Few people outside of Texas believed that James Harden fully deserved MVP honors over Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018-19 – but, as of now, at least one of those supporters remain stalwart in that defense, and his name just happens to be James Harden.
During a radio interview on a local Houston station, Harden didn’t mince words when the topic bubbled to the surface.
“I think once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and run with it the entire year,” Harden said. “I don’t want to get into details. But all I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. You know what I’m saying?”
It’s late August and the internet, undefeated in its ability to spin nothingness into slightly-bigger tales of nothingness, collectively logged on to trash a five-time member of the All-NBA First Team. And, to be fair, Harden is the owner of the most compelling counterargument in league history, if that’s any consolation to remaining Houstonians still in mourning.
Incredulously, and through night after night of incessant double- and triple-teaming, Harden finished with an average of 36.1 points per game. Or, in other terms, Harden notched the seventh-best single-season mark of all-time, the most since Kobe Bryant’s 35.4 tally in 2005-06 and the highest number put up by any player not named Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. For 30 consecutive games, Harden torched opposing defenses for at least 30 points, a feat only bested by Chamberlain’s outrageous 65-game streak in 1961-62.
The former MVP made 4.8 three-pointers and nabbed two steals per game too, averages that placed Harden second-best in the entire NBA. Not a single player attempted or made more free throws than Harden either — a result largely thanks to his insane 40.47 usage percent, the second-highest season-long rate in basketball history. The Rockets, who finished with 53 wins and the sixth-best record in the league, were must-watch television from December to March.
This was no truer than whenever Harden stared down whatever hopeless defender had matched up with him, ever-so-silently debating on which way he was going to dissect the soul of his opponent on that particular possession. Harden scored 30 or more points in 57 total games, topped 50 in nine of them and hit 60 twice. For everybody else that stepped on the court for Houston in 2018-19, they reached the 30 point-mark a combined total of five times (Eric Gordon, 3; Clint Capela, 1; Chris Paul, 1).
Dominance is somehow understating what Harden achieved in 2018-19 and yet, as Harden posits, the Antetokounmpo-led narrative won out.
And like the best-woven tales of fiction, the ones that reach the inevitable, predictable conclusion can often be the most satisfying voyages of them all.
So as long as Harden has gotten his achievement-based treatment in this particular narrative, the Greek-born superhero should too.
Antetokounmpo’s 30.89 PER was the 12th-best ever – to wit, Harden finished with the 18th-highest PER ever – with only certain first-ballot Hall of Famers ahead of him on the list. The 6-foot-11 transplant tallied 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, all career-highs, and led the Bucks to their most complete season since 1980-81 with 60 wins. It wasn’t just a one-man offensive show, either, as Antetokounmpo finished in second for Defensive Player of the Year voting, only thwarted by the transcendent Rudy Gobert.
Narratives are a two-way street. Simply put, they are vastly-differing stories told from unique angles, all completed to a bow with drama-filled chapters and compelling character growth. For Harden, however, this was his sequel – a far more boring case study depending on who is asked, or if they’re a believer in voting fatigue. The bearded menace and his renewed effort was an impressive follow-up, but one for a story we had just experienced the year prior, if not elevated a few notches higher.
Harden – if his own narrative arc theory is to be accepted – already had his big, bombastic assault on the record books.
To do that all again – somehow improving on his MVP-awarded 2017-18 campaign – was to merely be James Harden. The rise of Antetokounmpo was both fresh and organic — so really, Harden never had a chance.
Just as movie studios across the country churn out blockbuster reboot or uninspired series-extenders with no end in sight, there is nothing more compelling than a brand new story. When a modern lead gives the audience something to invest in – say working to overthrow a seemingly-unmovable giant like the Warriors – the narrative begins to look a little different, even if it still remains largely the same.
Since LeBron James reeled off four MVP wins in five years from 2008-13 – only interrupted in the middle by an otherworldly run by Derrick Rose, case in point – there have been five different honorees in six seasons. Whether bias, inherently or unconsciously, muddied the voting procedure in April, it should hardly matter now. Antetokounmpo was a worthy choice, an underdog story turned superstar destroyer as it finally reached its true destination, all as a Greek-born baller led a franchise to their best record in almost forty years.
Antetokounmpo came from nothing in Athens; for Milwaukee, it was a gamble of epic, unprecedented proportions. Unlike the majority of other international prospects, the film that existed on him barely constituted as noteworthy at all. Grainy tape of a lanky Antetokounmpo styling over high-schoolers hardly represented the type of guaranteed potential that most top-ranked Division-I prospects possessed.
