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NBA Daily: Projecting The 2018-19 All-Rookie Teams

With half of the season behind us, these are the ten first-year standouts making a push for the NBA All-Rookie squads.

Ben Nadeau

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With the first half of the NBA season firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look toward All-Star Weekend, the looming trade deadline and, ultimately, the high-stakes playoff chase. Although most of this year’s rookie class — minus one outstanding potential exception — won’t be headed to Charlotte for anything outside of the Rising Stars Challenge, there’s still the matter of sorting out this campaign’s edition of the All-Rookie squads. At this point, the sought-after Rookie of the Year honors will be headed in Luka Dončić’s direction, if not Deandre Ayton’s in the event of a major upset, but the others need not fret just yet!

If you’re in need of a refresher, the All-Rookie teams are voted on by the league’s head coaches, with the single stipulation that they are barred from choosing their own players. The rookies that earn the five highest point totals are selected to the first team, while the next set of vote-getters land on the second. Of note, building a true five-man lineup — ie, two guards, three frontcourt players — does not factor into the final result. So, while the idea of running out a real team of Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Jahlil Okafor and Devin Booker — or, in other words, the 2015-16 First Team — sounds insane in principle, it’s perfectly fair game for the All-Rookie results.

With that in mind, here’s how the two rookie teams might shake out by season’s end.

Honorable Mentions: Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls; Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks; Landry Shamet, Philadelphia 76ers; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers; Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves

First Team:

Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

What’s there to be said about Dončić that hasn’t been gushed about profusely already? He’s the current odds-on favorite to be Rookie of the Year, while also maintaining his remarkable edge as the third-highest voter-getter in the entire NBA for next month’s All-Star Game. Even if he’s not chosen as a starter, Dončić’s resume is incredible and he may just make it as a reserve selection through the head coach vote anyway. If Dončić does go to Charlotte for the Sunday fireworks, he’d be the first rookie to earn those honors since Blake Griffin in 2011 and, before that, Yao Ming in 2003.

Which is to basically say, for lack of a better term at this point: Whoa. Dončić has started all 43 contests for the Mavericks, averaging 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.5 three-pointers over 32.1 minutes per game. Craziest of all, he’ll turn just 20 years-old in February — talk about a sky-high ceiling. So, yes, Dončić is a shoo-in for the All-Rookie First Team, if not some even bigger and grander achievements before long.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

If Dončić is the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year, Ayton is a fantastic consolation prize. Selected at No. 1 overall, Ayton has been a truly special player for the Suns and the 7-foot-1 center has tallied an impressive 16.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and a block over 31 minutes per game. In a strange way, Dončić’s extremely fast rise to stardom has somehow reflected poorly on Ayton, as if the Suns missed on their evaluation of the two youngsters. But make no mistake: Ayton is a star in the making and the Suns will have likely found their franchise cornerstone for the next decade-plus as well.

In a tight battle against the Nets in December, Ayton dominated Brooklyn to the tune of 26 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks on 81.3 percent from the floor — what else could you want? Paired alongside the superhuman scoring efforts of Devin Booker, the duo currently combines for 41 of the Suns’ 106 points per game — of course, Ayton is just 20 years of age, while Booker is 22. There’s a wait-and-see approach to Ayton’s defense but he appears to be a show-stopping shot blocker at the very least. As with all of the names on this list, there’s plenty of time for Ayton to improve on that below-par front too. But for now, it’s just best to sit back and enjoy the talents of another First Team lock.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

It’s been a wild ride for Jaren Jackson Jr. through the first three months of his professional career and it’s about to get far more interesting from here on out. After starting the season as surprise postseason candidates, the Grizzlies have recently lost 10 of their last 11 games and sunk to 14th in the conference standings. Should Memphis become sellers at the deadline, Jackson’s usage could balloon between now and April — that alone would make Grizzlies games worth tuning into. At 6-foot-11, Jackson has the chance to be the class’ very best defender and he’s always exhibiting that rim protecting prowess down low.

Jackson has turned in 18 multi-block games — including 12 of three or more — in 45 games and his scoring ability is already beyond what most thought he’d display during his rookie campaign. In one late November contest, Jackson swatted seven shots and went 4-for-4 from deep — so look for no further proof that the 19-year-old might be another unicorn in the making. Within another less top-heavy draft class, Jackson would be the clear crown jewel — alas, he’s still a piece that the Grizzlies can be thrilled about building around for the foreseeable future.

Kevin Knox, New York Knicks

So far, Kevin Knox’s initial foray into the NBA has been forged from some incredible highs, not every-night consistencies. Knox has tallied below his season average of 12.5 points on 17 separate occasions — and failed to reach double-digits scoring in 13 of those — but the Knicks’ newcomer looks like a keeper nonetheless. In a couple of inspired efforts, Knox dropped 31 points and seven rebounds in a slim loss to the 76ers; then, last month, the former Wildcat recorded 26 points and 15 rebounds in stat-stuffing fashion. And although he’s had his fair share of rough performances, Knox has also knocked down two or more three-pointers in 20 games already. Useful in spots all over the floor, Knox just needs to improve his efficiencies before he becomes a household name in the demanding New York market.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as the Knicks also tout Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier and another incoming top-five draftee headed their way, plus the possibility of a max contract free agent. But whether or not the Knicks land a Kevin Durant-level player or add a blue-chipper like Zion Williamson seems less important by the game — Knox might be that good. Those in New York keep checking the horizon for their franchise savior but, the thing is, they may already have him in blue and orange.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Dončić is an incredible player, obviously, so, until very recently, any time Trae Young was mentioned, even in passing, it came back to the Hawks’ decision to make that draft day swap. Perhaps unfair, and then made even worse by Dončić’s transcendent start, it left Young with little coverage outside of that initial status as a footnote. If those days weren’t far behind already, they definitely will be now. In his own right, Young has blossomed as of late for Atlanta, even notching 16 or more points in all but two games since Christmas.

