The last few weeks haven’t been kind to the Boston Celtics.
The Kyrie Irving debacle has completely changed the trajectory of the once-thought NBA Finals contender. As the season degraded, their chance to retain the star guard, and maintain a long-term window for title contention, did so with it.
And, now, with the free agent frenzy upon us, another big name is primed to leave Boston.
While many expected Al Horford to decline his player option and re-up with the Celtics for the foreseeable future, Horford has reportedly changed course. Now, the 33-year-old is expected to hit the open market in search of greener (and more lucrative) pastures — just not Celtics green.
Horford isn’t the top player available this summer. But, while he is often overlooked, there is a lot that he can do for a team on the court. A two-way player unlike many others in the NBA, Horford can contribute at a high level on both ends of the floor. He may not single-handedly take a team to a title, but Horford is the type of hard-working, team-first player that is essential to get there.
Any team could make use of a player like Horford, and there are plenty of potential suitors out there. But which could prove the best fit for the big man next season?
The Mavericks are building something special in Dallas.
The rising star power of recently anointed Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic is obvious. But a pairing with fellow European star Kristaps Porzingis — who, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, is expected to receive a five-year, $158 million contract from Dallas — could rocket them into contender status.
Porzingis hasn’t played in over a year due to a torn left ACL suffered in February 2018. It’s certainly fair to question how the rust from the prolonged absence could affect his game, but Porzingis was a dominant force with the New York Knicks prior to his injury and had his own look of a star in the making. Should he find that form upon his return, the pair could form one of the more dominant duos in the Association.
But, with the cap space they should have after Porzingis’ deal, why not take it a step further?
Pairing Porzingis with Horford would not only allow Horford to slide from center to his preferred position of power forward, but it would create a formidable defensive duo. Horford has proven time and time again that he is one of the best defensive players, let alone bigs, in the NBA while the 7-foot-3 Porzingis has the advantage over almost any matchup in the paint. Together, the two would almost certainly dominate.
Aside from the defensive prospects, Horford would form quite the offensive duo — and lighten the load — with the young Doncic. Horford, who averaged 13.6 points and shot 36% from three-point range last season, would be an excellent pick-and-pop partner for the soon-to-be-sophomore and could take on some of the scoring responsibilities that fell to Doncic last season, especially after the deadline deal that jettisoned Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan.
Horford, at times, could act as an offense initiator as well, providing more time for Doncic to rest as he won’t have to dominate the ball.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have big aspirations this Summer.
Namely, Kawhi Leonard.
Los Angeles has been tied to Leonard dating back to last season and, despite the fact that Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship, they have continued to be connected to him. Leonard, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, is set to meet with the Clippers at the start of free agency.
Regardless of what goes down with Leonard, the outcome shouldn’t preclude the Clippers from going after another big name free agent. Whether to pair him with Leonard or otherwise, Horford would fit nicely alongside a solid Clippers’ roster in a seemingly wide-open Western Conference.
It’s not as if Horford would be the only major piece for the Clippers — three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, alongside Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet headline a talented Los Angeles roster that held their own against the Golden State Warriors in their first-round series. But it is clear that the Clippers and they just need someone to push them to that next level.
While Leonard is the dream scenario (and a pairing with Horford even better) just Horford alone could be enough to take them there.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers roster is a bit bare right now.
Of course, on the eve of free agency, almost every team has the look of an empty cupboard. But for the Lakers, who shipped out much of their under-contract roster in order to acquire Anthony Davis (and later open up another max salary slot), there is some serious work to be done.
The Lakers have the talent; Davis alongside LeBron James could dominate the court with three other players plucked off the street. But the biggest question for the Lakers now is what to do with that extra max slot: do they split the salary into multiple players, or go for the star free agent home run?
The former may be the better choice, but should Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers opt for the latter? They also, reportedly, have a meeting with Leonard, but Horford may be the best fit for the Lakers (and their only choice, should things continue the way they have thus far with Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker).