Even at No. 15 overall, it was certainly feasible that the Bucks would regret reaching on Antetokounmpo down the road. But as the journey unfolded, slowly and surely, it became clear just how special a rim-running, defensive-hound at point forward might end up being. Watching Antetokounmpo evolve and develop, each year becoming a little better than the last, was a page-turning, can’t-look-away novel that would’ve dominated best-sellers lists had it been written down as words instead.
At the core, we all tell stories to keep ourselves alive. We tell them to children with eager ears, we write about them in hopes of distilling a moment in time — if only to save a feeling for those that came before us and those that will come after. We tell stories in our constant search of the unique and unfamiliar, the exciting and exhilarating, just in an attempt to unearth something not yet seen before. Stories, and embracing the characters held within those pages, are a crucial foundation of life itself.
Last year, Antetokounmpo was the book that people couldn’t quit, the novella that needed the perfect ending, the cherry on top of a historic franchise-best sundae. Justifiably, that league-wide pilgrimage got its fireworks-worthy finale when Antetokounmpo lifted the MVP trophy through choked-back tears, forever thankful for the fans, organization and country that once embraced a skinny, unknown teenager from a different planet altogether.
Narratives, as Harden rightfully opines, can take on a life of their own, often spinning out of control and leaving all those behind in a torrid wake – for better or worse. That phenomenon is not a sports-only issue either; that type of invested energy in others you believe in or hate on is human nature.
And, most of all, the craziest part of all this: James is probably right, he deserved MVP. But so did Giannis Antetokounmpo, preconceived narratives or unwritten chapters be damned.
We’re always searching for the next big story and Antetokounmpo handed it to the world on a silver platter – who were we to say no?
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Atlantic Division.
The NBA’s return grows nearer, but new doubts bubble up each day thanks numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 tests and surging virus numbers in numerous states — including Florida, where games will be hosted. Regardless as to whether or not we all agree with its return, we are fewer than 30 days away from NBA basketball. With that in mind, we at Basketball Insiders are going through each division and identifying “6 Situations” we feel are worth keeping an eye on. We’ve wrapped up work on the Northwest, Southwest and Central. Today, we get to the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division is unique in that it’s the only division with four teams currently seeded in the NBA Playoffs (and one of three divisions with four teams returning for the final eight games). Still, many of the Atlantic Division’s major plotlines are rooted in the future and not the remaining eight games or the playoffs. There’s a lot of questions surrounding roster composition, coaching staffs and draft picks. So without further adieu, let’s explore the most compelling situations the Atlantic Division has to offer.
Knicks face another pressure-filled draft
The Knicks really, really need to make the right pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily need to win the draft lottery, but they must add another cornerstone player. They missed out on the opportunity to land a guaranteed star last year when they fell to the third overall pick in 2019 despite owning the worst record in the entire league — and that draft featured really only two sure things. They had almost as bad luck in 2018, when they won only 29 games (in 2017-18) and finished with only the ninth-worst record in a relatively star-studded draft. And so on and so forth.
But it’s not as if the Knicks are starting from scratch. There’s Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, who has exceeded any and all expectations set for him. There’s also RJ Barrett, who looks the part of at least a legitimate NBA starter – and maybe even, dare I say, a star. But that’s about all they can count on. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are promising, but possess red flags that hurt their standings with New York and their trade value around the league.
Much of the Knicks’ 2020 draft will be luck. They have the sixth-worst record in the league, so they possess only a 9% chance of winning the lottery and a 27.6% chance of landing a top-three pick. As much as “best player available” is an overused cliché (to the extent that it actually describes a bad strategy almost as often as it’s good), the Knicks should adhere to it. After all, they have so many needs and there’s really only one guy they’d prefer over everyone else (LaMelo Ball). Assuming they aren’t lucky enough to draft him, there’s still Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin — of whom plug into the Knicks lineup nicely. Even James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards would be nice additions, although their fit is redundant with Robinson and Barrett already in two, respectively.
Long story short, there are lots of options for the Knicks. New York must: A) not slide down in the lottery, which is out of their hands; and B) avoid making a bad selection. Ultimately, a number of teams will consider trading away lottery picks, and the Knicks have a number of other first-round picks they can pair with their 2020 pick to move up. There are lots of options they can consider. They just can’t mess this one up.
