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NBA Daily: Ranking The Point Guards

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series by taking a look at who are some of the top point guards in the NBA.

Matt John

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This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at various positions among players in the NBA and ranking who is the best of the best. Our writers have previously used very specific guidelines to rank the best players by position in the NBA.

Today, we’re taking a look at the point guards. The floor generals. The magicians.

In some ways, it’s hard to assess who’s better than who when trying to rank point guards. That’s because a lot of factors go into what makes a point guard one of the best in the league. His playmaking, his shooting, his defense, his effectiveness, etc. It also depends on what his team asks of him.

Patrick Beverley won’t be trading shots with LeBron James in Game 7 in the NBA Finals because that’s not what he’s meant to do. He’s meant to get in his opponent’s face, make every hustle play on the floor, and establish a winning culture. Anything else is an added bonus. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the most promising point guards in the league, but right now he’s not even the best point guard on his team because he’s not required to be right now.

It’s not just about how good a player can be. It’s also about how much he impacts winning. Anyone can put up flashy highlights or fill up a box score. If the team he’s playing for isn’t winning, then how good is he? Questions like these were why guys like Steve Francis fizzled early, why Kyrie Irving had skeptics in Cleveland before LeBron returned, and why D’Angelo Russell may never shake his doubters.

Trae Young is the perfect embodiment of this. Offensively, he already is one of the best all-around players in the league. Even at 21 years old, he’s already a wrecking ball, averaging a near 30/10 a night while constantly keeping opponents on their toes whenever the ball is in his hands. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s been impossible to stop.

So what’s the case against Young? Two things:

1. His team stinks. Atlanta is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference at 20-47, only a half a game better than Cleveland. That’s not entirely his fault by any means, but the lack of wins behind his name currently brings his effectiveness into question.

2. His individual defense really, really stinks. Out of 503 NBA players, Young ranks dead last in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Not to mention, there’s a fair amount of distance between his DRPM (minus-3.12) and the next one after him (Michael Porter Jr at minus-2.9). As good as he is offensively, a lot of his contributions on that end get negated by his defensive ineptitude.

Not to fret, though. Young has plenty of time to develop his game on the other end of the court. Young’s short stature may prevent him from becoming a plus defender, but with enough time and patience, he can optimistically be good enough to not routinely be at the bottom of the barrel defensively from a statistical standpoint.

Nobody is questioning Trae Young’s talent at the moment. The only reason why (Spoilers!) he is not on this particular list is that we have yet to see if he’s a winning player. That can definitely change once he proves he can do just that. We’ll just have to wait until then to find out.

As for who will make this list, please note that what determines the top eight point guards in the league this season depends on how they fared this season. Not by reputation. In any other season, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and John Wall would more likely than not be mentioned on something like this, but since the three of them played a combined 25 games this year, they’ve had next to no influence on how things have turned out.

One last little tidbit before we begin- Point guards come in all shapes and sizes these days. Even though they’re much taller than the average floor general, guys like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons are generally classified as point guards. You’d think guys like LeBron James and Nikola Jokic would be on here for that same reason since they are the focal point of their team’s offenses, but since they’re not classified as point guards, they won’t be on here. Now, let’s get to who is on here.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Most players who follow up a rookie season as seismic as Luka Doncic usually suffer somewhat of a sophomore slump. Derrick Rose did, and that was the year before he won MVP. Jayson Tatum did, and now he’s breaking out into a full-fledged superstar. Luka never needed that bridge to cross. When the Luka era arrived in Dallas, it arrived in full swing.

He’s averaging a near triple-double already – averaging a near 29/9/9 on 46/32/75 splits. He’s the best offensive player on the best offensive team in the league — and by a pretty fair margin too. We all thought Dallas was an up-and-coming team. We just didn’t know that was coming into effect as soon as possible. The Mavericks are already a playoff team with Luka leading the way in just his second season.

There are, of course, other factors. Dallas is a well-coached team with guys who know exactly what their roles are. Kristaps Porzingis has come along quite nicely as the season’s progressed. But they wouldn’t be anywhere near where if it weren’t for the Slovenian. Luka’s elite feel of the game — which doesn’t include a reliable three-point shot yet — is why Dallas amazingly is where they are now in such a short amount of time.

He is the reason why their offense is putting up historic numbers, and why this should be seen as just the beginning. Because of that, he’s earned the title of being the best point guard in the league.

There’s only one rookie in somewhat recent memory who took one major step further after he already proved that he was the real deal following his rookie year, and that was LeBron James. Putting Luka on that high of a pedestal this early in his career would seem foolish, but he’s already done so much already that it would arguably be even more foolish to not entertain the comparison.

2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Someone who has played as well as Lillard has this season does not deserve the fate that’s probably going to happen to both him and the Blazers. Injuries and replacing key players with bad fits have led to Portland looking on the outside in on the playoff race. It’s a shame because he’s playing at his absolute peak right now.

