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The Future of the NBA is in Good Hands

Several iconic players retired last offseason but the league has plenty of talent to take the torch moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte

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Since the end of last season, the NBA has said goodbye to some of its most iconic stars. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand all retired this offseason, leaving Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili, Paul Pierce, Metta World Peace and Jason Terry as the only remaining active NBA players who were drafted in the 1990s.

While it is tough to say goodbye to players who have been around for roughly two decades, fans can take solace in the fact that the first few days of the 2016-17 season have served as a strong reminder that the NBA is flooded with top-level talent and a wave of younger players who are on the path to stardom.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and the other top-tier veterans have been around for some time and are still some of the league’s top performers. These star veterans now fill the role that guys like Duncan, Kobe and Garnett used to, while the younger generation of budding stars continues to collectively develop and prove itself.

Some of these younger stars have put up some huge performances in the first few games of the 2016-17 season, including San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. Through two games this season, Leonard is averaging 32.5 points, four rebounds, four assists, five steals and 11 free throw attempts per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field. Leonard’s scoring and steal averages will very likely decrease as the season moves along but this strong start has certainly been impressive.

“That dude’s good, man,” DeMarcus Cousins said about Leonard. “(Expletive), he’s good. He’s really good. He was hitting shots over two guys. I mean, I heard he was working with Kobe, and there was some flashes of Kobe in there. He’s really good.”

Leonard has won the Defensive Player of the Year award two years in a row and now with Duncan gone, he is the focal point of the Spurs’ offense. Once considered to be a “system player” that only thrived because of the strong offensive structure in San Antonio, Leonard is establishing himself as arguably one of the best two-to-three players in the NBA, which is incredible when you consider he’s only 25 years old.

Cousins wasn’t so bad himself in his last game either. He registered 37 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and one steal, though his team fell to the Spurs. Cousins is also quite young (26) and has established himself as the most dominant all-around center in the NBA.

Another early season standout has been James Harden of the Houston Rockets. Harden has established himself as one of the best players in the NBA – though his defensive limitations are problematic – and may be set for a career-year as Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has named Harden as the team’s point guard. In his debut as the team’s lead guard, Harden proved himself to be an elite playmaker and a dominant force, though his team did ultimately fall to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“James Harden obviously finished with 34 [points] and 17 [assists],” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “But that’s what stars at this level do. All you can do is try to make it tough on him. That’s it.”

Walton seems to be correct in that you can’t truly stop Harden from putting up big numbers on any given night. The best any opposing defense can hope to do is force him into an inefficient night, force a lot of turnovers and exploit his poor defense on the other end of the court. Over the course of two games this season. Harden is averaging 30 points, 12.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds and one steal, while shooting 48.6 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from the three-point line. Harden may not be able to keep posting these huge statistics but he looks very comfortable as the Rockets’ lead guard and will give opposing team’s headaches on a nightly basis.

Another player who is putting up huge box score numbers is Harden’s former teammate Russell Westbrook. Ever since Kevin Durant announced that he would be leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, people in and around the NBA have been predicting that Westbrook would become the league’s most statistically dominant player. Through two games, Westbrook has been in the running with the NBA’s elite in terms of box score statistics. Over two games, Westbrook is averaging an eye-popping 41.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 9.5 assists and one steal, while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range. In a 113-110 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns, Westbrook logged 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. He took 44 shots (career-high) and went to the free throw line twenty times. He became the first players to register a 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabar did so in 1975. Westbrook played 45 minutes against the Suns but somehow never seemed to slow down or tire.

“You’ve got to want to win,” Westbrook said after the game. “Very simple. When you want to win, you don’t think about being tired. To me, being tired is a mind thing. It’s in your mind. You’ve got to go out there and compete at a high level and leave it on the floor.”

Westbrook, age 27, is a man on a mission and doesn’t figure to slow down anytime soon.

While Leonard, Harden and Westbrook are all off to incredible starts this season, there is arguably no one playing at a higher level so far than New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. Through two games, Davis is averaging 47.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, four assists, 4.5 steals and three blocks, while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 25 percent from distance.

“It’s hard to defend him,” Kevin Durant said. “You can’t. His first step is probably the quickest I’ve seen in a while at his position. He’s long, he can shoot it, he can dribble it, he can shoot the 3 — so he’s doing just about everything out there on the court.

“[He is] probably going to lead the league in scoring this year easily … 50 for him is a good game, and now [he’s like] move it to the next one. It’s kind of a customary night for him, so we’ve got to be prepared tonight.”