While the draft is only partially in their control, the Knicks must also select the right coach
The Knicks have had five head coaches since Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher in 2014, and they’ve had three team presidents. New team president Leon Rose appears to be fully invested in this coaching search though, lining up a number of interviews with some candidates, some of whom could also be auditioning for assistant roles. There are presently at least eight candidates, but there are clear front runners — and then ones who should remove themselves from consideration fairly quickly. The Knicks should almost certainly avoid chasing gimmicky candidates in hopes of them attracting additional talent — Jason Kidd is a good example. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds great, but the Knicks have been burned chasing star free agents before — and it’s definitely not a reason to hire a head coach. Another candidate the Knicks should probably avoid is Mike Woodson. Woodson is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he’s already led the Knicks. Granted, he led them farther than any other head coach since Jeff Van Gundy; but the Knicks need a coach to come in and motivate and teach their young roster — and while Woodson is seen as being player-friendly, he’s not thought of as a developer of talent.
Kenny Atkinson should get a long look. He was an assistant coach with the Knicks from 2008-2012, and he’s familiar with the pressure that goes along with being a head coach in New York (Brooklyn). More importantly, Atkinson is thought to be excellent at player development, which bodes well for his candidacy. Tom Thibodeau is another candidate thought under serious consideration. His relationship with Rose, his former agent, should make for a warmer interview. The young Knicks are probably not entirely ready for Thibodeau’s intensity, but he would improve team defense, (probably) mold Frank Ntilikina into a DPOY candidate and bring unparalleled professionalism to the locker room.
There are other candidates who deserve a fair look, too – including interim coach Mike Miller, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley and Becky Hammon. There are almost too many candidates, but that’s a good problem to have. Now, all the Knicks have to do is pick correctly.
Can Jacque Vaughn solidify his future in Brooklyn?
The Nets were riding incredibly high this time last year (although we all were, relatively speaking). Now, not so much.
The Nets will return to action as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There was essentially no chance of them leapfrogging Philadelphia, but they’re only a half-game up on Orlando. As much as we in the media built up the idea that Kevin Durant might return, that was always a very long shot. Even Kyrie Irving was unlikely to return given that he underwent shoulder surgery in early March. But still, Brooklyn’s young core could benefit from the opportunity to jell under coach Jacque Vaughn.
But much of what Brooklyn (and Vaughn) hoped to accomplish was predicated on the notion that the team was able to learn its recently appointed interim coach (and vice versa). Instead, they learned about Spencer Dinwiddie’s positive COVID-19 test, which will likely result in him missing the NBA’s return. Their (relatively) newly-appointed starting center DeAndre Jordan also announced that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and that he’ll sit out the remaining games. They also received the unwelcome news that Wilson Chandler was opting out of the remainder of the season. Oh, and rookie Nic Claxton will also miss the rest of the year due to shoulder surgery. So can Coach Vaughn still make a case to return as the Nets head coach next season?
Ultimately, the Nets were never going to advance without Durant and Irving. Will it be even harder for Vaughn to prove his worth now? Maybe. Without Irving and Durant, the Nets were never going to advance beyond the first round, regardless of if they draw the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks. But the Nets front office, led by general manager Sean Marks, has been particularly adept at reading between the lines. They traded for D’Angelo Russell when his value was at its lowest, drafted Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and picked coach Kenny Atkinson. While it’s unclear if Vaughn is the best man for the job, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to make his case for it.
Will the 76ers’ “Process” come to fruition?
After taking the eventual 2019 NBA Champions to the last second of regulation in a game seven, the Philadelphia 76ers were identified as one of a select few teams to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. After a strong start that was solidified with an exclamation point in a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, they lost their way — going 16-16 after the holiday.
Their struggles resulted in (or from) injuries to their two best players — Ben Simons and Joel Embiid, who missed 11 and 21 games, respectively. It got so bad that rumors surfaced about the 76ers potentially moving one or the other as soon as this offseason.
But the play stoppage may result in some positives for Philadelphia. Both Simmons and Embiid had time to heal from their ailments. And while they are in the unfortunate position of being tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker. Fortunately, Philadelphia has a pretty easy schedule with games against San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. They also play Indiana on Aug. 1. So the 76ers control their own destiny, at least as far as securing the fifth seed.
Unfortunately, their consolation prize would be a first-round matchup against Miami. While that’s a tall task for any team outside of the greater-LA area, Philadelphia needs to demonstrate progress. Organizationally, they’ve invested a lot of time in this rebuild. They’d like to see progress. In fact, the fate of this iteration of the 76ers might depend on at least advancing beyond the first round. If they don’t, Embiid and/or Simmons, coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand could all be elsewhere as of next season.
