“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With those millions in writing,
And All-Stars combining to give hope or fear!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
Seriously though, for junkies like us, the NBA offseason is basically the holidays. People always talk about how they can’t stand all the pressure, all the buildup for when we see the next twist of the offseason. But let’s be honest. We love it. Even if things don’t always turn out the way we wanted it to, we love all the thrills and anxieties that manifest themselves from free agency.
Leading up to the 6:00 EST starting line, this summer was hyped up to be as epic as it could ever be thanks to its deep class of stars on the open market. It hasn’t even been a full day yet, and it’s already lived up to the hype. Best of all, we still have lofty cliffhangers that have yet to be resolved.
About the whole “tampering” debacle
If you’ve been paying attention since the start of all of this, you would know that a fair amount of these deals that have been agreed to this summer were reportedly done before free agency officially began. It’s pretty obnoxious to see that teams are clearly talking to players before they are permitted to, and it makes seem as though the rules aren’t being enforced.
To be fair, the rules against tampering are like the drinking age. Legally you’re not supposed to take a sip of alcohol until you’re 21, but how many people who drink actually waited until they were of age to do so? Point being is that this is a rule that NBA teams bend as much as they can.
The NBA can do all it can to change this. They can make the rules stricter. They can hand out harsher punishments. Honestly, though, the league’s best move may be just to let things be the way they are. You know how they say any press is good press? Everyone tunes into the NBA offseason as much as they can, so this kind of attention is only good for the NBA. There’s no need to ruin something that is clearly profitable.
It’s a shame that tampering still happens quite often no matter what the NBA tries to do to get rid of it, but that’s what makes it fun.
Now, onto the real plot lines everybody wants to read about.
A new contender has emerged
After receiving the worst hand it could have possibly imagined not too long ago, this team has swiftly built itself into a squad that won’t be messing around with anyone this upcoming season. Before it was just a pipedream, but now, a title can definitely be in play for these guys. That’s right, the Utah Jazz have now taken the next step into title contention.
Oh wait, did you think this writer was talking about Brooklyn? We’ll get to them, but for now, let’s talk about the team who, as a result from Day 1 of Free Agency, will definitely be a contender next season.
Crap, was that a spoiler?
After suffering their second consecutive gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey swore to fans that some major changes were in order. Utah doesn’t exactly have the best reputation as a free agent destination and didn’t have exactly top-notch assets, so many were interested to see what major changes they could orchestrate.
Now, after the season ended only two months ago, Lindsey and the Jazz have lived up to their promise and then some. Utah has pounced on every opportunity that presented itself for the team to get better. If that sounds ludicrous to you, let’s go over the checklist for what the Jazz needed to improve themselves this offseason.
- Get another scorer/playmaker to take some of the heavy offensive burden off of Donovan Mitchell — Traded for Mike Conley – Check
- Get a floor spacer/complementary scorer who can be paired up in the frontcourt with Rudy Gobert — Signed Bojan Bogdanvoic – Check
- Get a back-up big who can replace Derrick Favors with his energy and rebounding — Signed Ed Davis – Check
On paper, this is the best Jazz team assembled since the Deron Williams days, and if things break their way, they could be seeing success much similar to the Malone/Stockton days. The Jazz were once an adorable little train that could. Now they’re a freight train at full throttle with no brakes to speak of.
Brooklyn has created a… new super team?
If you think this writer doesn’t approve of all the moves Brooklyn has made up to this point, you’re dead wrong. Brooklyn just hauled in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. All on discounts too. In the process, they added a solid 3&D wing in Garrett Temple as well as traded D’Angelo Russell and a few others to open up roster spots for ring-chasers.
However, if you think that means it’s smooth sailing for Brooklyn from here on out, you’re dead wrong. Durant is currently recovering from an Achilles tear he suffered merely weeks ago. Missing the entire season is very much in the realm of possibility. Even if say he comes back the next season fully healthy, he’ll be 32. Without Durant, Brooklyn is a solid team, but not a contender. If he’s not the Kevin Durant we know and love when he gets back, then they definitely won’t be a contender. Giving him a near-max contract is a risk, but since it’s KD, it’s a much safer risk than most.