Dame Time has been taken to a whole new level this season, which didn’t seem possible knowing his reputation around the league. He has upped his scoring and assist numbers to almost 29 and 8 per game, respectively, while also increasing his efficiencies, as he’s put up his numbers on 46/39/89 splits.

In the month of January alone, Lillard averaged 34.1 points and 8.4 assists on 49/45/88 splits. In that time, there was a two-week stretch from late-January from to early February where Lillard looked like he was making a case for MVP. During that time, he was averaging 48.8 points, 10. 2 assists and even snagged 7.2 rebounds He was so unstoppable that his 36-point outing against Houston on Jan. 29 was the lowest scoring output he had in that stretch.

Even outside of that range, when Portland asked him to give more in light of what they lost, he has delivered for them. And yet, when all of this ends, it’s not going to matter. Lillard playing like a borderline MVP candidate can only make so much of a difference when you’re relying on Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan to give you serious minutes.

It should get better next year when Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and Portland gets more help along the wing, but Golden State will be back too, and the rest of the competition in the Western Conference isn’t going to cut anyone else a modicum of slack. Lillard’s only a few months away from turning 30. At times like these, he has to ponder if Portland will get him where he wants.

3. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

Between being dumped by the team that invested so much in him last summer, being thrown into what seemed like an infinite number of trade proposals all season, and above all else, being labeled as past his prime, you’d think this would be the season that broke Chris Paul. Little did we know, we were underestimating an all-time talent just itching to prove everyone wrong.

That’s exactly what’s happened. The Thunder’s surprising resilience after losing its two best players has been two of the better feel-good storylines to come out this season, and Paul’s been the one leading the charge. Who would have thought this far into the season that the Thunder, at 40-24, would actually be in striking distance of a top-four seed in the West?

Paul has not only been the best player on the team, but he’s been the alpha dog on the best five-man lineup that’s played at least 150 minutes together in the entire league. That sounds pretty good for a guy who was supposedly falling out of his prime.

It’s weird knowing that Paul made his first All-Star team since 2016, and it feels weird to say that he’s probably going to make his first All-NBA team since 2016, too. It’s mind-blowing that in that time, no one’s forgotten about how good he is. It’s just that injuries really have gotten in his way since the end of his days as a Clipper. That really puts things into perspective. We all knew prime Chris Paul still existed. It just took a season like this for us to acknowledge how good he still is.

There’s only one teensy problem: This Oklahoma City team isn’t championship material, and that’s a shame to see Paul’s efforts go to a team that’s not going to make serious noise. But this has been fun, right?

4. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Full disclaimer: Some moron thought the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were going to be the least talented defending champion since the 2006-07 Miami Heat? All apologies to our friends north of the border for that take.

This has been a season full of teams that have exceeded expectations, and Toronto, despite being the reigning champs, might just be the premier example among all of them. There’s plenty of credit to go around between Pascal Siakam’s continued rise and Nick Nurse continuously proving himself as one of the NBA’s best coaches, but Kyle Lowry taking back the role he once had and running with it cannot go unnoticed.

Last year, his role was heavily reduced with Kawhi Leonard in the picture and Siakam taking a leap, but with more touches to go around, Lowry has gone back to his roots. Lowry’s putting up the best numbers he’s had since 2017, upping his points and assist average to almost 20/8 every single night, respectively. This while still being one of the league’s biggest pests on the defensive end, and he’s tied for most charges drawn this season with 30.

We knew Lowry had some juice left in his game, but not this much. When you factor that Toronto had to make up for the loss for Kawhi Leonard, is it more surprising that Chris Paul, who’s already regarded as an all-timer is doing what he’s doing at 34? Or that Lowry, someone with a lesser reputation, to say the least, is doing just about as much at the same age?

Lowry gets the nod over the next name on the list because he has less offensive talent around him, and yet his team is still right in the mix of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Here’s to hoping his playoff woes don’t come back as well.

5. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

Every once in a while, the NBA should come up with a team that consists of guys that make people think, “Thank heavens he’s on a much better team now!” If they did it this year, this is what it would probably look like.

Center – Kristaps Porzingis
Power Forward – Anthony Davis
Small Forward – TJ Warren
Shooting Guard – Tim Hardaway Jr.
Point Guard – Kemba Walker
Sixth Man – Jordan Clarkson

We all would be eagerly awaiting the day Devin Booker gets named to a team like this if it existed, but we’ve gotten off-base here. The point is, Kemba Walker, after fighting valiantly for a team stuck in mediocrity, is finally seeing his efforts be put to good use.

There may not be a player who couldn’t be happier to see his numbers drop than Kemba this season. With less usage and fewer minutes, Kemba’s scoring and assists have taken a noticeable dip. Yet no one seems to have a problem with that. Especially him. He’s gladly taken more of a complementary role next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Because of that, he’s on a team that’s on pace to win 55 games this year, easily the best of Kemba’s career.

