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NBA PM: Orlando Magic 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic, who have a lot to prove this upcoming season.

Basketball Insiders

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As the Orlando Magic enter yet another season with a high draft pick on its roster, many are beginning to wonder when this team can finally become relevant in the Eastern Conference.

The team is already in its longest playoff drought in franchise history with no real answers as to when they might be able to return to the postseason. With a new front office in place, will it be enough to get the Magic back to the playoffs this season?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Orlando Magic:

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like this is the final, put-up-or-shut-up year for several members of Orlando’s youth project that hasn’t really worked too well. Guys like Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon need to firmly prove they belong on a team that can contend for a playoff berth, or the Magic will have to look at the next wave of youngsters. That’s already started with guys like Jonathan Isaac, who could see quite a bit of court time this season. This team doesn’t project to be very good, and there could be lots of chances for these younger pieces to show out. There could also be some landscape changes on the horizon if it’s another lost season in Orlando. There could be enough talent here to keep them out of the cellar in the Southeast – the Hawks will give them competition there – but there isn’t a ton of high-level hope for the future at this point.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Orlando Magic’s roster features young, talented players and an assortment of veterans mostly on short term contracts. It appears as though Orlando wants to build up its young core, while remaining somewhat competitive by bringing in veterans like Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Maintaining financial flexibility is a good thing, but the Magic are going to have to make some tough decisions on players like Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon rather soon. It’s hard to not look at this roster and wonder how good this team could have been had Orlando’s front office not made several perplexing deals over the last few seasons. However, there is still some nice young talent in Orlando and a disciplined approach to rebuilding the team could yield results sooner than most expect. Also, the signing of Jonathon Simmons was a nice value move for Orlando. Don’t be surprised if Simmons outplays his contract and other teams regret not making more competitive offers for his services.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Both Jonathon Simmons and Marreese Speights are the type of player that I’d covet if I were a general manager of an NBA franchise, so at least newly installed general manager John Hammond has a few pieces to work with.

My biggest problem with the Magic, however, is that they are simply a team full of overlapping young pieces, and it could be argued that none of them have fulfilled their promise. Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Nikola Vucevic have all had their bright moments, but they have simply been too far and few between. I like both Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton, and newly drafted rookie Jonathan Isaac should be able to carve out a niche for himself on the squad.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that neither the Magic nor their young pieces have done much to instill confidence that this ship will be righted. It would appear that they will be competing with the Hawks for worst place in the Southeast Division, and I believe it’s a battle that not even the Magic could find a way to lose. So I suppose there’s something to be happy about.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Moke Hamilton

Every year the Orlando Magic do stuff, and every preseason I step into the year believing they’ve made absolutely no progress. Jonathan Isaac was the team’s big offseason pickup, but he already has had his fair share of health issues and was one of the biggest question marks in the top half of this year’s lottery. Beyond him, this is basically the same team that went 29-53 a year ago, so even with the Eastern Conference wide open for burgeoning playoff contenders, the Magic don’t have a shot at the postseason in 2018. They aren’t as bad as the Bulls or Hawks, but it won’t be a shock if they end up with the #7 pick in the draft next June.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

In a division with three potential playoff teams, the Orlando Magic will be doing their best just to stay out of the basement of the Southeast.

After overhauling the front office, maybe successful seasons are on the horizon, but for next year, the same old song and dance look to be in play down in Orlando. With Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton in contract years, this season will be more of an evaluation process for the Magic to see if either of those players are worth an extension. Rookie Jonathan Isaac provides hope for the future, but the lanky forward is possibly a year or two or away from making a true impact due to his lack of physical maturity.

While the top half of the division should have their sights set on the playoffs, the Magic will be trying their hardest to battle out of the basement they found themselves in last season.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Evan Fournier

Fournier enters the 2017-18 campaign as the Magic’s top offensive player. In the past, center Nikola Vucevic has led the team in scoring, but Fournier’s 17.2 points per game last season was tops on the team with Vucevic second at 14.6 points per game.

