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NBA Daily: Blake Griffin Trade Proving To Be A Win-Win

The narrative on the Blake Griffin trade has flipped the script, as both the Clippers and the Pistons have reaped the rewards since last season’s blockbuster.

Matt John

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When the Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Pistons back in January, the motives were obvious for both sides.

For Los Angeles, they knew that with the roster as it was, they weren’t going anywhere with Blake leading the way. While Blake was capable of putting up good numbers on a nightly basis, the roster built around him wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was during the Chris Paul days. It was time for a change.

For Detroit, acquiring a star like Blake was a desperation move to attain relevance. With the team firmly stuck in no man’s land and the limited trade assets that they had, getting someone like Blake at a lowered price seemed obvious even if he’d be getting paid $38+ million at 32 years old.

The returns following the trade were not all that great for either team. Neither team was terrible, as the Clippers finished with 42 wins and the Pistons finished with 39, but both failed to make the playoffs, and both seemed to have very uncertain futures at the time.

The Pistons had a nice trio locked up in Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, but outside of them, the Pistons’ roster was filled with question marks.

The Clippers had a roster filled with decent talent with no distinguished star to lead them, which is a red flag in the Western Conference.

Judging by how both teams did in the half-seasons with their changed squads, it seemed as though neither team won this trade, leaving minimal impact on the NBA going forward. Since then, the times have definitely changed.

With the first month and a half of the season in the books, it’s fair to say that the Blake trade has played a role in how the 2018-2019 season has transpired so far, with both the Clippers and the Pistons greatly benefiting from the big mid-season transaction.

The Clippers have caught everyone’s eye since the season began, boasting a 15-7 record, which has them tied for the top seed in the West. The Pistons have gone a little back and forth, but they’ve stayed the course with a 13-7 record, good enough for the fourth seed in the East.

And all of it comes back to the Blake Griffin trade. With the Pistons and the Clippers off to impressive starts, it’s only fair to analyze how the players involved in the deal have panned out since.

Detroit Pistons

There aren’t that many storylines that are better than the “Prove ‘em wrong!” for individual players, and that’s what Blake Griffin’s season has all been about so far.

Coming into the season, many believed that Blake was on the decline. At 29 years old, his reputation for being injury-prone and his athletic prowess not what it once was, the doubters believed he could not maintain his status as one of the league’s best players.

Well, the old Blake is dead. What we have now is a reinvention of one of the league’s best power forwards.

Blake is not the high-flyer he once was, but his game does not rely on his athleticism as much as it once did. Instead, the All-Star forward has adapted his game to fit the modern NBA. He now has a respectable three-point shot, a skill that’s been three years in the making for the Oklahoma native.

Adding a three-point shot to his game has hurt his field goal percentage compared to his earlier days, but that’s to be expected when you add shooting from distance to your repertoire. In his younger days, almost all of Blake’s shots were from inside the arc, as the percentage of two-point shots he attempted from 2010-2016 ranged from 97 to 98 percent of his shots total. This current season, that percentage has gone down to 66.

Even if his field goal percentage has dipped, looks can be deceiving. Blake has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 52.6, both of which are the best percentages he’s had since 2013-2014, the year he finished third in MVP voting.

As it turns out, a fair amount of Blake’s numbers have been the best he’s had since that one season. His scoring average (24.9), his rebounding average (9.5), his rebounding percentage (14) and his usage rate (29.3) have all been the highest since his MVP bid five years ago.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Blake is getting MVP buzz all-around the league, as his efforts have been the most vital to Motown’s success.

The Pistons are all too familiar with good starts. This time last year, the boys of Motor City had a 14-6 record before a seven-game losing streak put them in a funk that they never grew out of. Things are different this time though. Besides Blake’s rejuvenation, the Pistons have the reigning Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey, Reggie Jackson back at full health and improvements across the board from everyone. That includes Drummond, Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock.

If the Pistons sustain this, then Blake Griffin will solidify his MVP candidacy and will be worth every penny to Detroit.

Los Angeles Clippers

When teams trade their star players, they usually opt either for rebuilding or re-tooling. In the Clippers’ case, they went for both.

By acquiring both Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, the Clippers replaced Blake’s star power with versatility on both sides of the floor that the team had lacked. By acquiring the rights to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Clippers have started a promising youth movement that they ironically haven’t had since Blake.

Let’s start with Harris. Harris’ evolution into one of the league’s most well-respected scorers is a great story when you think about how his previous teams handled him. Milwaukee gave him away to Orlando, who then gave him away to Detroit after giving him a big contract. He had him come off the bench for a good chunk of his tenure there.

Now, Harris is the top scorer on the fourth-highest offensively rated team in the league, averaging a career-high 21.4 points on 51.6 percent shooting from the field, including almost 43 percent from three. Some feared that Harris could only put up good numbers on bad teams. We now know from his success with the Clippers that that isn’t the case.

In fact, should he keep this up, then he should be a shoo-in for the All-Star game this season.

Then there’s Gilgeous-Alexander. His stats won’t jump out at you – 10.8 points and three assists on 46.5 percent shooting including 33 percent from three – but anyone who’s watched Shai will tell you that the rook plays with amazing poise. A quick look at the Clippers’ five-man lineups will show you that Doc Rivers, a coach notorious for not playing rookies, trusts Gilgeous-Alexander, as he’s been put in five of the six most used lineups for the Clippers.

This is most evident by the fact that the Canadian hotshot starts for one of the top-seeded teams in the West and averages 27.8 minutes a game. If that’s what we’re getting from this guy when he’s just 20, imagine what he’ll be like when he enters his prime.

Finally, there’s Bradley. Bradley hasn’t exactly been the player he was in Boston and Detroit with all his injury issues, but he has shown signs of life over the past two games, as he’s averaged 14 points on 52 percent shooting including 60 percent from three. If that’s a sign of things to come, then he becomes another valuable cog for the Clips.

The one positive from Avery is that what he’s best known for – elite on-the-ball defense – is proving to help LA, as the Clippers’ defensive rating is +4.9 with him on the floor. That’s impressive since, despite his reputation, advanced metrics haven’t exactly supported Bradley.

Those three alone are not why the Clippers have played as great as they have, but they’ve played a huge part in forming the team’s new identity. Time will tell whether or not these Clippers can keep up their excellent play. At the very least, they’ve proven themselves as one of the most fun teams in the league, which seemed blasphemous after they blew Lob City up.

As of right now, the Blake Griffin trade turned out to be an even deal and beneficiary one for both parties involved. The Pistons have more star power, while the Clippers have a more well-rounded roster. As you can tell from their performance so far, neither has much reason to complain.

Both could be in different places when the season ends, but let’s enjoy the fact that a blockbuster trade has worked out well for both sides when no one really expected it to.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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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NBA

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

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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