Does a deep run mandate that the Raptors bring back their core, again?
The Raptors have been the biggest thorn in the side of this writer – pretty much all season. I saw a golden opportunity for them to rebuild on the fly. Masai Ujiri knew better. He brought back most of the 2018-19 lineup and, sure enough, Toronto is entering the final eight games as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
That alone is far from a major victory, especially for the defending champions. Expectations traditionally remain high after winning. Even with Kawhi Leonard leaving town, the Raptors were clearly confident they could make a run. Further, there is the financial side of the business that probably factored in – remember, playoff games bring in significantly more revenue than the regular season. While that is in question now with games being hosted exclusively in Disney World, no one could have predicted the arrival of a pandemic when decisions were being made in the summer of 2019. And next year’s finances will present complications, too. Will the Raptors agree to continue spending without the guarantee of revenue? You can bet that the Knicks and Lakers will. Beyond them, nothing is certain in terms of spending.
But regardless if you believe in the direction taken by the Raptors for 2019-20 or not, they’ve out-performed expectations. If they fail to advance past even the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a strong case to be made for a quick rebuild. But if they advance the to the Conference Finals or beyond, can Ujiri convince ownership to get on board with dismantling a team that would have played in at least two straight conference finals and secured its first NBA Championship? In total, the team is only on the hook for about $85 million next year, but Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all enter unrestricted free agency. The Raptors will have to open up their wallets to retain even two out of those three, which would be a necessity if they hope to compete again next season — and that could make their 2020-21 salary untenable.
Another interesting aspect – will Ujiri even return? Rumors circulated – as they always do when New York is involved – that the Knicks were preparing Ujiri a monster offer. But they’ve since moved forward with new team president, Leon Rose. However, there are other high-profile teams that could use his help. Our very own Matt John wrote about a few in his The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference this past March. Philadelphia would be a great fit given how much talent they’re sitting on and their (likely) desire to improve if they don’t at least qualify for the conference finals. The Chicago Bulls are another team that could entice Ujiri to jump ship. Regardless, Toronto faces tough decisions following the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Boston’s present looks great. But what’s next?
Like Toronto, the Boston Celtics are looking down the barrel at some interesting salary cap implications. Boston’s roster looks well-structured considering its relative youth and versatility. But the challenge lies in its future — can Boston add to its core to the extent that it builds a serious contender?
As mentioned above, freeing up the cap space needed to sign another star will be made more complicated by the restrictions that a smaller cap will introduce. Gordon Hayward has a $34 million player option for 2020-21. Prior to the monumental financial challenges presented by COVID-19, this writer expected him to opt-out and sign a long-term deal. But the salary cap will take a significant hit, and the days of teams handing out $30 million per year are probably over for now, at least for players who aren’t major difference makers. So, expect to see Hayward on Boston’s roster next season, as well as on their payroll. Ultimately, the Celtics will have approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary next season, which includes Enes Kanter’s player option and Tatum’s $9.89 cap hit, but not counting any other team options like Daniel Theis ($5 million), Robert Williams ($2 million) or Semi Ojeleye ($1.75 million).
Looking past next season, Tatum will almost certainly sign a long-term extension (this offseason, but his 2020-21 cap hit will be unaffected) that cannibalizes much of Boston’s future cap space. There’s also the new CBA, which will be hurt by COVID-19, and the NBA and Daryl Morey’s dust-up with China, which originated last summer, to factor in.
So that leads us to an interesting question: Are the Celtics good enough to win a championship as is? If they decide the answer is no, they’ll be severely restricted in what moved they can make. Long-term implications are difficult to anticipate; but in the short-term, Ainge and the Celtics should look to add veterans willing to sign lucrative, short-term deals, looking to chase championships. Players like Danilo Gallinari – although many in the know believe Gallinari will sign with Miami – or Derrick Favors would be good additions to the already talented Celtics. They’d add much-needed talent and (hopefully) accept slightly smaller roles for the opportunity to contend. And getting Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to help with recruiting would go a long way.
Like all divisions, the Atlantic Division’s teams possess their share of issues to sort out. No Atlantic Division team is poised to win now, but many are on the right track. If these six situations are handled correctly, all five teams will be in better places in the near future.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Central Division
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by taking a look at issues that teams in the Central Division will have to confront in the near future.
