So, that happened.
That, of course, is the sudden, unexpected departure of Russell Westbrook, the undeniable top dog in Thunder-era franchise history.
Onto Houston to reunite with former teammate James Harden and forge a new path ahead, leaving Oklahoma City – for the first time since the franchise moved cross-country in 2008 – without a bonafide superstar. That show-stopping occasion came just weeks after the Oklahoma City traded Paul George, one year after signing him to a large deal in free agency, to the Los Angeles Clippers. With the simple snap of Sam Presti’s fingers, the team and city head into the uncharted waters of a cold, inevitable rebuild.
Sure, Chris Paul will fill the hole as the rostered icon and future Hall of Famer, but the swap leaves the Thunder in limbo — hampered by a few remaining contracts, but steadfastly dedicated to their young assets and a newly-found treasure trove of draft picks. Serious dreams of a deep postseason run are likely dead and gone with Westbrook and George’s departures, but the Thunder have an exciting collection of talent — however, does anything on the court matter?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Thunder finally folded their hand entering 2019 free agency. They traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George for a windfall of draft picks – six unprotected first-round picks, one protected pick and four pick swaps – along with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. While they still have a solid – albeit a mismatched – core, there is lots of competition out West. The Thunder possess nice pieces like Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder, but it seems more likely like the Thunder will be sellers come the 2019-20 trade deadline. After all, odds that they make the playoffs are incredibly slim even if they play their vets. The Thunder will probably decide to cash in their remaining chips sooner than later, looking to move Adams, Schroder, Gallinari and/or Paul. That would enable them to allow Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo and rookie Darius Bazley to spread their wings. But it won’t produce many wins. And either way, the Northwest Division is ultra-competitive, and the Thunder will struggle to finish ahead of any of its teams regardless of the moves it makes.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Thunder officially hit the reset button with their decision to trade Russell Westbrook and Paul George. They did get a nice haul picks though from the Clippers in the George deal, as well as promising young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s a good start. Now they need to decide what to do with the rest of the roster, namely Chris Paul, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. This team isn’t going to be a good one, so it’s best not to get any delusions of grandeur of making an underdog postseason push. Rebuilding should be the sole focus. Don’t expect Paul to remain on the roster past the trade deadline. Gallinari could be an attractive piece for a team looking for that missing piece for a deep playoff run. Adams has been one of the franchise cornerstones, but is his presence really necessary for a rebuilding team? That’s the question OKC is going to have to answer, and whether or not it’s in their best interests to trade him and get something in return that could potentially help the rebuild.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The idea of Oklahoma City’s first home game of the NBA season being without Russell Westbrook there to fire up the crowd is going to take some getting used to. Yet as they say, the show must go on. For the Thunder, it’s a new day. The rebuild has begun, and it’s already ahead of schedule thanks to the proactive nature of Sam Presti. There’s much to look forward to with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander learning under the tutelage of Chris Paul, who is returning to the city he once played in during the prime of his career. When you look at the young talent – Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton, rookie Darius Bazley – there’s a lot to like. Unfortunately, their playing time is to be determined until veterans such as Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari are booted from the top of the pecking order. Those two, and Steven Adams, may be trade bait at some point of the season. This year won’t be pretty in the wins and losses column, so Billy Donovan will be tested in his toughest season to date.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
There is actually a lot to like in what’s left in the aftermath of the trades that took the Thunder from contender to lottery hopeful. Darius Bazley, Terrance Ferguson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams are all really nice upside players that could flourish without the ball dominating Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul could be the veteran playmaker that brings all this youth and upside together. It’s possible because there is talent there, but what’s more likely is the continued tearing down and selling off of high priced players as the Thunder look to the lottery for their future, and that’s always sad to watch. Maybe these Thunder are scrappy for another year because they do hold a lot of veteran cap dollars that would be tough to trade away in one season, but it’s more likely the Thunder lose 50 games than win them.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Oklahoma City Thunder were not on a path to winning a championship despite having Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster. Credit Sam Presti for understanding the limitations of his roster and salary cap situation and making bold moves to rebuild. Presti got a historic haul of assets from the Clippers in the Paul George trade. The Thunder received Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 2021 Miami HEAT first-rounder, a 2022 first-rounder, 2023 first-round swap rights, a protected Miami 2023 first-rounder, a 2024 first-rounder, 2025 first-round swap rights and a 2026 first-rounder. Gallinari played at near All-Star levels last season and Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best young point guard prospects in the league. Then Presti traded Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, conditional 2021 swap rights, a protected 2024 first-rounder, conditional 2025 swap rights, and a protected 2026 first-rounder (top-4 protected, otherwise conveys as $1 million). Presti managed to completely reload the team with future draft assets and quality players as well. With the remaining talent and the additions of Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul, I think Oklahoma City is poised to beat expectations this upcoming season.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Thunder have gone through an obvious transformation since last season. In losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George, via trade, the franchise added significant draft resources for the future. The team has also whittled down their salary to just below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Oklahoma City currently has $131.8 million in guaranteed salary, and could still look to shed for some breathing room before the trade deadline.