Horford, alongside Davis, James and Kyle Kuzma, would form a potent offensive foursome, regardless of whatever other pieces the team can convince to sign on. Both Horford, Davis and Kuzma can all stretch the floor, which would completely open up the inside for James to get downhill and drive to the basket. Horford could also serve as a nice pick-and-pop option for James.
As with Doncic and the Mavericks, Horford could also bring the ball up the court at times, further reducing the offensive burden on James.
Defensively, Horford could help pick up the slack for a 36-year-old James, who could look to rest on defense (as he has in recent seasons) to stay fresh for an inevitable stretch run.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans could be a tough sell to a veteran like Horford.
After a postseason appearance a year ago, the Pelicans saw their record plummet to 33-49 this season while their best player, Davis, demanded a trade.
But, after some managerial magic (and some draft lottery luck) from recent hire David Griffin, the Pelicans are poised to experience the biggest of bounce backs, armed with Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, the massive haul acquired via the Davis trade and potentially more than $30 million in cash. An NBA title may be out of the question, but a competitive season culminating with a postseason run may not be too far off.
And, there is some interest in Horford, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times
Throwing money at Horford wouldn’t be a terrible investment, either. While he may not propel them to a title, Horford would instantly become one of their most important, multi-faceted assets. Yes, his on-court contributions would help them win games — pick and pop with Jrue Holiday and spacing for Williamson could prove integral to an offense that wasn’t exactly great last season — but his veteran poise and presence may be the most important thing someone like Horford could bring to New Orleans; despite the hype, Williamson is still a rookie, and a veteran like Horford could make a world of difference for him, fellow freshman Jaxson Hayes and the other youngsters coming in via Los Angeles.
At this stage in his career, Horford may be championship or bust. If that’s the case, don’t expect much out of the bayou. But, the money would seem to be there for the taking, it’s on Horford to cash in.
The Kings could be in the market for a center.
Willie Cauley-Stein ‘needs a fresh start’ according to his agent, a move that would leave a void at the center spot in Sacramento. Of course, they have a plethora of young bigs that they could try at the five, but Harry Giles is an unproven commodity while they may opt to deploy Marvin Bagley III at the four-spot.
Enter Horford, who could not only serve as an impact starting center, but a level-headed veteran in the locker room of one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
The Kings were a major surprise last season; expected to be one of the worst teams in the Association, the Kings were in the postseason hunt until the last days of the regular season. Similar growth from their home-grown talent — Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, etc. — plus the addition of Horford could launch them into the thick of the Western Conference playoff pack, something huge for a team that hasn’t seen the postseason in over a decade.
That lack of success could also be a deterrent though. Should Horford look to ring chase in his next contract, an upstart Kings team (not unlike the Pelicans) may be a tough sell. But the fit is there and, if rings are secondary (i.e. Horford is looking for his last chance to cash in big), the Kings could be an ideal landing spot for him.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder showed interest in Horford back when he was a free agent in 2016 and, looking for something to right their postseason wrongs, it isn’t a stretch to think they would have interest three years later.
General Manager Sam Presti would have to pull off some serious salary cap gymnastics to swing a deal (through either free agency or via a sign-and-trade) — whether that be moving some combination of Steven Adams, Patrick Patterson Dennis Schroder or Andre Roberson or something else entirely — but Horford could be the remedy that Oklahoma City is desperate for.
While Paul George looked like an MVP candidate at times, Russell Westbrook — despite the fact that he averaged a triple-double for the third season in a row — took a major step back and held them back in the postseason. Horford would be an immediate upgrade over Adams as a floor stretcher, as his presence on the outside would prevent teams from rushing the paint on Westbrook drives or focusing solely on George when he has the ball.
Defensively, Horford is stout and, while he may not have the reputation Adams has on that end of the court, there wouldn’t be much, there shouldn’t be much, if any dropoff from the center spot should the Thunder manage to swap one for the other in the coming days.
While he isn’t the marquee free agent this summer, Horford could be one of the top additions as we look back on this offseason. He isn’t a game breaker in a traditional sense, but the impact he has — doing a little bit of everything on the court — is enough to transform a team. With the right pieces around him (already in place or otherwise) he could push any team into the ever-growing of contenders.
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.
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