Davis is the first player since Michael Jordan to score 90 points or more combined in his team’s first two games of an NBA season. In his last game, Davis logged 45 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the seventh player in NBA history to have 45 points and 15 rebounds in consecutive games. The others are Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone and Bob McAdoo. And remember that he put up these numbers against Draymond Green, who is arguably the most versatile and effective defender in the NBA. However, the problem for Davis is that despite his efforts, his team is now 0-2. He’ll need some more support from his teammates moving forward considering there isn’t much more he can do on his end to help his team win.

These are just some of the players that are putting up huge numbers early this season. Other players like Damian Lillard, Durant, Myles Turner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan and even T.J. Warren have put up stellar performances through the first few games of the 2016-17 season. And with young budding stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins (just to name a few), the NBA is sure to have a lot of star power and a wealth of talent for years to come. Though the NBA lost some iconic, future hall-of-fame players this last offseason, these extraordinary early-season performances are serving as a strong reminder that the league is still in good hands moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Draft Watch: Should You Expect a Flurry Of Trades?

Should you expect a flurry of trades during tonight’s NBA Draft? History says yes!

Lang Greene

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Draft Day. The event that rebuilding teams have been planning months for is finally upon us. The next wave of NBA stars await their opportunity to play under the brightest of all lights on the biggest of stages. But outside of the rising and falling status of the prospects, each year draft week is filled with a flurry of trade activity and there’s no reason to believe things will be different in 2018.

On Wednesday, the trade market kicked off with the Charlotte Hornets shipping former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for veteran center Timofey Mozgov. The move isn’t all that surprising considering one of the biggest advocates for the Hornets in acquiring Howard from Atlanta last year, Steve Clifford, was fired back in April. In addition to a new head coach, James Borrego, Charlotte also hired a new president of basketball operations and general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

In the deal, Charlotte was able to avoid paying the luxury tax while also creating immediate salary cap flexibility to be players in this year’s market should they choose. For Brooklyn, the team acquires a veteran presence for their youth movement and a consistent double-double anchor on the interior.

The trade also marks consecutive years that Brooklyn was active on the trade front during draft time. Last year, the team acquired former lottery pick D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the Nets haven’t had the luxury of prime draft assets in recent years, the team has had to resort to trades (Russell, Howard) and free agency (Allan Crabbe) to reshape the roster.

Transitioning to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the question can be asked whether this will be the third straight year involving a draft day trade. At the top of the Warriors’ lineup max players reside which means the team has had to find talented gems in the back half of the draft to contribute to their success.

In 2016, the Warriors acquired the rights to the No. 38 overall pick, Patrick McCaw, from the Milwaukee Bucks for cash considerations. In 2017, Golden State acquired the rights to another No. 38 overall pick, Jordan Bell, from the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations.

Notice a trend?

With the Warriors needing to lock NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant into a long term deal this summer and future free agency looming for All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the franchise will need to continue finding young role players to complement their collection of stars.

There could also be a deal involving All-Star level talent.

The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Victor Oladipo back in 2016 in a draft week deal with the Orlando Magic. While Oladipo didn’t emerge as an All-Star caliber until the following season (after being dealt to Indiana), there are usually a couple of big names in play come draft night.

Consider the 2017 draft day deal that saw the Chicago Bulls send Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for talented two guard Zach LaVine.

This year, the most prominent name potentially on the market is San Antonio Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard. The rumor mill reports Leonard is frustrated and wants a trade to the Lakers. The Spurs are, of course, attempting to keep their franchise player with a series of meetings. Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent next summer and his public trade demand limits what San Antonio could demand in return. Teams will be hesitant to give up prime assets for a player that won’t commit to their franchise long term. While San Antonio doesn’t have to make an immediate deal their leverage hasn’t been compromised with Leonard’s specific trade destination request.

The NBA Draft can best be described as a crapshoot with prospects being hit or miss. There are teams that make their bones via draft day acquisitions, or working between the lines, which is a storyline to watch during the draft tonight.

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NBA Draft Watch: Storylines Heading into Thursday’s Draft

With the NBA Draft just one day away, there is plenty of uncertainty on how things will play out, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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From now until the conclusion of Thursday night’s NBA draft the landscape is subject to shift and evolve at a moment’s notice.

As of right now, the only thing that we can be most certain about is DeAndre Ayton going first overall to the Phoenix Suns. After that, it’s basically a crapshoot in regards to what might go down.