The team needs to decide on options for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Terrance Ferguson before November. While the Thunder still has access to its Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions, along with two sizable trade exceptions ($10.4 million for George and $9.3 million for Grant), don’t expect the franchise to spend with tax concerns (they’d be a repeat payer if over).
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari
The perpetually underrated and once forever-injured Italian can often be a one-man show on offense. Since he entered the league in 2007, that’s always been true as long as he’s reached the court. Gallinari hasn’t played 70 or more games since 2012-13 — and maxed out at 63 during the five seasons between then and now — but he was, at long last, a force for the Clippers last year. At 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 43.3 percent from three-point range in 2018-19, it was likely Gallinari’s best effort as an NBA-level professional yet.
Gallinari was virtually tied with Tobias Harris and Lou Williams in the scoring department for Los Angeles and offered the upstart Clippers a versatile, efficient weapon at multiple positions.
At 6-foot-10, Gallinari is adept both inside and out, in isolation or on the block. Given both his mobility and height, defending him can be a nightmare-ish version of picking-your-own-poison, often just rising up-and-over at a standstill should the opposition sag off at all. And if his past campaign appeared to be a fluke, Gallinari put up similar numbers for Italy at the FIBA World Cup as their unquestioned No. 1 option.
The talent within the 31-year-old has never been up for debate and, if he remains at full strength, he’ll be a key piece wherever he plays — in Oklahoma City or otherwise.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson
Over the previous two seasons, this answer was Paul George without a single doubt — and that’s not a slight at Roberson whatsoever. George finished in third place in Defensive Player of the Year voting last spring, while Roberson missed an entire season as he continued to rehab from his brutal injury. Of course, in January 2017, Roberson ruptured his left patellar tendon and missed the remainder of the year. On the comeback trail the following autumn, Roberson suffered through setback after setback before an MRI in November found a small avulsion fracture that shelved him once more — eventually, that turned into a lost season as well.
Nothing about Roberson is a given at this point, but — like Gallinari — when healthy, he’s proven to be an absolute force. In 2013, Roberson was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year; four years later, the former Colorado standout had reached the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, named along Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. In that 2016-17 season, Roberson was one of 11 players to finish with at least a block and steal per game. Perimeter defenders need their mobility to guard the league’s elite, so we’ll have to wait and see if Roberson still has it — but his return, particularly so following the departure of George, has become a much-needed storyline for the Thunder.
Top Playmaker: Chris Paul
Naturally, it’s all Chris Paul here.
Paul, 34 and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, is not only the Thunder’s best playmaker, but he’s also one of the best playmakers in NBA history. The 6-foot guard is a nine-time All-Star, four-time assist champion, six-time steal champion, eight-time All-NBA Teamer and a nine-time member of an All-Defensive team. In any definition of the term, Paul is a playmaker, even at his older age. It’s been four years since Paul averaged an assist total in the double digits, but his 8.2 assist tally was still sixth-most in the entire league. Better, his two thefts per game put him at No. 3 along Harden. Even Father Time can’t slow him down at his ball-hawking, court-visionary best.
The one thing that has slowed down Paul, unfortunately, is an injury. During his final season with the Clippers, CP3 reached just 61 games; over two campaigns with Houston, that total ended at 58 both times. In 2017-18, a groin-related flare-up in the Western Conference Finals — with the Rockets up 3-2 — cost him his best chance at a championship he’ll ever get. The injuries, even with one of the NBA’s largest contracts, are his biggest hindrance at this point. Still, with plenty of athletic, high-potential rotation pieces already in tow — Diallo, Ferguson, Schröder, etc. — Paul holds immense value as a mentor through 2020 and beyond.