He’s putting up the worst numbers he’s had since 2016, averaging 21 points on 42/38/87 splits, and yet, there’s no one second-guessing on bringing him in. That’s not just because he can put the ball in the bucket. It’s because Boston’s body language has done a complete 180 with him leading the way.

The Celtics look like they enjoy playing together again. They look like they have each other’s backs again. They look like they can get past whatever struggle they are going through. Kemba’s demeanor and role as the leader has a lot to do with why they don’t look anything like the trainwreck they were last year.

Putting up All-Star numbers as well as boosting the morale of one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams last year gets him a spot on this list.

6. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

It’s hard to ignore the strides that Simmons has made this season. Defensively, Simmons has become much smarter at using his physical advantages to become more disruptive on that end. He always had the tools to be an elite defender — and he’s never been a liability on that end — but now he has indisputably become one. Defensively, Simmons has become an all-around menace that should get him All-Defense honors this season.

It’s also hard to ignore the strides Simmons has not made this season. With the undeniable talent that he has, Ben Simmons should be a shoo-in for as a top-five point guard in the league whether Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall are playing at full-strength or not. It’s just that the glaring holes are still there, and they are more glaring than ever.

Simmons had to know that with JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler both gone, Philly needed him to improve both as a shooter and as a scorer to compensate for losing both of them. He hasn’t come close to that, which has led to Philly’s offense falling badly through the cracks. The 76ers have the 17th-ranked offensive rating — 110.4 points per 100 possessions — and a fair amount of blame should be put on Simmons’ shoulders. His stagnated progress on the offensive end now has many wondering if he and Embiid have a limited ceiling together.

You know how we call such uniquely talented young starlets “unicorns?” Well, if Simmons is comparable to any sort of creature, whether fictional or nonfictional, he’s basically a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We all know how frightening T-Rexes are, but those tiny arms are just so laughable to look at. That’s Simmons’ problem. He’s got plenty of tools to make him the feared player in the NBA we all thought he would be, but if the tiny arms of his game — his absent jumper — don’t improve, he can’t reach his full potential as a generational talent.

7. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

Sadly we won’t divulge too much into Westbrook because we’ve already talked about how Houston’s new team schemes have made it as close to a perfect team to put around Westbrook as anyone could imagine. The extra spacing he has now that he’s surrounded by all shooters will make it so much easier for him to live in the post.

Westbrook’s tenure in Houston didn’t start out great, which was what many of us thought was going to happen, but because he’s a man that will never take a play off, we all knew he wouldn’t give up. Daryl Morey knew this about Westbrook when he brought him in this past summer, so he ultimately decided to take the “Work smarter, not harder’ approach by trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington and overloading on wings

These haven’t sprung the best results, but Westbrook has the green light now. Since the beginning of January, he’s putting up almost 32 points a game on 52/31/75 splits. The best field goal percentage he’s had in a season is a tick over 45 percent, which he’s done only twice in his career.

No one knows what the future holds, but Houston’s doing everything it can to help Westbrook thrive. Even if this doesn’t work in the end, we’ll at least know that both sides tried.

8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Remember when Memphis was trying to avoid rebuilding so that they didn’t have to worry about that first-round pick they owed Boston from the Jeff Green trade? And how that was last year?

This year was supposed to be the year they started fresh. If they did, they’ve done a bad job, because this season has been Memphis’ best all-around performance since 2017. The Grizzlies have been holding a playoff spot for a while now. That won’t mean much this season if and when the Lakers crush them in the first round, but leading your team as a rookie counts for a lot in the long-term because it gives the franchise hope as they start their next chapter. That’s what Ja Morant has done.

Seeing rookie point guards make the league take notice isn’t anything new — see Doncic, Luka — but what makes Morant stand out among others stems from his efforts leading to something substantial. Most impressive rookie point guards can dazzle, but if they are the best player on the team, then it doesn’t lead to much success-wise during their rookie season. Stats won’t do him justice — that usually happens with first-year guys — but Morant is the best player on his team, and this time, it’s translating into wins.

The last rookie point guard to do something like that was Derrick Rose. That should excite and scare Grizzlies fans at the same time. They have a kid special enough that they didn’t have to reminisce about Grit-and-Grind for one second this season. Here’s to hoping that this is the start of a long-lasting era, and not one cut short in its prime by injuries.

Admittingly, there’s a fair case that Trae Young, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe, among others, deserve the nod over Morant, but the story of Memphis’ hot-shot guard is too inspirational to leave him off of this list.

Making this list was hard because the league is filled with talented point guards. Should something like this come up next year, we could see an entirely different top eight. Everyone’s criteria are different when it comes to rankings, so let’s end this with a question.

Who would you rank as your top eight point guards?

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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