With media day commencing in New York City on Wednesday, the players that will be present during the draft’s greenroom got the chance to address the droves of media from all over the land about where they might end up, how they might fit in those places, and a few off-the-cuff questions thrown in here and there.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the league and their selection extravaganza on Thursday night, many people who are usually in the know this time of year seem to be approaching the event erring on the side of caution, more so than in years past.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer echoed that feeling Wednesday afternoon.

One of the large looming clouds heading into draft night is the Kawhi Leonard situation. As it stands, Leonard appears to want out of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs and would prefer to wind up in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the Lakers being his new employer.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard met with Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday night in order to discuss the situation between San Antonio and their franchise player.

While Wojnarowski has also reported that the Spurs are in no rush to move Leonard, draft night could potentially serve as a motivator in the opposite direction should Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford receive a tempting offer that involves some draft capital. With the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers reportedly interested in acquiring Leonard, on the clock with the 10th overall pick, perhaps they can entice the Spurs into sending their star forward packing.

Regardless of if Leonard is traded Thursday night or not, there were certainly be many eyes on his situation over the next 24-plus hours.

Up until about the time a player is selected by their new club, the situation for drafting remains fairly fluid. When the basketball community congregates to New York the day before the event, rumors and confirmation of shifting ideals begin to flourish.

With a lot of the players in this year’s lottery surounded by reasonable question marks, we may see last-minute rising and falling of the prospected hierarchy in prospects. Michael Porter Jr., with questions surrounding his health, and Trae Young having questions about his slight frame and defensive capability, seem to be two subjects of that shuffling just a day before the Thursday night festivities.

Conversely, the final moments leading up to the time to make a selection, teams can shuffle their opinion based off of their need to bring in star power possibilities — especially high up in the lottery.

Real Madrid star Luka Doncic has been the subject for criticism throughout this year’s draft process. While the 19-year-old has posted some of the best numbers for a player his age in the ACB and Euroleague, NBA evaluators are rightfully questioning if his athleticism can hold up in the league.

Originally figured to slip past the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, who hold the second and third overall picks, respectively, Doncic appears to be gaining last-minute steam within the ranks of the Georgia-based basketball club.

Even though prospects are surfacing Wednesday in the Big Apple to meet and greet with reporters, and get settled for their big moment on Thursday night, some teams and correlating players are having final sit-downs to profess their admiration for each other.

More specifically, New York native and projected high-end lottery pick, Mo Bamba, reportedly met with his hometown Knicks on Wednesday. Corresponding reports tell the story that the Knicks are exploring the option to trade up in the draft, in hopes to acquire a franchise-caliber center to put alongside Kristaps Porzingis.

DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony added context to further confirm the Knicks’ hope of scoring their first franchise center since Patrick Ewing roamed Madison Square Garden.

Whatever does wind up happening Thursday night, those watching can be assured that this year’s NBA Draft will contain the necessary amount of chaos to continue the conversation throughout the league while free agency quickly approaches.

Although, if you were anticipating being able to see those draft picks come in a few minutes early on Twitter like in years past, think again.

It looks like those draft night Wojbombs will be reserved for any unforeseen trades, and not who your favorite team will be picking 10 minutes later.

Either way, embrace the insanity. Draft night is upon us.

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NBA Daily: What is Cleveland’s Next Move?

Plenty has been made about where LeBron goes this summer, but not much has been made about what Cleveland will do if he leaves.

Matt John

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Usually, when you make the NBA Finals, it’s a good thing. Especially if it was the fourth consecutive time you’ve made it.

For Cleveland though, this season, which would have been deemed a success in any other case, was overshadowed by what can only be compared to a hostage situation. Many speculated that this season was going to be LeBron James’ last as a Cavalier, as rumor had it since last summer that he already has his eyes on his next team.

So the pressure was on in Cleveland, to say the least. They did everything to accommodate LeBron given how shaky the circumstances were. From shipping disgruntled star Kyrie Irving out of town to trading half the team mid-season, this past season has been a bumpy ride. In spite of all the hardship, Cleveland managed to make it to the Finals anyway.

Still, it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a realistic chance at re-signing LeBron this summer, they had to beat Golden State, which wasn’t in the cards. The Cavs may have gotten to the Finals, but the Warriors predictably took them out all too quickly.

All in all, the Cavaliers were so close, and yet so far.

That brings us to now. LeBron’s going to test the free agency waters again. Cleveland will certainly do what they can to bring the King back for another season, and for all we know, LeBron could return to Cleveland, but the odds aren’t in their favor.

Cleveland has to deal with the very real possibility that LeBron will leave this summer, because if and when he does, that leaves the current roster in a flux. Without LeBron, Captain Obvious says that Cleveland’s not going anywhere near the Finals and could also see themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. All signs point to it being time to rebuild, but how exactly do they approach the re-building stage?

