With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.
Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some other important issues. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.
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Yesterday, Matt John dug into the next steps for the Northwest Division – what will become of this surprisingly successful Oklahoma City roster? Where will Mike Conley Jr. fit moving forward for Utah? But the Southwest is an awfully crowded collection of franchises, one in which all five teams are involved in July’s restart. Although some of them should certainly fair better than others, stocked by MVP candidates, up-and-comers and veteran-led rosters, there’s plenty to ponder beyond this summer.
Many didn’t know what the NBA would look like if and when it returned – but now that they have, the same question and logic applies to the forthcoming muddied and rapid-fire offseason too. Blow it up or keep it together? Cut costs or go all-in? Although the restart shouldn’t be used to draw any consequential decisions, it may inform front offices of the best way forward — even if it may be a painful direction.
In the spirit of revving up the ol’ crystal ball prediction machine, here comes the Southwest Division.
Houston Rockets: Did the James Harden + Russell Westbrook experiment work?
And what needs to happen to make another season more successful?
As mentioned in the Rockets’ X-Factor piece, the fit of Russell Westbrook has always been a suspect one. Despite all the assumed pitfalls, it was ultimately a plunge worth taking in lieu of Chris Paul’s massive deal – but will anything come of it? In this current iteration, built entirely around James Harden and a system that nearly propelled him to back-to-back MVP awards, the Rockets have hoisted up three-pointers like they’re going out of style for years and years.
However, that becomes a bit dicier as a team-wide mantra when the new point guard has struggled from there for over a decade. Westbrook’s best-ever mark is 34.3 percent (2016-17), which would stand as a career-low for his backcourt partner. Former key shooters like Eric Gordon and Danuel House have regressed from deep, while they’ve missed Gerald Green entirely. Compounded by their decision to deal the up-and-coming Clint Capela for wing defense and more shooting, the Rockets now run with P.J. Tucker as the starting center.
If Houston struggles at all to re-acclimate in Orlando, they could pay a pretty hefty first-round price. And if they flame out quickly during the Golden State Warriors’ now infamous down year – then what is the real ceiling of this redesigned roster? Any potential departure of Westbrook would be marred by the same criteria that brought him to the Rockets in the first place – the price and years left on a big contract. This iteration is one that runs awfully hot-and-cold — they’re part of the NBA elite. But those off-nights, against the more powerful and consistent Western Conference, are seeding killers.
Logical progression might suggest that the best way forward is a structure reset — find a real center, build for more balance, etc – but it might not be possible. Harden, of course, is used to doing the impossible – and he’ll need to in July.
If the Rockets can’t make combination work – both in the short- and long-term – they’ll have more questions than answers with very little influence in changing them. Houston has rolled the dice significantly on this pairing, now it needs to improve… or else.
Dallas Mavericks: Are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzinigs fully healed and healthy?
Will they need another star to truly compete?
This sentiment assumes that Luka Doncic cannot transcend rosters – hell, he’s already done that in Dallas over a season-plus. But in the Western Conference, it’ll take more than just a perennial MVP candidate to top that massive hierarchy. That’s also why they moved for an injured Kristaps Porzingis last year and re-signed him before the Latvian ever played a game – Batman needed a Robin.
Over 51 games for Dallas, Porzingis has averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over 31 minutes – numbers that saw a healthy boost during the contests in which Doncic missed out in early February. Recovering from ACL injuries are no joke, so the Mavericks were rightfully careful not to push Porzingis too quickly, even frequently scheduling rest days in 2020. Alongside Doncic, the international duo could make waves as a lower-seeded opponent down in Orlando. But if they get matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, a year of great growth may end swiftly.
Losing to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard would be of no immense shame, especially in the midst of the weirdest NBA season ever. But matched at 40 wins with Oklahoma City and Houston, the Mavericks will have work to do in the loss column if they’d like to move up the ladder at all. Assuming that the quarantine has done nothing to negatively change the health of their stars, they’ll have two ready-to-go 20 point scorers — but will that be enough?
After that pair, Dallas’ best scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr. at 15.8 points per game – but as an up-and-down shooter, he’s had plenty of off-nights to go with the explosiveness. With 17 games in 2019-20 with 11 points or less, that probably won’t get it done against a balanced Denver roster, much less an LA-based superteam. In a strange COVID-19 landscape, both on the trade market and in free agency, who knows what upgrades or replacements will even exist in the next modified offseason.
Doncic is an incredible, still-improving superstar – but we’re about to find out just how good he can be.
San Antonio Spurs: Is it time, at long last, to blow it up and start over?
