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NBA Daily: The 2018-19 Trendsetting Turnarounds

Each year, a few franchises turn red-flagged weaknesses into strengths. These are the four biggest examples so far this season.

Ben Nadeau

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The NBA has always been a playground for budding trendsetters — or, in other words, whichever teams can adapt best from year-to-year, embracing their strengths and addressing their weaknesses emerge on the other side even better. While the powerhouse franchises like the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets haven’t seen too much variation in recent campaigns — particularly so when comparing some base-level statistics between 2017-19 — there are plenty of other up-and-coming squads that have come out firing so far this season.

A little over halfway through the season, the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings –along with a few honorable mentions — have easily been the league’s grandest surprises, both statistically and within the win column. Whether under the rim or behind the arc, there are fascinating narratives that now definitely extend past small sample size territory. With this in mind, here are the 2018-19 trendsetter award winners just ahead of the All-Star break.

Milwaukee Bucks

Points Per Game
2017-18: 15th, 106.5
2018-19: 2nd, 117.0

Rebounds Per Game
2017-18: 30th, 39.8
2018-19: 1st, 48.8

Defensive Rating
2017-18: 18th, 109.1
2018-19: 1st, 103.6

Well, yeah.

Milwaukee, seemingly overnight, transformed into a league-wide darling this season, even though their roster looks pretty similar at the top to last year’s iteration. It decidedly helps to have an MVP candidate anchoring your side — Giannis Antetokounmpo is actually averaging 0.4 points less in 2018-19 thus far — but health has been key too. Malcolm Brogdon, the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year, is injury-free, putting up 2.7 more points per game and shooting excellently from three-point range (41.8 percent) again.

It’s been exactly a year to the day since Brogdon’s partially torn quadricep sidelined him for two entire months, so the Bucks will be excited to have the blossoming guard for a full 82 game-clip. Additionally, both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have upped their per game scoring tallies significantly — but it’s the Bucks’ single offseason splash that’s been the biggest difference-maker so far: Brook Lopez.

Lopez, a reborn seven-foot behemoth who fires away from downtown with reckless abandon, has been an absolute revelation for the Bucks. As Milwaukee cycled through largely uninspiring options at center last season — John Henson, Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller — Lopez was busy playing a career-low in minutes out in Los Angeles. Together, they formed a match made in basketball heaven. Lopez plied his trade as a potential three-point threat during his final season with the Brooklyn Nets in 2016-17 but he’s been given the greenest of green lights in Milwaukee, hitting on 2.6 three-pointers per game at a 38.4 percent rate.

On the rebounding front — from worst to first this time — there’s another striking improvement for the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks. Antetokounmpo, a player that will run out of printable adjectives by season’s end, has boosted his per game number from eight rebounds to a remarkable 12.6. The select few currently ahead of Antetokounmpo: Rudy Gobert (12.8), Joel Embiid (13.4), Anthony Davis (13.3), DeAndre Jordan (13.7) and Andre Drummond (14.9) — so pretty stellar company, all things considered. Last season, Antetokounmpo pulled down 24 games of 12 or more rebounds but he’s already beaten that mark in 2018-19 (26) with 32 contests to go.

The aforementioned Henson is still around to grab his niche-role boards, but the brightest newcomer to the conversation is D.J. Wilson. The 6-foot-10 forward notched just 3.2 minutes per game during his rookie season, but now risen to a healthy 17.7 average, Wilson has contributed 4.6 rebounds to the league-pacing treasure trove.

And yet, the accolades don’t stop there — those pesky Bucks! Not only is Milwaukee scoring at a more unstoppable pace, but they’re now also the best defensive team in the entire league as well. Turns out, rocking Antetokounmpo — OK, fine, every single moment — is like using a cheat code and the rest of the stretchy team follows suit. Undoubtedly, the Bucks have soared under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The former 2014-15 Coach of the Year winner has transformed a once-lackluster unit into a nightmare-inducing mismatch. The Bucks typically have a couple defensive standouts strewn about the floor at any given moment — the usual suspects, of course: Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Bledsoe, Middleton — and their ball-hawking tendencies are only matched by their length.

Milwaukee has separately tallied six or more blocks and steals in 26 of their 50 contests — topping out with single-game bests of 11 and 13, respectively. The Warriors, Celtics and Spurs will churn out yearly defensive stonewalls — but the Bucks’ newfound liftoff is just another reason why they’ve been so impossibly difficult to handle under Budenholzer. Once you tack on Lopez’s unreal three-point shooting and the boost in rebounding numbers, it’s easy to see why the Bucks are Eastern Conference royalty at long last.

Sacramento Kings

Three-Pointers Per Game
2017-18: 26th, 9.0
2018-19: 12th, 11.5

Pace
2017-18: 30th, 95.59
2018-19: 2nd, 104.18

How does a team go from the conference cellar to postseason contenders in the West without blinking? In the Kings’ case, and credit to head coach Dave Joerger, all they had to do was nearly change everything about them. Last season, Sacramento knocked down seven or fewer three-pointers in 26 different contests and their record in such games was a poor 10-16 — thus making them massive suffers at the hand of the modern NBA. In 2017-18, the league average for three-point percentage was 36.2 and the Kings surpassed that mark in just 44 games and it’s tough to stay afloat, especially in the harder-to-navigate conference, without consistent shooting from long-range.

This time around, it’s been an entirely different story, full of positive boosts across the board. Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson have all upped their averages from 2017-18 — but three major leaps stand out. Buddy Hield has been one of basketball’s undisputed best shooters over the first half of the season, putting down 3.4 three-pointers per game (fourth-highest) at an elite 45.8 percent rate (fourth-highest, again). As a well-deserved selection for February’s three-point contest in Charlotte, Hield will get to do what he does best on the national stage and the sharpshooter shows no signs of slowing down.