Bringing up situations for the Central Division feels a little more suitable, seeing how three of the eight teams that were left out of the 22-team bubble are from that group of five. 60 percent of the division’s season is already over and looking towards what next year’s plans are. However, that doesn’t mean those in this division whose seasons will continue next month don’t have pressing issues that need to and will be addressed soon enough.
Let’s take a look.
Milwaukee Bucks – Can they convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around?
That’s right, Bucks fans. You’ve probably heard it about a thousand times by now, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more between now and next summer. Giannis’ next deal will be on everyone’s mind for the next year. The Bucks can dominate the regular season all they want. If that dominance doesn’t translate into any substantial postseason success, then that could be all the motive for Giannis to jump ship.
Giannis has pledged his loyalty to Milwaukee on numerous occasions, and the Bucks have built a team that fits around him like a glove. Yet, there still seems to be this stigma that’s making everyone uneasy when talking about his long-term status with the team. Oddly enough, this unease hasn’t stemmed from anything Giannis has done, but from what some of his compatriots have done over the past decade.
LeBron James set the standard for superstar players choosing to leave their original upper-tier teams for greener pastures, and since then, we’ve seen the same happen over and over again with players who followed in his footsteps. Kevin Durant did it. Kawhi Leonard did it. LeBron’s done it twice more since “The Decision.” No matter what Giannis says or how the Bucks fare, no one knows how this will play out until the Greek Freak signs his name on the dotted line.
Of course, if the Bucks win the championship this year or next — which as we all know is definitely in the cards — then all of these concerns most likely will be put to bed easily, but we’ll have to see it first. It won’t be long now before we see if the Bucks can do enough to keep the best player the franchise has had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Indiana Pacers – How will they approach the Victor Oladipo contract situation?
This is a potential issue that needs to be brought up more than it has been. Oladipo has been the symbol of the Pacers’ new era of basketball — bedazzling the masses, grinding out the games, and above all else, exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of whether he can be the same player he was before his knee balked may put him at odds with the Pacers when they discuss his next extension.
The ‘Dipo we got from 2017-18 would definitely be worth every penny of a max extension, but the Pacers had that guy for only one season. No one knows if that version of Victor Oladipo will resurface. The playoff bubble will be a golden opportunity for him to show that he can still be that guy, and even if he’s not, he’s got another season to do the same. Come to think of it, there may not have been an individual player who benefited more from this time off than Oladipo did now that he had even more time to rest and rehab his knee.
Oladipo definitely showed some encouraging signs before the season halted, but what if he doesn’t get back to that level? Do the Pacers give him a max extension on good faith and/or sentiment? Teams have done that, and some came to regret it. It’s worth mentioning that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Oladipo gets back to full health, but is not quite able to get back to where he was. He was an above-average player before his surprise ascension in Indiana. There’s nothing wrong with having a guy like that locked up long-term…at a modest price.
Knowing his story, no one in the world should be rooting against Oladipo rediscovering his old form. We do have to ponder what his and the Pacers’ options are if he doesn’t.
Indiana Pacers – Will they end the Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner pairing once and for all?
All signs certainly point to yes. The two of them have gotten better as a pairing — together they have a plus-2.1 net rating which is a step up from the past — but that may have to do with Sabonis continuing to stake his claim as one of the league’s best young bigs while Turner has stayed the same, give or take. They still aren’t a great duo, and they probably never will be.
So the next move would be to trade one of them, with the odd man out indisputably being Turner. Sabonis has morphed into an All-Star this year while Turner’s progress continues to stagnate. At the same time, it’s a nice privilege to have two young bigs who, even if they don’t play well together, can alter the course of the game with their individual skill sets.
In all honesty, they don’t have to trade either of them if they don’t feel a pressing need to. They have both locked up on reasonable contracts. Neither has expressed any issues playing with one another. They would have to figure who would be better for which matchup, but that’s not the hardest task. Until someone wants out, Indiana can ride this out with the duo intact.
Odds are, Turner probably will get traded in the near future, but it’s not like the Pacers will be beyond desperate to get rid of him.
Chicago Bulls – Is Jim Boylen the next man to go?
Again, the obvious answer should be yes. This season alone, Boylen’s created quite a track record for baffling decisions that have led to a disconnect in the locker room, bizarre choices at the end of games, and of course, another season ending with a sub-.500 record. The only difference between this season and last is that there was quite a bit of optimism coming into this season.