Top Clutch Player: Steven Adams
Without question, plenty of Thunder players could lay claim to this title, but Mr. Reliable, Steven Adams, deserves more shine. Heading into his seventh NBA season, Adams has missed a total of 24 games — and what’s more clutch than constant availability? In his career-best 2018-19, Adams tallied 13.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 59.5 percent from the floor. During clutch-time minutes, Adams shot at 52 percent to boot — a high-percentage, no-nonsense clean-up option around two top-five MVP candidates. Known as one of the hardest pick-setters in the NBA, Adams notched 3.5 screen assists per game, a number that put him at 17 — the best in the league last year. What’s better in a tight fourth quarter than when a seven-foot center shoots excellently within his role and gets others open frequently?
When you put Adams as a foil around those two aforementioned volume shooters that need every possible inch of space — very few are as good as long-haired, joke-cracking New Zealander. Sure, he’s not about to drain a 30-foot game-winner or put up a 15-point final frame, but Adams is a model of consistency and, for a young, experience-light roster, that means he’ll be incredibly important both in the paint and in the locker room. But with Westbrook and George out and Paul leading the charge, Adams could have a bigger role than ever — will his efficiency take a dip? Either way, the reliable center will be there to do whatever it takes to win.
The Unheralded Player: Dennis Schröder
Many questioned Dennis Schröder’s fit as Russell Westbrook’s backup after thriving as the lead option in Atlanta for two seasons. One year later, Schröder is still not a starter but, all in all, the experiment has worked out pretty well so far. Paul, for now, is the incumbent; but Schröder, just 26, has been a trust-worthy spark plug option for head coach Billy Donovan. Behind Westbrook, Schröder’s counting statistics and numbers both fell in 2018-19, but his lightning-quick penetration and microwavable-scoring efforts anchored Oklahoma City from the bench. If the Thunder bring along Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slowly, then there’s a great chance that Schröder could play heavy minutes next to Paul.
Although that means fewer touches overall, Paul undeniably puts teammates in a position to succeed. And for a talented contributor that has always looked to put the ball in the bucket, learning from a legend like Paul can only serve to benefit. During a late-season effort against Milwaukee, Schröder dropped 32 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals on 8-for-15 from three-point range and just two turnovers. Wind him up and let Schröder fly in 2019-20, and the results may surprise many both near and far.
Best New Addition: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
The Clippers were bristly about including their talented Canadians in any big-time moves this offseason, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The former No. 11 overall pick started in 73 games as a rookie — also playing in all 82, impressively — and looked the part without question. In a crowded Los Angeles rotation, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals, all paired nicely with some seriously high-ceiling defending. Gilgeous-Alexander will be just 21 years old for the entire season — but he already looks ready to become next big star in Oklahoma City. Although moving on from Westbrook and George were heartbreaking, franchise-altering decisions, Gilgeous-Alexander — and their bounty of future draft capital — will be worth it eventually, if not immediately.
As a should-be top dog in a well-accepted rebuild, expect Gilgeous-Alexander to soar even higher than last season. Get prepared, Thunder fans.
– Ben Nadeau
WHO WE LIKE
1. Darius Bazley
Bazley, 19, was a five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. Just before the season started, Bazley changed course entirely, deciding to skip college altogether and play in the G League for a season instead. As NBA rules dictate, an athlete must be one year removed from high school graduation before they can declare themselves draft-ready — but that stipulation doesn’t necessitate that Bazley needed to play anywhere at all.
So, instead of Syracuse, instead of plying his trade in G League — where the Salt Lake City Stars once considered choosing him at No. 1 overall in the draft — instead of all that, Bazley did nothing at all. Bazley forewent all basketball activities, both collegiately and professionally, to train all season and get his body ready for the next year’s draft. He hired Rich Paul — one of the four major sports’ most well-known agents — and moved to Boston to take a one-year internship at New Balance for a million dollars.
At 6-foot-9 and 200-plus pounds already, to call Bazley a physical specimen would be nearly understating the premise. Armed with an impressive 7-foot wingspan, Bazley represents the type of multi-faceted, multi-positional athlete that more and more franchises search for every draft season — and this time, the Thunder got their target. Although he may spend most of the season in the G League, Bazley, armed with the camaraderie and power only harnessed by LeBron James and company, could be somebody worth keeping an eye on.