It doesn’t just end with him. Kyrie Irving has proven himself to be a negative in the locker room. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played like DeAndre Jordan in two years. That can both be remedied now that they are playing in a situation they obviously prefer to be in. Something to consider – they were in good situations before they grew tired of them. For the Nets’ sake, hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself.
The return of the sign and trade
Remember when signs-and-trades were rare? Especially nowadays? Not many players agree to those kinds of deals anymore, but after Day 1 of Free Agency, the sign-and-trade has had itself a little bit of a renaissance.
And these agreements haven’t been over minor roster tweaks. These deals have actually been involved with some of the most important players that were on the market. Since the bell rang at 6, we’ve seen S&T’s involving Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker – just to name a few.
Due to the sign and trade, the following has happened:
- The Warriors have brought in a whole new dimension to their team with D’Angelo Russell aboard.
- The Nets could afford to bring in all the targets they wanted and cheaper than the market value that was placed on them.
- The Celtics now have their new star point guard to replace their previous one.
- The HEAT have now (hopefully) found new life with their newest face of the franchise in Jimmy Butler, who was a sizable upgrade compared to what they had.
- The Sixers (hopefully) found good value for a player in Josh Richardson, who was leaving anyway and opened space to pay for another star.
- The Hornets didn’t lose their star player for nothing and have their point guard of the future in Terry Rozier (…hopefully).
Many thought the sign-and-trade was dead. As we can see, it’s alive and well.
Teams have gotten knocked down, but not out
Among all that was gained in Day 1, plenty was lost.
Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon.
Even with that, teams re-tooled in order to keep their status.
- To make up for their loss of Durant, the Warriors added D’Angelo Russell.
- To make up for their loss of Butler and Redick, the Sixers added Horford and Josh Richardson.
- To make up for the loss of Irving and Horford, Boston added Kemba Walker.
- To make up for their loss of Brogdon, the Bucks brought their core guys back plus added Robin Lopez.
There are still questions with both what they lost and they gained, but some appreciation is in order that even though they probably would have preferred otherwise, they have weathered the storm.
Indiana is a better example of this. In the last day or so, the Pacers have lost Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, all of whom combined are a major net loss for them. However, the team has added a young scorer in TJ Warren, a solid rotation player in Jeremy Lamb and the ideal complement for Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon.
Perhaps the best example of this is New Orleans. David Griffin has been as savvy as ever this offseason in the face of his new franchise losing arguably its most talented player ever. We don’t need to list off everything he acquired for Anthony Davis because you already know. In free agency, he’s made smart moves that boost the team and doesn’t drag it down financially.
The Pelicans did not have reliable spacing leading up to the free agency. To aid that, they gave Redick a fairly manageable two-year deal worth $26 million. The Pelicans also needed some frontcourt help even with the addition of Zion Williamson. Without sacrificing much, they acquired the criminally underrated Derrick Favors from Utah.
As some of the premier teams have shown us, losing some of your best players is not an easy task, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without them.
The Kawhi sweepstakes are heating up
Among all the hoopla that was going on during the first day of free agency, you may have noticed that not many moves have been made by Kawhi’s top suitors: The Lakers, Clippers and of course, Raptors.
The Lakers have traded everyone not named LeBron, Anthony or Kyle to make room for Kawhi. The Raptors have only had Marc Gasol opt-in to return next season. The Clippers just now re-signed Patrick Beverley, which, according to Eric Pincus, will not financially affect their pursuit of Kawhi.
The minimal number of moves demonstrates that all three are putting all of their eggs in the Kawhi basket. It’s a shame he can’t be shared. Only one of them can have him, and as the Knicks have shown from Day 1, there’s always someone who ends up being the loser of the offseason. When the Kawhi chase is over, we’ll have two more.
Not that all will be lost for the two teams who Kawhi leaves in the dust. It’s that when he does, there will be major implications for what will happen to them next season. Plan B for all of them isn’t too promising of an outlook.
There are plenty more plot lines to choose from, like what the Knicks are doing now that they’ve missed out on Durant and Irving. Or why exactly the Kings paid $65 million combined for Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. Or how NBA Twitter will fare now that the Lopez twins are on the same team.
So many exciting moves out there are worth analyzing in less than 24 hours time.
As this writer said, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
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.