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NBA Daily: The Implications Of Kemba To Boston

After all that they’ve lost, the Celtics will have potentially made quite the rebound by bringing in Kemba Walker, which gives us a glimpse into what they believe about themselves.

Matt John

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So… who saw this coming?

Since the summer began, the common consensus was that Kemba Walker was re-signing with the Charlotte Hornets. They have the most money to offer, he’s pledged his loyalty to Charlotte on multiple occasions and he’s right square in the middle of his prime.

Now it appears that Boston, in the wake of losing both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, is in the driver’s seat in the Kemba sweepstakes.

This would qualify as a twist, but is it really?

Keeping Walker would seem like the obvious move for Charlotte, but giving him the money he wants – upwards of over $150 million – would lead to paying tens of millions in luxury tax. That’s hard enough for a team that plays in a small market, but what makes it harder for the Hornets is that even with someone as good as Walker, they are already a capped out team with a pretty limited ceiling.

Remember how so many NBA followers gave Dan Gilbert endless flak for the number of luxury tax bills he had to pay for the Cavaliers from 2014-2018? At least then, he had the excuse of paying top dollar and then some for a contender. If the Hornets gave Walker a contract close to the Supermax, they’d be doing the same, only for a team whose ceiling is much, much lower.

Even for someone like Kemba, that doesn’t sound like it would be worth it. Charlotte could try to move some things around to help its financial trouble or improve the team’s makeup, but the roster is filled with overpaid role players and young players who have a long way to go. Letting Kemba walk would be tough – in hindsight, trading him probably would have been the better option – but Charlotte needs to get itself away from the treadmill team label.

Nothing is set in stone just yet, but if this is how things are looking, then there are some implications from this move if it is to take place when free agency arrives.

Kyrie was the problem, not the kids

In a season’s span, this most recent Boston Celtics team went from being a squad that fans couldn’t wait to watch, to a squad fans couldn’t stand to watch. The turmoil in the locker room was believed to be one of the primary reasons why things didn’t work out in Boston. Now that it’s over, we’re starting to get a few leaks as to what went on behind closed doors.

One of the prevailing theories for Boston coming up way short was Kyrie’s contempt towards his teammates, coaches and anyone really in the organization, which is a whole other story by itself. By bringing Kemba in and letting Kyrie walk, they are showing their faith that the youngsters can bounce back following a rough season. In so doing, it shows their belief that Kyrie truly was what was preventing the team from reaching its potential.

The proof is in the pudding. Kyrie deserves respect both as a player and for telling it like it is, but it’s clear that he did not uplift his teammates with his actions. We saw him yell at both his teammates and his coach. We heard him make empty promises that the Celtics’ fortunes would be different in the postseason. It’s gotten to the point that Boston seems to have fully accepted that he’s not returning and is happier for it.

It’s also very possible that the talented youngsters weren’t blameless victims in what happened. The unexpected success from 2018 with such young players could have definitely gotten to their heads that tension with Kyrie was inescapable. In fact, Boston may have to ask itself if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown did not like deferring to Kyrie Irving, is it going to be any different with Kemba Walker? Even so, that shouldn’t stop them from snatching someone as good as Kemba when they have the chance.

Experts weren’t wrong when they said that the Celtics had the talent to be something special. Making the lateral move from Kyrie to Kemba shows that the Celtics believe that they still can be and that now, they won’t have hubris stopping them from doing so.

Kemba wants Brad Stevens a.k.a. the point guard whisperer

At 29 years old, Walker is now at the height of his abilities as a player. At that stage, players want a coach who can bring the absolute best out of them. As odd as it sounds now in light of everything that’s recently happened with Kyrie, Brad Stevens is an expert at bringing the best out of his point guards.

Let’s get a rundown of Brad Stevens’ track record with point guards since he took over in 2013.

Jordan Crawford – He was seen as just roster fodder, but played well enough to earn a Player of the Week award as the team’s starting point guard and fetched the Celtics a first-round pick a short while afterward.

Evan Turner – He had one foot out of the NBA, but found his niche as a secondary playmaker/scorer in Boston. His role on the team was so perfect for him that he was paid handsomely by Portland to play the same role.

Isaiah Thomas – He was slated as a scoring spark off the bench and played well enough to not only get a starting job, but also elevated his play into becoming an MVP candidate and a core piece in a trade for Kyrie Irving.

Terry Rozier – He was viewed as a reach when the Celtics took him 16th overall, and he didn’t have the most productive tenure in his four years in Boston. But when the Celtics slated him into the starting point guard spot, he played a pivotal role in getting them to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Kyrie Irving – He already came in with the reputation of a superstar. As good as Irving has already proven himself to be, Stevens got the best out of him too. Irving is coming off of his two most efficient seasons as a pro shooting-wise, played the best defense of his career and even set a career-high in assists last season.

Brad has been a guru for his point guards with the only exception being Rajon Rondo. That may be attributed more to Rondo’s ACL tear/wanting out of Boston than Brad’s coaching. But besides him, the evidence speaks for itself.

Brad’s reputation with floor generals could very well be Kemba’s primary draw to the Celtics. If his magic works on Kemba, then we could see the best numbers that Walker has ever put up in his career.

Gordon Hayward will be back (or closer) to normal

The backbone for both the Celtics having such monumental expectations and disappointing such expectations last season came – through no fault of his own – from Gordon Hayward’s return.

Hayward was unsteady through the majority of his first season back from his gruesome leg injury. Every once in a while, he showed flashes of the star player he was when the team brought him in two years ago. As the season wound down, he started finding a little more consistency in his game. If it weren’t for his sudden disappearance against Milwaukee in the playoffs, fans would be more encouraged by his progress.

Not too long ago, Hayward was once a player who everyone believed was worth every penny of the max contract Boston gave him. Now, he’s seen as an albatross contract who Boston will have to swallow whole. While the public has its doubts about Hayward, the Celtics bringing in Kemba demonstrates that they don’t.

Boston would have a solid foundation talent with Kemba and “the Jays” at the forefront. If he resembles the player he once was, Hayward at full throttle would take their ceiling to a whole new level. Many forget the player that Gordon was before his leg snapped, but he was one of the league’s better all-around players. Having that at Boston’s arsenal opens up a wide range of possibilities.

That would only be hypothetical, but by potentially adding Walker, Boston has shown that it still believes Hayward can be that guy. This season, Hayward will be two years removed from his awful injury, won’t have nearly as many guys around him who want the ball in their hands and still has Brad Stevens coaching him.

A lot can change between now and Sunday. For all we know, these reports of Kemba deserting Charlotte for Boston are all just a negotiating tactic by Walker’s camp for the Hornets to pony up. Even if this is legitimate, Boston still has more questions to answer. More specifically, what they’re going to do with their frontcourt now that Horford and Aron Baynes are gone. Knowing Danny Ainge, those questions will be answered in due time.

For now, so much has gone wrong for the Celtics in the last few months that it’s nice to see that they’re not taking it all lying down.

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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