With Victor Oladipo out of the picture last season, Fournier turned in a career-high 17.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and three assists per game while shooting 35.6 percent from three-point range. Fournier has proven to be a solid player capable of creating his own shot and hitting from three-point range.

While Fournier struggled shooting a bit, he appeared to have found his stroke following the All-Star break. In 45 games prior to the break, Fournier averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 34.3 percent from three-point range but he averaged 18 points and shot 37 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games after the break.

The team’s offense changed drastically after the All-Star break after trading Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Terrence Ross. Head coach Frank Vogel also moved Aaron Gordon back to power forward and the team finally began to embrace running a smaller lineup. Fournier looked more comfortable in the new offense as indicated by his improved play.

Fournier figures to pick up where he left off last season with the team likely continuing to play a similar style of offense they used toward the end of the season.

Top Defensive Player: Aaron Gordon

In a season where a lot of things went wrong, Gordon proved to be one of few bright spots for the Magic on defense. While the results were mixed with Gordon at small forward last season, his defense on the perimeter remains elite.

Gordon often drew the matchup of guarding some of the league’s elite scorers last season as he was tasked with defending the likes of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George among others. Gordon has all of the physical tools needed to guard players of that caliber: size, quickness, strength and the jumping ability.

Last season, players like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo were added to the roster to shore up the Magic’s rim defense. As most teams were going small, the Magic went big and the results were not positive. Ibaka was dealt to the Toronto Raptors prior to the trade deadline and the team took a step back with Biyombo on the floor.

Simply put, the Magic struggled on defense when Biyombo was on the court. The team’s defensive rating was lower than their average with Biyombo on the floor. In addition, his block rate was down, his rebounds dropped and his field-goal percentage defense dipped as well.

With Biyombo’s struggles last season, Gordon has emerged as the team’s best defender, but the team has more defensive potential on the roster. Newcomer Jonathon Simmons has shown flashes during his stay with the San Antonio Spurs as a strong defender, while rookie Wesley Iwundu was known as a capable defender in college as well.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

As the point guard, Payton is the top playmaker for the Magic. Although the team used Payton in the starting lineup and off of the bench last season, he played very effectively for the team late in the season as a starter.

Payton averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and made headlines when he recorded five triple-doubles in a 14-game stretch from March 6 to April 1. He averaged 12.7 points, 8.4 assists and 7.6 rebounds during the month of March.

Once the Magic opted to embrace the small-ball lineup last season, Payton was one of a few players that benefitted from the change. While he struggled for much of the season before the change, he improved drastically following the All-star break. Payton often had the ball in his hands more following the change and was primarily responsible for initiating the offense when he was on the court.

He has proven to be most effective when the Magic get out and run and the team simply wasn’t able to do that with Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo on the floor. The change at the All-Star break played to Payton’s strengths and he showed flashes of being a capable starter. It seems reasonable to believe that he could continue that strong play this season if the team can continue to get out and run.

Payton enters the 2017-18 season with a lot to prove in the final year of his rookie contract. The Magic can agree to a contract extension with Payton before the start of the season, but it seems more likely Payton will hit restricted free agency next summer. There are still a lot of questions with his game, but he has an opportunity to answer them this season.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Since Fournier is the team’s top offensive player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him as the best clutch player on the roster. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Fournier was by far the Magic’s best player in these situations.

Fournier ranked 26th in the NBA with 93 total points when the Magic were either ahead or trailing by five points last season. To put that into context, notable players like Russell Westbrook ranked first in the league with 247 total points, while James Harden was 10th with 150 points and LeBron James was 20th with 112 points.

Of course, that’s not to say Fournier is on the same playing level as those players, but he proved to be extremely reliable in crunch time for the Magic. Fournier shot 46 percent from the floor (29-of-63) in those situations and 44.8 percent from three-point range (13-of-29).