A coach who’s done what Boylen has would usually get the first ticket out of Chicago once the season has concluded. Even with his job security remaining a hot topic for a good chunk of the season, he is still employed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, puzzling pretty much everyone in the NBA outside of Bulls’ ownership.
Chicago has already made some shake-ups in their front office by replacing Gar Forman and John Paxson with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. To some degree, this is tough for the Bulls seeing how they extended Boylen after last season, but this is about team progress more than anything. If the Bulls think Boylen is the man for the job despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, well then that’s their choice.
It just seems like, at this point, they’re being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate.
Cleveland Cavaliers – What direction exactly are they going in?
The Cavaliers were bad this year in general, but strangely enough, there were some signs of encouraging play both early on and at the end. They actually started the season okay — going 4-5 in their first nine games — before the whole John Beilein saga commenced (#SlugLife). Then, following Beilein’s resignation, the team actually started picking it up a bit before their season prematurely ended. Even if they wound up with the worst record in the Eastern Conference — 19-46 — they won half of their last 12 games.
Their outlook for the future is kind of difficult to see. They have a promising arsenal of young talent — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. — and they also have a fair amount of veterans on the team in Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson that makes their roster pretty confusing. Love’s been on the trade market since pretty much the start of last season, yet is still on the team. Then, when the team’s already way out of playoff contention, they go out and get Andre Drummond because… well, why not get Andre Drummond? Especially at the price Cleveland paid?
Now, they are in discussions to extend Drummond and Tristan Thompson’s free agency is coming up. They also have a potentially high lottery pick coming their way. The results J.B. Bickerstaff got as the coach were promising, albeit too short to draw conclusions. So, what exactly is the plan going on in “The Land?” Their roster is full of guys who are on different timelines right now. Are they going to commit to the youth movement, or are they going to cash in to acquire a star or two? Because there are definitely going to be some available this summer.
Even though the Cavaliers have been pretty bad since LeBron’s second departure, since they’ve kept a good chunk of their veterans, they haven’t embraced a rebuild. Perhaps they’re preparing to make a big splash, or maybe they are delaying the inevitable. No matter what, they could be an interesting player in what’s going to be a pretty boring offseason.
Detroit Pistons – What do they do with Blake Griffin?
You know, Detroit definitely has one of, if not the bleakest outlook in the league right now. They only have three players on the roster that have the potential to be more than they are right now: Christian Wood, who they lucked into; Luke Kennard, who they tried to trade(?!); and Sekou Doumbouya, who is largely raw and not much else. Other than that, they have mostly roster filler and veterans whose services would be better used elsewhere in Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway. They paid the price for waiting too long to trade Andre Drummond, and now, they might be stuck with Blake Griffin for the duration of his max contract.
Getting a nice shiny lottery pick will probably help things a bit, but whether prime Blake is coming back or not, he really does not have a place on this roster anymore (not that he really had one before?), and that might be the exact problem in Motown. With all the surgeries accumulating, it’s tough to foresee if we’re going to get the same Blake that we’re used to seeing. Granted, prime athletic Blake will never be back, but the one that accommodated his game because of said lost athletic ability may not be there, either.
If, by some miracle, Blake shows enough to draw interest, Detroit should take the first offer it gets because this team is definitely headed for a rebuild and has absolutely no use for the former MVP candidate. The chances of that happening are not good in the slightest. Blake’s injuries continue to pile up, and that contract is pretty expensive to take on. It would have been easier to take on before Coronavirus got in the way, but that’s like saying a turtle will race better than a snail.
It’s a shame that a great player like Blake Griffin may have to spend the remainder of his prime — if his prime is still here — on a team that has no use for him, but that’s life in the NBA.
Unlike our previous installments, these situations are going to be looked into much sooner than later. Much like our previous installments, none of them have straightforward solutions.
NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Southwest Division
Ben Nadeau continues the 6 Situations series by checking on those battling it out in the Southwest Division.
With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.
Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some country-wide. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.
If you can donate, consider doing so. If you can’t donate, educate yourself. Even if you donate, continue to read, learn and listen.
Or try this: If you finish this article and come away having learned something, donate something of your own: Time, supplies, a tough conversation — whatever. Consider it a trade, do whatever it takes. Make a difference, even if it’s a small one.
Yesterday, Matt John dug into the next steps for the Northwest Division – what will become of this surprisingly successful Oklahoma City roster? Where will Mike Conley Jr. fit moving forward for Utah? But the Southwest is an awfully crowded collection of franchises, one in which all five teams are involved in July’s restart. Although some of them should certainly fair better than others, stocked by MVP candidates, up-and-comers and veteran-led rosters, there’s plenty to ponder beyond this summer.