Is there any reason to ponder Gregg Popovich’s future?
The Spurs, although trekking down to Orlando, have a tough mountain to climb to reach the No. 8 seed – again, just to play the Lakers.
It’s a task that became even harder when LaMarcus Aldridge underwent season-ending surgery a few weeks ago. But if we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s wise not to bet against Gregg Popovich. Of course, the legendary coach has led San Antonio to the postseason in every single campaign since 1997-98. At 27-36, the odds aren’t great – but the soon-to-be Hall of Famer has done more with less before.
He’s still got DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs still have Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and a wisened Rudy Gay as well. There’s even the potential to just unleash Lonnie Walker and see what happens – for better or worse. Losing Aldridge hurts, perhaps a bit too much, but Popovich is still Popovich.
Regardless of their slim chances next month, there’s still speculation about the head coach’s future in general. 71 years of age is no spring chicken, a stance only fueled further by recent attempts to elevate responsibilities for assistant coaches like Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan. Naturally, the Spurs are synonymous with Popovich until he decides differently – but once his historic postseason streak is officially struck down, where does a potentially rebuilding team go from there?
Would they try to move on from a near-expiring DeRozan contract? What about an aging Aldridge that only has $7 million guaranteed in 2020-21? If they miss the playoffs and deal with the tough reality of a rebuild, could they – finally, truly, actually – take that path? Even if Orlando goes swimmingly, this is a franchise that might look vastly different the next time basketball begins, whenever that is.
New Orleans Pelicans: How much Zion Williamson is too much?
Which players tested positive for COVID-19 and will their availability change in Orlando?
Look, obviously, most everybody would like to see Zion Williamson against the Lakers in a seven-game series. Undoubtedly, the NBA didn’t want to erase that possibility either.
Beyond Williamson, the Pelicans have the tools and roster to make a real go of it too — Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, etc. But the biggest question of all is where the former No. 1 overall pick stands in terms of health and conditioning. Pushing a postseason berth at the risk of another serious injury wouldn’t be worth it – so surely the New Orleans front office has been pondering minute allocations since the stoppage in March.
If Williamson is in better shape than ever, watch out. . . but the Pelicans certainly have a responsibility to protect their franchise cornerstone beyond this odd restart.
On Tuesday, Andrew Lopez of ESPN noted that the Pelicans had three of the 16 recently positive COVID-19 tests. While young athletes can recover from the virus – and David Griffin has said he expects everybody to go to Florida – the pandemic has been anything but predictable.
Both DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie announced that they’d tested positive too. In Jordan’s case, he was immediately opting out of the restart, while Dinwiddie wants to recover in time but has some worrying symptoms to deal with first – including a fever and chest tightness. Without guarantees of perfect health here on out in the Pelicans’ trio of cases, that could have plenty of impact in their play-in chase.
This is an evolving story, undoubtedly, but will it dent the postseason momentum New Orleans has on their side? Only time will tell.
Memphis Grizzlies: Would a veteran star elevate the roster in 2020-21 or should the team keep growing organically?
The Memphis Grizzlies have been the surprise team of the season out westward, led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillion Brooks and a cast of supporting players, both young and old.
But the franchise is fast approaching a fork in the road – should they push their stack toward the middle of the betting table? Or will they continue to let their budding stars grow? Outside of the newly-re-signed Anthony Tolliver, the bit work of Gorgui Dieng, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill have played key minutes in Memphis’ successes, but none are part of the long-term plan.
The one massively contributing veteran stalwart has been Jonas Valanciunas, who has averaged 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in just 26.3 minutes per game – an underrated factor in the squad’s rapid climb. At 27-years-old, the Lithuanian will earn $29 million between 2020-22, so it’ll hardly be a cap killer should the right move arise during the offseason.
Adding a star player in the offseason could push them up over the top as an eventual contender – but who will be available and at what price? The Grizzlies have rebuilt tremendously, so they must be careful about attempting to skip steps in the process. It might be tempting to ship off a player or two for a win-now option – however, we’ve seen that be the dagger in up-and-coming rosters time and time again.
Ultimately, of all the teams in the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies have one of the rosiest outlooks right now. Nobody in the core is aging out, the window is just beginning to open, the current stars are bright already and everybody remains as healthy as one might be during a worldwide pandemic. The Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs own fascinating questions for their stars and roster-wide makeup – but the Pelicans and Grizzlies appear to be next-up contenders, all they must do is wait it out without getting hasty.
Easier said than done.
After the Orlando seeding games conclude in August, we’ll likely have a much better picture of where these five franchises stand, both today and down the road.
Until then, the crystal ball will have to do.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.