Although Fournier didn’t hit any game-winning shots last season, he did help the Magic with several big shots throughout the season in the final moments of games. Some Magic fans may remember his big three-point shots against the Miami HEAT to send the HEAT to a second consecutive loss following their 13-game winning streak.

When the game is on the line this season, look for Fournier to have the ball in his hands. As he proved last season, he can be trusted to hit big shots.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

With so many new additions to this team, it might be easy to forget about Vucevic this season. As a player that has dealt with his fair share of trade rumors, Vucevic has continued to work and stay as a reliable scoring option for the Magic.

Perhaps most impressive for Vucevic is he’s among the best scorers at his position. While he may take some criticism for his defense (which has improved), he still remains one of the best offensive centers in the NBA.

Although his production did dip a bit last season with the arrival of Serge Ibaka, Vucevic averaged 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, one steal and one block per game. Vucevic ranked seventh among all centers in scoring and was 11th in the NBA in rebounds.

For one reason or another, his shooting percentages did also fall last season as well. He ranked as one of the best midrange shooters in the NBA two seasons ago, but his percentages dropped across the board last season. The Magic hope his drop in shooting was just a fluke and he can bounce back to the shooter he was two years ago.

Regardless of how he shot last season, look for Vucevic to continue to be a reliable scorer the Magic can count on this season. He might also add a few more game-winning shots as well.

Best New Addition: Jonathon Simmons

Simmons played an important role with the San Antonio Spurs last season. He initially hit restricted free agency this summer with the Spurs, but became an unrestricted free agent once the Spurs withdrew their qualifying offer.

Simmons averaged a career-high 6.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game last season with the Spurs. He became a key member in head coach Gregg Popovich’s rotation and earned four starts in the playoffs in place of the injured Kawhi Leonard. He came up with perhaps the biggest play of his career after drawing a charge against James Harden to help send the game into overtime in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

Many believe the Magic may have secured one of the biggest steals of the offseason after signing Simmons to a three-year, $18 million contract. The first two years of the deal are fully guaranteed, while only $1 million is guaranteed in the third year.

The Magic entered the offseason with roughly $15 million in cap space to work with and, by all accounts, appear to have used that money wisely. In addition to Simmons, the team also signed free agents Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Given his chance to immediately come in and have a large role with the team, Simmons is the best new addition of the summer.

It was reported that Simmons gained significant interest around the league once he became an unrestricted free agent and the Magic moved quickly to sign him. For the Magic, adding the 6-foot-6 Simmons will add a proven wing defender to the lineup that could compete for a place in the starting lineup.

– Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. The New Front Office:

After letting general manager Rob Hennigan go at the conclusion of last season, the Magic hired Jeff Weltman as the team’s president of basketball operations and John Hammond as the general manager.

The two have previously worked together and appear to have great chemistry in the early going in Orlando. The duo maintained after taking over that they’d make smart personnel decisions over the course of the summer and it seems as though they’ve stuck with that philosophy.

Many have pointed to the Magic as a team that has quietly put together a solid offseason. The team opted to draft Jonathan Isaac with the sixth overall pick and Wesley Iwundu early in the second round. While the team entered draft night with four total draft picks, Weltman and Hammond established that they didn’t want to add four rookies this year and opted to trade those additional two picks for future considerations.

As many teams went to work quickly during free agency, the Magic stayed quiet in the early going. The Magic entered the free agency period with roughly $15 million in cap space and knew they wouldn’t be making splashy moves, but it appears as though they spent their money wisely.

The team signed arguably the biggest steal of the offseason in Jonathon Simmons to a very team-friendly deal. They signed veteran Shelvin Mack to a one-year, $6 million deal. After those two signings, the team added Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights on a pair of one-year deals. Staying flexible in the NBA is a must for teams and Weltman and Hammond did just that by not committing long-term money to free agents this summer as the team has done in previous years.