Many didn’t know what the NBA would look like if and when it returned – but now that they have, the same question and logic applies to the forthcoming muddied and rapid-fire offseason too. Blow it up or keep it together? Cut costs or go all-in? Although the restart shouldn’t be used to draw any consequential decisions, it may inform front offices of the best way forward — even if it may be a painful direction.
In the spirit of revving up the ol’ crystal ball prediction machine, here comes the Southwest Division.
Houston Rockets: Did the James Harden + Russell Westbrook experiment work?
And what needs to happen to make another season more successful?
As mentioned in the Rockets’ X-Factor piece, the fit of Russell Westbrook has always been a suspect one. Despite all the assumed pitfalls, it was ultimately a plunge worth taking in lieu of Chris Paul’s massive deal – but will anything come of it? In this current iteration, built entirely around James Harden and a system that nearly propelled him to back-to-back MVP awards, the Rockets have hoisted up three-pointers like they’re going out of style for years and years.
However, that becomes a bit dicier as a team-wide mantra when the new point guard has struggled from there for over a decade. Westbrook’s best-ever mark is 34.3 percent (2016-17), which would stand as a career-low for his backcourt partner. Former key shooters like Eric Gordon and Danuel House have regressed from deep, while they’ve missed Gerald Green entirely. Compounded by their decision to deal the up-and-coming Clint Capela for wing defense and more shooting, the Rockets now run with P.J. Tucker as the starting center.
If Houston struggles at all to re-acclimate in Orlando, they could pay a pretty hefty first-round price. And if they flame out quickly during the Golden State Warriors’ now infamous down year – then what is the real ceiling of this redesigned roster? Any potential departure of Westbrook would be marred by the same criteria that brought him to the Rockets in the first place – the price and years left on a big contract. This iteration is one that runs awfully hot-and-cold — they’re part of the NBA elite. But those off-nights, against the more powerful and consistent Western Conference, are seeding killers.
Logical progression might suggest that the best way forward is a structure reset — find a real center, build for more balance, etc – but it might not be possible. Harden, of course, is used to doing the impossible – and he’ll need to in July.
If the Rockets can’t make combination work – both in the short- and long-term – they’ll have more questions than answers with very little influence in changing them. Houston has rolled the dice significantly on this pairing, now it needs to improve… or else.
Dallas Mavericks: Are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzinigs fully healed and healthy?
Will they need another star to truly compete?
This sentiment assumes that Luka Doncic cannot transcend rosters – hell, he’s already done that in Dallas over a season-plus. But in the Western Conference, it’ll take more than just a perennial MVP candidate to top that massive hierarchy. That’s also why they moved for an injured Kristaps Porzingis last year and re-signed him before the Latvian ever played a game – Batman needed a Robin.
Over 51 games for Dallas, Porzingis has averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over 31 minutes – numbers that saw a healthy boost during the contests in which Doncic missed out in early February. Recovering from ACL injuries are no joke, so the Mavericks were rightfully careful not to push Porzingis too quickly, even frequently scheduling rest days in 2020. Alongside Doncic, the international duo could make waves as a lower-seeded opponent down in Orlando. But if they get matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, a year of great growth may end swiftly.
Losing to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard would be of no immense shame, especially in the midst of the weirdest NBA season ever. But matched at 40 wins with Oklahoma City and Houston, the Mavericks will have work to do in the loss column if they’d like to move up the ladder at all. Assuming that the quarantine has done nothing to negatively change the health of their stars, they’ll have two ready-to-go 20 point scorers — but will that be enough?
After that pair, Dallas’ best scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr. at 15.8 points per game – but as an up-and-down shooter, he’s had plenty of off-nights to go with the explosiveness. With 17 games in 2019-20 with 11 points or less, that probably won’t get it done against a balanced Denver roster, much less an LA-based superteam. In a strange COVID-19 landscape, both on the trade market and in free agency, who knows what upgrades or replacements will even exist in the next modified offseason.
Doncic is an incredible, still-improving superstar – but we’re about to find out just how good he can be.
San Antonio Spurs: Is it time, at long last, to blow it up and start over?
Is there any reason to ponder Gregg Popovich’s future?
The Spurs, although trekking down to Orlando, have a tough mountain to climb to reach the No. 8 seed – again, just to play the Lakers.