Furthermore, Young’s 7.2 assists lead all rookies by a large margin, including Dončić’s second-best mark of 5.1. Actually, it’s even better than that as Young’s impressive rate currently lands him in the top ten league-wide, only bested by perennial All-Stars and the breakout stud of the season, De’Aaron Fox. Efficiency has not always been Young’s best friend, but he’s adjusted to the stronger defenses and professional schemes as well as one might hope for such a high-usage college standout. Naturally, Young has not reached the massive summits that he did during his single season at Oklahoma — no 48-point explosions just yet — but it feels like the best is still to come here.

Second Team:

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Once touted as a possible Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Collin Sexton has settled into a positive, reliable role for the Cavaliers. Although he’s not torching opposing defenses, Sexton has held his own against stiff competition since the New Year — a list that now includes Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo. Sexton has averaged a solid 14.6 points and 2.8 assists on 41.7 percent from the field so far, all while shouldering a massive load of responsibility for one of the NBA’s worst teams. While it’d be a real shame to miss out on the potential of a Sexton and Kevin Love-led duo, snagging more future assets to put around their 20-year-old centerpiece is a tantalizing thought.

Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks

Young isn’t the only talented rookie in Atlanta and Kevin Huerter has been an excellent Robin to the point guard’s Batman. Huerter wasn’t even the starter until late November but he’s proving why he soared up draft boards during combine season. In the last month, the Hawks have turned the reins over to their wonderful class of prospects and, in turn, have won more games in the last 30 days (eight) than they did in the first 60 (six). Undoubtedly, Huerter’s microwavable scoring has been a large reason why. Known as a certifiable bucket-getter, Huerter still contributes offensively beyond just points, even registering three or more assists on 22 instances in 2018-19 already. Whether or not he turns into the next Klay Thompson, Huerter absolutely fits into the mold of the modern NBA — he’ll be on the Second Team come springtime at the very least.

Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets

Without a doubt, Rodions Kurucs has been a hot-ticket item as of late — and for good reason. The second-rounder out of Latvia has earned an increase in playing time since Dec. 14 and Nets instantly became better, that much is clear. Since Kurucs joined the starting lineup, Brooklyn has only gone 13-5, no big deal. The No. 40 overall selection has scored double-digits in four of the Nets last six games, including a 24-point breakout performance against the Boston Celtics. For a 20-year-old that was banished to the bench in Barcelona, his early contributions are out of this world. Kurucs may be raw, but he’s aggressive, fills his role and exhibits an ability to hit from long range or off the rebound. If he keeps this up, it’ll be really hard not to reward Kurucs with a well-deserved spot on the Second Team.

Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings

At this time, the spectacular is not exactly in Marvin Bagley III’s wheelhouse — but for what he lacks in gaudy statistical lines, the power forward makes up in off-the-bench consistency. Bagley has grabbed 10-plus points in his last four contests — paired with solid rebounding numbers of seven, nine, 11 and eight to boot — all over an average of just 23 minutes per game. Before a back injury knocked the rookie out for nearly a month, Bagley was still finding his feet as a reliable scorer but he’s worked well with Harry Giles, Sacramento’s other promising frontcourt asset. The Kings have gone 3-1 since his return to the rotation, so the surprise franchise could start leaning on the 19-year-old as they push to get back in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture. If Bagley gets his assumed second half bump in minutes, there’s a great chance that he’ll have the numbers and growth needed to earn these rookie honors.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

With yesterday’s news that Wendell Carter Jr. would miss the next 8-12 weeks following thumb surgery, Mikal Bridges slides seamlessly into his spot as the Suns’ two-way standout. Bridges is feeling things out as an NBA scorer, but he provides stellar defense and contributes in ways that don’t always show up in the box score. The former Villanova star won’t pour it in, especially when playing alongside the high-usage Booker, but Bridges ranks second in steals per game (1.37) and sixth in three-point percentage (34.7) among all qualified rookies. Bridges’ high BBIQ often translates into easy thefts, exhibited by his 20 multi-steal performances through 46 career contests. Bridges hasn’t begun his professional journey with as much noticeable star power as many others in his draft class, but there’s bankable potential here in no uncertain terms.

It’s only late January, so the fates of these talented rookies are nowhere close to sealed — with the exception of a generational few, of course. Competition for the two All-Rookie squads are always fierce, but more importantly, they’re not an indication or guarantee of future successes. So whether or not your favorite first-year makes the cut in April, this draft classes looks to be as good as advertised. Between Doncic gunning for an All-Star Game berth and the unexpected abilities of a second-rounder in Kurucs, the first-year narratives have been wholly entertaining — no matter where voting lands at season’s end.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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