Don’t Panic, But You Have To Consider It
With the NBA playoffs down to just four remaining teams, there are some franchises that exited the playoffs far too early to think that roster change shouldn’t be considered. In some cases, a few teams have harsh realities to face and some tough questions that won’t be easy to answer.
While no franchise should overreact to a single playoff series, there are some things that surfaced in the postseason that turned into bigger issues than any expected and are going to have to be addressed.
Here are a few of them:
The Miami HEAT continues to say all the right things about disgruntled big man Hassan Whiteside, but with the HEAT season in the rear-view mirror, there is a growing sense that Whiteside wants out of Miami, and the feeling may be mutual.
The challenge for the HEAT is that White has basically two years remaining on his contract, one next season worth $25.4 million and a Player Option in 2019 that he will surely stay in worth $27 million.
Combining the ugly contract money and sub-par play this season, it may be pretty hard for Miami to move Whiteside without including something else of value.
The HEAT have been trying to shed contract obligations since the NBA trade deadline, so how they ultimately handle Whiteside is worth watching.
Much like Whiteside, the Bucks have some tough decisions to make regarding the future of Parker. Fresh off a second ACL tear of the same knee, Parker’s postseason was less than impressive. Some have tried to write that off to the rust associated with missing so much time. However, the Bucks must decide what Parker is really worth and they have to do that in July.
The upside for Parker is he is well-liked by the organization and given where the team is at cap wise; there is no reason for the Bucks not to match any deal that he gets. They will not be a salary cap team at any time in the near future, so matching an offer sheet won’t impact the team’s immediate flexibility.
The question for the Bucks becomes is he worth the commitment, based on what they saw in the postseason.
It’s tough to value players trending downward because a team never knows who might try and poach the talent away. There is no question Parker’s value is down but does a team with cap space like Brooklyn, Phoenix or Indiana pounce and test the Bucks resolve?
The prevailing thought out of Milwaukee is Parker will be back; the question becomes at what price and who sets that line?
Before the playoffs, the idea that Raptors head coach Dwyane Casey could be in trouble was laughable. The Raptors just finished their best season in franchise history, winning 59 games and the Eastern Conference. But after this week’s sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Casey’s future was the primary topic at yesterday’s postseason press conferences.
While the wounds of defeat are still very raw, there is an increasing sense that Casey is the easy change for Raptors president Masai Ujiri to make, mainly because the roster is locked in with so many high-priced guys that didn’t perform.
Is there anyone lining up to take Serge Ibaka or Kyle Lowry off the Raptors hands? If so, for what in return? That’s the puzzle the Raptors have to solve.
There were some clues dropped yesterday when Ujiri said he’d have to look back at the last five years and judge what the next five years need to look like. Those are ominous words for Casey’s future, mainly because the easiest thing for a team to change is the head coach.
It is almost not debatable to say the New Orleans Pelicans started playing their best basketball of the season when big man DeMarcus Cousins went down with injury.
The Pelicans have said all the right things about Cousins’ future with the team, but the real question is how much money and how many years is a new contract for Cousins going to cost? And, does that make any sense considering that best version of the front court was Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic?
The riddle for the Pelicans isn’t just cost. What’s Cousins going to look like after suffering an Achilles tear? Few players have ever been the same after an Achilles injury.
Unfortunately, the Pelicans won’t know how Cousins’ performance has been impacted because his rehab won’t be close to complete before they have to decide on a new contract. In the interim, another team that’s a little desperate may try to poach him.
There was a narrative floating around during the playoffs that said the Pelicans would have been a tougher out with Cousins, but the reality is the team was better without him.
Sixers rookie Ben Simmons is going to win Rookie of the Year in a walk. He posted one of the best all-around seasons of a player classified as a rookie in more than a decade. The 76ers have themselves a gem and that’s not debatable.
The problem for the 76ers is that against Boston, you started to see the flaws of a 6-foot-10 point guard, so much so that the 76ers turned to T.J. McConnell to create a spark for the offense.
Let’s be fair, Simmons is going to learn and grow as a player, and adversity in the NBA tends to be the best teacher. But, for the 76ers, is having Simmons at the point guard spot really the future? Can you be the team you want to be with a point guard that can’t shoot from three?
It’s fair to say that LeBron James runs the offense for the Cavaliers as the lead playmaker. He doesn’t man the point guard spot on the floor, he simply initiates the offense, which is often what Simmons does.
So what is the future for Simmons and the Sixers? He clearly is a franchise cornerstone, but where do you really play him?
With the 76ers season ending, they do have some decisions to make, notably, about McConnell’s future (one more year remaining) and that of guard J.J. Redick (pending free agent).
The 76ers have top overall pick Markelle Fultz waiting in the wings and dreams of free agent spending on a marquee all-star like Paul George or even LeBron James.
However the chips fall in the summer, one thing is clear, Simmons has to evolve in one direction or the other. He can be breathtaking as a playmaker, but his lack of perimeter game may become a bigger problem as the 76ers try and become legit championship contenders.
The Oklahoma City Thunder announced that Paul George underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. His expected recovery is anywhere from six to eight weeks, which would line up with the opening of free agency.
There have been some mixed messages all season about where George’s head is at, but those around the situation continue to say its more likely that George leaves the Thunder than stays as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Thunder GM Sam Presti disputed the idea that George was already out the door during his season-ending press conference, saying he had been speaking directly with George and didn’t get the sense that’s where things were.
The Thunder can win the day financially as they can offer the longest-term and largest-dollar deal. The Thunder continue to say paying luxury tax won’t be a problem to keep the All-Star core together, the question facing George is can he and guard Russell Westbrook be anything more than two players competing for shots on the same team.
If the playoffs has shown anything about the Thunder, it’s that playing with Westbrook can be a blessing and a curse. How does that work for the Thunder? More importantly, how does that work for George?
The narrative around the relationship all season is that George thoroughly enjoyed not having to shoulder the burden of a franchise by himself. Having other elite level players made the season easier both mentally and physically.
The popular narrative is that George is heading to the LA Lakers, and that may very well end up being true, but if the idea of not having to shoulder the franchise is really appealing, the Lakers might be more like Indiana, even with all their impressive young players.
The Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. However, they didn’t compete nearly at the level they were hoping for.
There are big questions for the Wolves, and some of them are financially driven. Guard Andrew Wiggins got his maximum contract extension last year, and former top overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns is due his this summer.
On top of that, this is the first summer in which guard Jimmy Butler can extend his deal.
Suddenly, it’s going to get very expensive in Minnesota for a team that wasn’t very impressive in the postseason.
It’s easy to dismiss the Wolves struggles to their youth, that’s a fair thing to believe, but as the franchise has to start committing $150 plus million deals, is this the right core?
Its hard to argue that Butler isn’t the heart and soul of the team, but if he won’t extend his deal, he has the option to hit unrestricted free agency in July of 2019.
Butler wisely structured his current deal that he signed with the Bulls to front load as much money as possible, knowing he wouldn’t stay in his option year unless he was injured. That option year seems pretty unfavorable to Butler given where the salary cap is situated, which could make an extension tough to get done.
While it seems unlikely that Butler is going anywhere, how extensions talks go could say a lot about his future in Minnesota.
With the 2018 NBA Draft Combine getting underway in Chicago next week, the rumors and chatter about some of these situations are going to pick up. While it’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment, most teams will be deliberate about what they do next, but it’s hard to argue that the results of the postseason won’t warrant at least some of these situations changing.
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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
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.
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.
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.
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.