.

Going through a rebuilding process takes patience and a strong mind. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture is key, often taking the harsh downswings in stride alongside the rarer highs. Such a mentality will be necessary once again this season, as Cleveland has hit the reset button with its personnel and its roster.

“It definitely just kinda changed your mindset in terms of everything and prepared us for this year,” Clarkson said. “I feel like us coming in here, everybody should have an open mind ready to compete and play because everything is new.”

“As a team, I feel like we can’t go backwards,” Sexton said. “We can only move forward and continue to get better.”

Sexton and Clarkson were the only Cavaliers to play over 80 games in 2018-19, with the former featured in every single contest.

Cedi Osman, another crucial piece in this young core, played the third-most amount during his first full year in the NBA. What’s unique about him is that he was a part of that conference championship-winning team as a rookie, so he’s experienced both sides of the spectrum, something the Turkish forward feels has readied him for what lies ahead.

“First two years, it was like white and black,” Osman said. “I saw going to the Finals and not making the playoffs, so that’s why I believe that those two years really made me better. This year, I believe we have a much better team and I think we’re gonna have the chance to surprise a lot of teams . . . I really believe we have a bright future in front of us.”

Love and Thompson played integral roles during championship-caliber seasons at the Cavaliers’ height. They’ve also been on rebuilding ball clubs before in the early days of their respective careers. Larry Nance Jr. is somewhere in the middle has he enters year five. No member of that trio is a stranger to what an 82-game marathon consists of.

“There’s gonna be lumps and bumps. There’s gonna be growing pains and bruises and all of that stuff,” Nance said. “It’s gonna take time to mesh, take time to jell together – and all that takes mental toughness. Especially with me hopefully shouldering more of the leadership load in the locker room this year. Mental toughness is what it’s all about.

“It’s not just gonna be from me. It’s gonna be from Kev, from Tristan, Darius and Collin. It’s gonna be from all of us. This is a unique team. I think that we can be really good, but it’s gonna take a lot of stick-to-it-ness.”

Thompson embraces being an important voice in the locker room. He enjoys taking his teammates under his wing, particularly rookies going from a 30-game season to a much longer one in the pros.

“For us, we’ve gotta tell ‘em, you’re gonna have some nights where you feel like this NBA stuff is easy and you’re gonna have nights where you feel like, ‘Man, do I belong?’ But you’ve just gotta stay the course,” Thompson said. “It’s on us veterans to kinda help their process [and make it] easier. However we can help ‘em be the best they can be, that’s on us. And as a leader of this team, it’s important for me to help these guys transition very smoothly.”

The reality is this: All but five players on Cleveland’s roster have fewer than six years of experience under their belt. Three rookies — and potentially a couple more on two-way contracts — will be carving out their respective niches on the team as things move along. With learning comes lessons. With lessons come losses. And with losses, invariably, comes second-guessing.

Handling everything with a one game at a time approach is a quality some players have trouble with. For those exposed to the league for the first time, it can be even more difficult to grasp. Noise can enter their heads and drive them down. Garland has spoken with his agent, Rich Paul, about this very subject.

“[Rich has] dealt with a lot of guys, so I’ve heard a lot of different stories,” Garland said. “It’s a long season. 82 games is a long season. Coming from college — I only played five — it’s gonna be crazy for me to play all 82. I mean, I’m ready though. I’m ready to just attack the season really hard, play my game, get my teammates involved and do what we have to do to win.”

Beilein has wasted no time in implementing his methods.

Working one week early with rookies such as Garland, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. — along with Dean Wade and Marques Bolden — he introduced the Beilein Ball, a customized, official NBA basketball with a black stripe lasered around it. The concept is to see the rotation of the ball and correct hand positioning on shots and spin on passes.

“He’s really into his craft,” Garland said. “That’s what I like about him. He’s really a gym rat. He’s always in here working or doing something with the guys, so it’s really fun being around him.”

Nance senses Beilein’s eagerness, going as far as to say that his coach has more energy than him. Clarkson is already a fan of his emphasis on ball movement. Sexton, too, has noticed a change in culture with him and his staff in charge.

Getting through to Love and Thompson is arguably the most imperative for Beilein as he tries to gain respect and set the tone; but so far, so good. Thompson has had conversations with former teammate Nik Stauskas and friend Darius Morris, hearing rave reviews about the offensive guru from two former Wolverines.

“He kinda wants to see what can you bring to the table instead of just boxing you up before knowing who you are as a player,” Thompson said of Beilein. “That’s what you want from your coach, especially a new coach.”

Beilein treats practice as seriously as he does a game — with tempo and intensity. He has a daily mantra in which everybody on the floor participates before the two-and-a-half hour session begins.

How are we gonna practice? “Hard!” How are we gonna practice? “Smart!”

Day one featured a lot of station work, with the team sorted into rotating groups of three by jersey color: red, white and green. Each of those were assigned to assistants. Lang worked with the big men, Bickerstaff and Geriot took defensive responsibilities with the guards and Gottlieb assumed a role centered around development. The morning finished off with 5-on-5.

Following the first practice of training camp, Love referred to Beilein’s ways as “old school” with an attention to detail and getting back to the basics.

“I think it’s his enthusiasm, just in how he talks and how he approaches every day,” Love said after the first day. “But [old school] was what I was around when I grew up. My dad [Stan Love] put the ball in my hands and he talked about every era, even before he came into the league. So maybe a breath of fresh air is the wrong terminology, because I’ve played for some great coaches, but just a different look.”

Day two was a bit more rough around the edges. There were moments of slippage in defensive stances and sporadic bad passes. There were no sour attitudes or any signs of apathy, but rather just not doing the simple things.

“They don’t have a lack of discipline,” Beilein said Wednesday. “They probably have a lack of knowledge of how to play efficiently. That’s what discipline is. You have discipline, you’re efficient.”

That’s why Beilein intends to really emphasize the instructional side of practice, showing the players specific mistakes that were made and assuring they grow and learn from those.

“Many of the young players have probably been able to get by with talent and still win the game without a lot of discipline. They’re so good – sometimes their team wins by 30, 20, all these things – and they don’t really know what wins and loses games,” Beilein said.

“And now as they get into college and now from here, they start to really realize, ‘That was really boring when coach taught it to me, but it’s really important now.’ It takes time. Everybody will have a different learning curve. But it takes time for some more than others to put some significance, put some more importance [into] some simple things that are really easy to do, but in the middle of action, they’re hard to do when you’re thinking about something else.”

There are three weeks of training camp until the regular season gets underway later this month. As of today, 30 teams in the NBA are even at 0-0.

While everybody technically has a fresh start, the Cavaliers have undergone a true facelift. The building is filled with hope. The demeanor around the organization is loose. There is really no pressure on them outside of the maturation of the franchise as a whole.

Beilein drew a comparison to the newly-renovated Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to paint a picture of how he looks at the upcoming campaign.

“There’s a lot of new things going on down there, just like with our basketball program,” Beilein said. “They didn’t have to knock it down and build another one. They had to repurpose, refinish, rebuild different areas to keep up with the times, and we’re going to be doing the same thing.

“I think you’ll embrace the product. Be patient with it. And as we go along, hopefully you’ll see steady improvement, both in the wins and in the losses.”

Cleveland’s ascension is set to begin with Beilein at the helm.

It’s up to the rest to buy-in.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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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