It’s a task that became even harder when LaMarcus Aldridge underwent season-ending surgery a few weeks ago. But if we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s wise not to bet against Gregg Popovich. Of course, the legendary coach has led San Antonio to the postseason in every single campaign since 1997-98. At 27-36, the odds aren’t great – but the soon-to-be Hall of Famer has done more with less before.
He’s still got DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs still have Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and a wisened Rudy Gay as well. There’s even the potential to just unleash Lonnie Walker and see what happens – for better or worse. Losing Aldridge hurts, perhaps a bit too much, but Popovich is still Popovich.
Regardless of their slim chances next month, there’s still speculation about the head coach’s future in general. 71 years of age is no spring chicken, a stance only fueled further by recent attempts to elevate responsibilities for assistant coaches like Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan. Naturally, the Spurs are synonymous with Popovich until he decides differently – but once his historic postseason streak is officially struck down, where does a potentially rebuilding team go from there?
Would they try to move on from a near-expiring DeRozan contract? What about an aging Aldridge that only has $7 million guaranteed in 2020-21? If they miss the playoffs and deal with the tough reality of a rebuild, could they – finally, truly, actually – take that path? Even if Orlando goes swimmingly, this is a franchise that might look vastly different the next time basketball begins, whenever that is.
New Orleans Pelicans: How much Zion Williamson is too much?
Which players tested positive for COVID-19 and will their availability change in Orlando?
Look, obviously, most everybody would like to see Zion Williamson against the Lakers in a seven-game series. Undoubtedly, the NBA didn’t want to erase that possibility either.
Beyond Williamson, the Pelicans have the tools and roster to make a real go of it too — Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, etc. But the biggest question of all is where the former No. 1 overall pick stands in terms of health and conditioning. Pushing a postseason berth at the risk of another serious injury wouldn’t be worth it – so surely the New Orleans front office has been pondering minute allocations since the stoppage in March.
If Williamson is in better shape than ever, watch out. . . but the Pelicans certainly have a responsibility to protect their franchise cornerstone beyond this odd restart.
On Tuesday, Andrew Lopez of ESPN noted that the Pelicans had three of the 16 recently positive COVID-19 tests. While young athletes can recover from the virus – and David Griffin has said he expects everybody to go to Florida – the pandemic has been anything but predictable.
Both DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie announced that they’d tested positive too. In Jordan’s case, he was immediately opting out of the restart, while Dinwiddie wants to recover in time but has some worrying symptoms to deal with first – including a fever and chest tightness. Without guarantees of perfect health here on out in the Pelicans’ trio of cases, that could have plenty of impact in their play-in chase.
This is an evolving story, undoubtedly, but will it dent the postseason momentum New Orleans has on their side? Only time will tell.
Memphis Grizzlies: Would a veteran star elevate the roster in 2020-21 or should the team keep growing organically?
The Memphis Grizzlies have been the surprise team of the season out westward, led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillion Brooks and a cast of supporting players, both young and old.
But the franchise is fast approaching a fork in the road – should they push their stack toward the middle of the betting table? Or will they continue to let their budding stars grow? Outside of the newly-re-signed Anthony Tolliver, the bit work of Gorgui Dieng, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill have played key minutes in Memphis’ successes, but none are part of the long-term plan.
The one massively contributing veteran stalwart has been Jonas Valanciunas, who has averaged 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in just 26.3 minutes per game – an underrated factor in the squad’s rapid climb. At 27-years-old, the Lithuanian will earn $29 million between 2020-22, so it’ll hardly be a cap killer should the right move arise during the offseason.
Adding a star player in the offseason could push them up over the top as an eventual contender – but who will be available and at what price? The Grizzlies have rebuilt tremendously, so they must be careful about attempting to skip steps in the process. It might be tempting to ship off a player or two for a win-now option – however, we’ve seen that be the dagger in up-and-coming rosters time and time again.
Ultimately, of all the teams in the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies have one of the rosiest outlooks right now. Nobody in the core is aging out, the window is just beginning to open, the current stars are bright already and everybody remains as healthy as one might be during a worldwide pandemic. The Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs own fascinating questions for their stars and roster-wide makeup – but the Pelicans and Grizzlies appear to be next-up contenders, all they must do is wait it out without getting hasty.
Easier said than done.
After the Orlando seeding games conclude in August, we’ll likely have a much better picture of where these five franchises stand, both today and down the road.
Until then, the crystal ball will have to do.