It all starts with the Nets pick.

No matter what you think of how Cleveland did when they shuffled half their roster around at the trade deadline, one thing should be universally agreed upon: They made the right move not trading the Nets pick they acquired from the Celtics for Kyrie Irving.

It’s true that the Nets pick this season didn’t pan out as well for the Cavaliers as it had for the Celtics over the last two seasons, but it still wound up being the eighth overall pick in a loaded draft. A valuable asset like that should only be traded for someone who puts you over the top and going to stay long-term. With all apologies to any star who was rumored to be on the market back in February, the Cavs didn’t have that option.

So now, Cleveland has the eighth overall pick, and it’s clear who they should take: The best player available. No matter who that is, the best player available for a team that is most likely starting from scratch is the best option.

Of course, the simpler way of getting young talent is by getting it through the lottery. Getting that Brooklyn pick in the Kyrie Irving deal was a great failsafe for if and when LeBron skips town.

Next is addressing who should be traded.

Cleveland’s uncertain draft pick situation from now until 2020 should also push them towards a rebuild. The team traded their first-round pick this year to the Lakers at the deadline when they acquired Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Next year, they will have to forfeit their first-round pick to the Hawks if they finish outside of the bottom ten. Those protections will roll over to the next year if the Cavs finish in the bottom ten.

Given that the roster isn’t all that impressive outside of LeBron, that would be the best way to go. While the Cavaliers aren’t going to get any value out of Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, and Jordan Clarkson, there are two players who definitely could: Kevin Love and George Hill.

Let’s start with Love. Love will not get back the same value that Cleveland gave up to acquire him, but he’s still a proven commodity at 29 years old who should fetch something back if Cleveland decides to trade him. Love has made the All-Star team over his last two seasons and has done all that Cleveland has asked of him since being traded to the team back in 2014, like him or not.

How much he can fetch back is another story. Rumor has it that the Cavs have dangled Love along with the Nets pick for a star, but no one has bitten on it. Love won’t fetch a star, but he could fetch young assets from a team looking to make a win-now move. He won’t bring back a King’s ransom, but he can bring back something.

Then there’s Hill. If Hill has any interested parties this summer, it may stem from his contract rather than his services. Hill will be on the books for $19 million next season, but the following season, his contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. Now, Cleveland could just wait until next year then waive him, and no one would fault them for that. It would heavily reduce the payroll for a team that, even without LeBron James, is playing with fire with the luxury tax this summer.

Or, they could get an asset(s) out of him. Teams that may want to avoid the luxury tax next year or go after a marquee free agent would salivate for a contract like Hill’s. If the Cavs play their cards right, they could sell Hill’s contract to the highest bidder.

Whether or not they keep Hill will all depend on how Cleveland sees its roster’s future. The team still has Rodney Hood’s restricted free agency this summer, and the team reportedly hopes to keep Nance Jr long-term. If avoiding the luxury tax is what they want more than anything during the rebuild, then keeping Hill is the best option.

That transitions to the final aspect of Cleveland’s potential rebuild: Organizing the roster for the foreseeable future. Cleveland is not completely devoid of youth. They have Hood, Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, and even Clarkson, all of whom are young and may have their best days ahead of them. Hood and Clarkson did not pan out well in their half-season in Cleveland, but perhaps that could change if they’re put in the right situation.

It all starts with coaching. Tyronn Lue has done what he can since taking over as head coach in 2016. However, Lue was made head coach because that’s who LeBron wanted running the show. With the King out of the picture, perhaps it might be best to replace Lue with a coach better-suited to nurture youth.

One such name that comes to mind is David Blatt, who has worked with Zizic. Blatt was originally hired in 2014 because of his reputation as a developmental coach, but once LeBron came back, he and Blatt’s tense relationship led to Blatt’s firing half-way through his second season. If LeBron doesn’t return to the team, Blatt could use the strategy he planned to implement when he first arrived.

That is just one idea. The Cavs could keep Lue or they could look at other options, but Blatt would be intriguing. Skeptics would question why Cleveland would bring him back after such a bitter break-up not too long ago, but consider this: The Cavs hired Mike Brown back three years after firing him following the end of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland, so anything is possible.

Re-building is a bridge that Cleveland will have to cross when they come to it. Koby Altman must have known that it was a possibility when he took the reins as general manager last year. The situation he’s found himself in isn’t as hopeless as many have pegged it out to be, but the young GM will have plenty of work to do this summer.

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