But the Kings’ rise to behind-the-arc competency also falls squarely on the shoulders of Nemanja Bjelica and Iman Shumpert. The newly-signed stretch forward has rained 1.5 three-pointers per game on 42.7 percent from the floor, while Shumpert is in business after a down season in Cleveland. As a pair, they’ve turned the Kings into frighteningly competent three-point shooters — but it’s not the only thing that Sacramento has forcefully shoved back into 2019.

Their pace is currently ranked among the league’s quickest — that, obviously, is in large part due to Fox. Electric in nature, the greased lightning-like point guard is a one-man fast-breaking machine. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder record more field goal attempts than Sacramento (92.7) does, but the Kings still lead all teams with 21.4 fast break points per game. Bobbing and weaving through traffic — and perhaps, more importantly, a full season removed from the George Hill positional stranglehold — Fox has been an absolute menace. Without question, it helps to kick the ball outside to that previously cast of talented three-point assassins, but the Kings, who remain just 1.5 games out of the postseason, owe much of this surprise success to Fox.

Honorable Mentions:

San Antonio Spurs

Three-Point Percentage
2017-18: 26th, 35.2
2018-19: 1st, 40.9

In news that will shock exactly zero people: The Spurs are back. One season after backing into the playoffs by the tiniest of hairs on their chins — all without Kawhi Leonard, mind you — it was likely fair to wonder if it was the beginning of the end in San Antonio. Fair, but stupid, as always, of course. The Spurs aren’t even a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of three-point makes (21st, 10.2) but what they do hoist up has an excellent chance of converting. Leave it to a Gregg Popovich-led roster to not waste a single possession, naturally.

Discounting the deceiving numbers of Pau Gasol (50 percent, 0.5 attempts/game) and Dante Cunningham (49.1 percent, 1.1 attempts/game), there are exactly five three-point shooters making a difference so far for San Antonio: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli.

This is about par for the course in the cases of Belinelli — who the Spurs just gave $12 million over two years for this exact reason, two three-pointers per game on 39.5 percent — and Mills. It is, however, a much-needed effort for Gay, who hasn’t shot over 40 percent from deep for the entire season a single time in his 13-year career. The truest gems here are clearly Forbes and Bertans, two under-the-radar standouts in Popovich’s demanding system. Bertans has been solid since he joined the Spurs at long last in 2016 — he was drafted No. 42 overall back in 2011 — but this is something else entirely.

Over his first two seasons, Bertans averaged 1.1 three-pointers on 38.6 percent shooting. But in 2018-19, Bertans is up to 2.1 makes on a blistering 47.8 conversation rate — the second-best rate in the NBA.

To his credit, Forbes has responded well to join the Spurs’ starting lineup as well, turning into a quintessential Spurs contributor in the process. Over 53 starts, Forbes is averaging 2.2 three-pointers on 42.5 percent shooting, the 13th-highest mark out there. And although Forbes didn’t get an invite to the three-point shootout like his teammate, this has been a terrifying duo for San Antonio on the perimeter. Last year, the Spurs had zero players finish over 40 percent from three-point range; today, they’ve got four — five if you count Mills’ close-but-no-cigar 39.8 percent clip. Given these breakouts (plus having a superstar for a full season, thanks, DeMar DeRozan) the Spurs are right where they belong: Surging for homecourt advantage in the first round.

Indiana Pacers

Net Rating
2017-18: 12th, 1.3
2018-19: 7th, 4.1

Admittedly, this is not the most eye-popping rise in this category — that, of course, belongs to the Bucks again, who have stunningly grown from a net rating of minus-0.3 to plus-9.5. But since Milwaukee has earned plenty of love already, it’s time to praise the Pacers. For a roster that was slept on last season but earned league-wide respect, Indiana just continues to get better with age.

The Pacers, mostly, are the same team it was in 2017-18, just with the additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, plus an offseason of development for Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Notable statistical improvements from the latter two — particularly in the rebounding department — have been important, but Turner’s charge into a fearsome rim protector might be the biggest achievement to date.

Turner went from a respectable 1.8 blocks per game — a rate that left him third in NBA last season — to a monstrous 2.7 clip. That’s ahead of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobert, good for the best average in the entire league. Furthermore, Turner’s current defensive rating of 100.9 is sixth-highest, a stark difference to his 106.2 mark that was tied for 47th-best in 2017-18. Sadly, this upstart team — well on pace to smash their 48-win total from the previous campaign — will likely sink following the loss of All-Star Victor Oladipo.

But the Pacers are built to weather the regular season storm, a well-constructed rotation with plenty of able veterans that can step in to help replace Oladipo. Thanks to the internal growth of their young forwards and the microwavable shooting from the steady Bojan Bogdanovic, the Pacers aren’t in real danger of missing the postseason just yet. Unfortunately, Indiana holds a 0-4 record since Oladipo’s devastating injury, so this promising net rating hop is bound to drop sooner rather than later. Even then, it hardly makes the Pacers’ year-to-year growth any less noteworthy.

While many onlookers get deservedly swept up in annual consistencies, some of the NBA’s best stories come from the bottom up instead. For the Bucks and Kings, their swift reversal has been a treat to watch unfold. One has become a sporting juggernaut in nearly every area, while the other is in contention to break a playoff drought that dates back to 2006. Elsewhere, the Spurs will never die and the Pacers, despite a brutal injury, remained impressive in their quest for respect. All-Star Weekend is right around the corner, but this list of trendsetting turnarounds should serve as some fun trivia fodder as Bertans, Fox and Antetokounmpo inevitably prove their worth on the national stage.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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