Of course, the team has yet to take the court yet for the 2017-18 season and it’s far too early to tell how these new additions will come together, but it appears as though the team’s new front office is off to a good start.

2. Arron Afflalo:

After a two-year stint with the Magic from 2012-2014, Afflalo is back in Orlando on a one-year deal. While his most productive years appear to be behind him, Afflalo figures to add a quality veteran to a locker room with several younger players.

Since returning to Orlando, Afflalo has expressed his immense love for the city and the team. He even said during his introductory press conference that his previous stint with the Magic was by far the happiest he had been with an NBA team.

Afflalo figures to log backup minutes at shooting guard behind Evan Fournier this season. He averaged 8.4 points, two rebounds and 1.3 assists in 61 games last season with the Sacramento Kings while shooting 41.1 percent from three-point range.

He experienced his best run in the NBA previously with the Magic when he averaged 17.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 137 games. He’ll be a valuable option off of the bench for Frank Vogel and a leader off of the court.

3. Jonathan Isaac:

As the team’s sixth overall pick in June’s draft, there is a lot of intrigue with Isaac. He was viewed by many to have perhaps the highest upside of any player in this year’s draft class. He flashed a wide range of skills after averaging 12 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.2 assists per game in one season at Florida State.

Measuring in at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has the potential to be a nightmare for teams on the defensive end. He’s a player that projects to fit right into a small-ball lineup or in a big lineup should the team opt to run that way.

Isaac showed a lot of promise in three Summer League games, but he also showed that there will be some growing pains as well. He figures to be able come in immediately and play meaningful minutes. He should be fun to watch develop this season given his physical tools.

– Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Magic went under the salary cap this summer to sign Jonathon Simmons and Shelvin Mack. The team is now slightly over with just the $4.3 million Room Exception to spend. Orlando has 14 guaranteed players with Khem Birch, Tony Caupain, Rodney Purvis and Kalin Lucas vying for the final roster spot.

Orlando is still heavily invested in players after last year’s spending spree. The team projects to have roughly $13 million in cap space next summer which is relatively equivalent to staying over and simply using the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions instead. Nikola Vucevic has one year remaining on his deal but the market for centers has cooled in recent years. Aaron Gordon is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. Mario Hezonja has a team option due by Halloween

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As a team that has struggled to remain competitive over the past several years, there are understandably not many strengths on this team.

With some younger players on the roster, the team did manage to do a solid job of signing veteran players this summer in free agency. The team brought back fan favorite Arron Afflalo on a one-year deal. He proved to be a great locker room presence during his first stint with the team a few years ago.

In addition to Afflalo, the team also signed Marreese Speights to a one-year deal as well. Speights, who grew up not far from Orlando, said it was a dream of his to play for the Magic. As an NBA Champion with the Golden State Warriors, his resume and character will be a great addition for the team.

The team also added veteran point guard Shelvin Mack in free agency as well. Mack has playoff experience and most recently turned in one of his best seasons with the Utah Jazz. The team will surely not be lacking high-character veterans this season.

– Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

One glaring hole on this roster is the lack of star power. While Aaron Gordon has certainly dazzled at the past two Slam Dunk Contests, he still hasn’t developed into an All-Star player to this point for the Magic.

Unfortunately, the Magic just haven’t hit on any of their high draft picks in recent years. Gordon has shown flashes, as has Elfrid Payton, but the two haven’t been able to put it all together just yet. While they haven’t developed quite like the team would have expected, they are both entering just their fourth year in the league and still have time to put it together.

The reality for the Magic is until they can put together a legitimate playoff run, they likely won’t be able to sign a star player in free agency.

– Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Magic make the playoffs this season?

As the team continues its longest playoff drought in playoff history, it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Although many believe the Eastern Conference should be wide open for the playoffs, the Magic still project to face an uphill battle to reach that objective.

– Cody Taylor

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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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NBA

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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