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NBA Daily: Why Going All In Is A Must

Several teams this season proved that going all in, as risky as it is, is worth trying, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Remember LeBron’s first tenure with the Cavaliers?

That was a fun time. Watching him rise up from young starlet to bonafide NBA superstar from 2003 to 2010 was a sight to behold. It’s a shame that even when LeBron was playing at his absolute, the Cavs never came away with a championship. It’s an even bigger shame that they absolutely could have if they had played their cards right.

The peak of LeBron’s first go-round in Cleveland came during his last two seasons when the Cavs during that era were at their strongest. Despite Cleveland finishing with the East’s best record from 2008 to 2010, they wound up getting eliminated by both Orlando and Boston in the postseason.

Both years, the Cavs had the opportunity to get substantial upgrades at the trade deadline for cheap, which they passed up. Hindsight bias is obviously a factor here, but in 2009, the team had the chance to acquire Shaquille O’Neal – who would have been really nice to combat Dwight Howard – but they passed it up. The team made up for it when they acquired Shaq that offseason, but that could have made all the difference against Orlando.

The following season, the Cavaliers had a rare opportunity to acquire Amar’e Stoudemire at the trade deadline but passed on that as well because they refused to include JJ Hickson, believing in Hickson’s potential. Again, hindsight is 20/20. The team settled on Antawn Jamison, who was fine, but Stoudemire was in a contract year and could have given Cleveland so much more.

Both years, Cleveland was believed to be the favorite in the East it seemed as though everything was going fine, so it didn’t want to mess with something that was working. Both times the Cavs played it safe, and they wound up regretting it in the end.

It’s true that acquiring big names at the deadline can put things out of sync, but they can also vault you up to the next level. The Cavaliers squandered their opportunities to get better, and as a result, they fell short of expectations, which persuaded LeBron to head to South Beach for greener pastures.

The lesson to take from the Cavs is that if your team has a championship window on their hands, you take every opportunity to keep that window both alive and strong for as long as possible. If a title is in the realm of possibility, you swing for the fences. There were three teams who took that to heart this season: The Bucks, the Sixers and the current Eastern Conference Champions, the Raptors.

All three of these teams went all in this season because they knew that they had a rare chance to improve their ceiling. They didn’t care about what they could potentially lose. All they cared about was performing to the best of their abilities. They all went all in and in different ways too.

For Philadelphia, they went all in by cashing in on their assets to acquire stars for cheap.

It didn’t take long for the Sixers to decide that they weren’t satisfied with their opening night roster. Just 15 games into the season, the team made some major changes when they traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler.

Normally, trading for an excellent player like Jimmy Buckets would cost a lot more than just those two without any picks, but when the opportunity showed itself, Philly got a great player – warts and all – on a discount. The fit was a little awkward since the Sixers’ struggle was three-point shooting and Butler couldn’t solve that by himself.

Clearly, Butler wasn’t enough to Philly management, so they acquired Tobias Harris. Harris may have come at a more expensive price than Butler did, as they traded Landry Shamet and multiple first-rounders to get him. That’s a lot for Harris, but the man garnered All-Star consideration in the superior conference and is probably better than anyone else in that deal.

They didn’t get the happy ending they wanted, but they gave the Raptors all they could handle. As heartbreaking as it is to see your season end on the most ridiculous buzzer beater ever seen, they at least went down swinging. The risk, of course, is that Butler and/or Harris may leave this season, but Philly knew the risk and did it anyway because they knew that those two could bring much more to the team than Saric, Covington or Shamet among others could.

For Milwaukee, they went all in by putting the best team they could around Giannis while also securing flexibility long-term.

The Bucks finally got the right team around the Greek Freak this season – whether they have is enough is a question that will be hanging over their heads – when they added more floor spacing with Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova plus a coach who knew how to utilize it in Mike Budenholzer. Having the extra shooting proved to be a plus, but they couldn’t stop there.

Even with everything that was going well for them, the Bucks understood that Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon weren’t going to come back cheaply this summer, so they planned ahead accordingly.

Jon Horst traded the team’s deadweight in Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson for George Hill and his almost entirely unguaranteed contract next season even if it cost a few first rounders. Giving up good draft picks is not an easy sacrifice, but in the Bucks’ case, they wanted to make sure that they can secure the players who they know have panned out well for them. They basically admitted their past mistakes by having to attach assets to get Henson and Delly off their payroll, but at least they’re making sure they don’t make more when free agency comes along.

They even followed the Sixers’ example by acquiring talent for cheap. Much like Philly, in no normal year should Nikola Mirotic cost only Thon Maker and a couple of second-rounders, but since Mirotic was on an expiring contract, that was all it took.

They also didn’t get the final result they wanted. Milwaukee has faced a fair amount of skepticism since being eliminated by the Raptors. Lucky for them, this is the only year one of their new era of basketball. They’re probably not going to be able to retain all of the players they added this season, but they have a better idea as to what will help Giannis play at his best. There’s a chance Cleveland could benefit from those first-round picks. As long as Milwaukee gets a title in the near future, then that won’t matter.

For Toronto, they went all in by trading players with rapport for upgrades.

It can be a cold business in this league. If your team has proven consistently that it’s not capable to taking it up a notch, and you have the chance to acquire an elite talent that could immediately change everything for the better, you’d be stupid not to pass that up.

Trading DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, two players who have been with the Raptors since they rose through the ranks, must have been difficult from an emotional standpoint. DeRozan went out of his way to talk about how betrayed he felt by the franchise who he stood by for all this time.

Even so, making those moves got playoff vets Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol on the Raptors. By doing this, this is inarguably the greatest Raptors team ever assembled. Because of those two among other things, the Raptors have finally risen to the occasion. By getting over their dreaded playoff woes, Toronto is in the middle of its first finals berth. From the way they’ve played, it looks like we’ve got a series on our hands.

There is a solid chance that the Raptors not only lose to the Warriors, but they also may lose Leonard and Gasol this summer. That shouldn’t matter to them because it was clear that they weren’t going anywhere with DeRozan and Valanciunas on the roster. Would you rather make upgrades to your roster even if they wouldn’t stay long, or would you keep your team the way it is knowing that they weren’t going anywhere?

Masai Ujiri showed that he meant business this season. Even if the risks he took fail, he made the right choice.

If you don’t think going all in can blow up in your face, look at the Boston Celtics. They pushed almost all of their chips in 2017, acquiring Kyrie Irving, signing Gordon Hayward and acquiring enough assets to make a push for Anthony Davis. Two years later, Hayward’s still recovering from an injury, the outlook on Kyrie’s return is not promising and it doesn’t look like Anthony Davis’ next destination is going to be Boston.

The worst-case scenario has become a reality in Boston, but every one of those moves they made in 2017 was correct. Bad luck is what has really ruined them. There is a chance that if you go all in, you can wind up like the Celtics right now.

Most importantly, when was the last time a team won the title by playing it safe from the start?

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

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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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