2. Hamidou Diallo
Like Bazley, Diallo had an interesting journey to the NBA, too, first redshirting a season at Kentucky before surprisingly returning for a sophomore year. That year, Diallo started all 37 games for the Wildcats and tallied 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 24.8 minutes per contest. Although it was not the breakout season most had anticipated from Diallo, he played an important role for a Kentucky roster that reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed. As a bouncy, sky-scraping athlete, Diallo finally has room to breathe in a rebuilding Thunder side.
In his best-yet showing as a professional, Diallo scored 18 points on 7-for-7 from the floor in a November loss against Sacramento. But if you want to see his next-level potential, look no further than his Slam Dunk Contest reel. A Vince Carter-era-honey dip over Shaquille O’Neal? Say less, man.
3. Terrance Ferguson
Rounding out the Thunder’s three-man band of mysterious origins is Terrance Ferguson, the elder statesman of the group as he heads into his third NBA season. Unlike Bazley — who did nothing — and Diallo — who went back — Ferguson jettisoned the country altogether, this time in favor of Australia. At No. 21 overall in 2017, Ferguson was an unknown quantity and played like it during his rookie campaign, barely registering a blip-on-the-radar outside of a 24-point explosion early on.
But with more experience came the minutes in year two, so Ferguson saw his points, rebounds and assists rise in tandem. With Westbrook, George, Schröder and others ahead of him on the depth chart, Ferguson’s ceiling was again tapped. During 2018-19, the 6-foot-7 leaper scored 10 or more points in 21 different efforts, all while hitting at a very respectable 42.9 percent from the floor. Now given a clearer path to playing time, Ferguson could be an injection of scoring and highlight-worthy amp-ups that the Thunder bench sorely needs.
4. Justin Patton
Once upon a time, Justin Patton was also one of the hottest potential-laden prospects heading into the NBA Draft. After all, the former No. 16 overall pick had just come off a noteworthy freshman year at Creighton in which the mobile center tallied 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Unfortunately, in his first-ever summer league, Patton broke his foot, had surgery and didn’t make his rookie debut until April. Two weeks later, he underwent a procedure to continue strong healing of that pesky left foot. That, of course, worked well until he broke his other foot five months later instead.
Traded alongside Jimmy Butler once again — as he was from Chicago the night he was drafted — Patton was shipped to Philadelphia. In April, after appearing in just three games for the 76ers, the 7-footer was waived. And there’s no reason to double-down on an injury history as Patton has… still, it doesn’t feel like this story is done yet. With two sturdy, defensive-minded veterans ahead of him — Nerlens Noel, Adams — Patton can grow at his own pace and this time, hopefully, stay healthy for the first time in his career. There’s too much to like here to not get a real look at the 22-year-old at some point — thankfully, the Thunder were willing to kick the tires on this flier.
5. A Dragon Lair’s Worth Of Treasure/Invaluable Draft Picks
Often, franchises are forced to rebuild. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, for example, who were forced to burn their plans to the ground and start anew without warning. In other instances, whether by injuries or free agency — Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, take your pick — circumstances can send franchises hurtling in the wrong direction all at once. But to find a front office that can see the writing on the wall, move on from the best player in franchise history (and a second MVP-worthy candidate) and capitalize on their sky-high valuable assets within a few weeks is a truly remarkable achievement. When franchise pillars move on, it’s rarely for the full worth — quarters on the dollar and all that lingo — but such is life for general manager Sam Presti.
The Emerson College alum was once questioned for his return in the trade that sent eventual MVP James Harden even further south — however, those will resurface less after this summer. Between now and 2026, the Thunder have a stunning 15 first-round draft picks. Although they have plenty of young assets — as mentioned above — that number alone should have Oklahoma City fans excited, even if they must wait a few more years to regain relevance.
– Ben Nadeau
Without Russell Westbrook — one of the league’s top offensive stars — and Paul George — one of the league’s top defensive standouts — it’s hard to tell just exactly where the Thunder will rise and fall in 2019-20. On the scoring side of things, Westbrook and his history-making usage levels will have to go elsewhere — all those shots, passes and isolation moments, gone. Roberson will slide back into his role as the premier perimeter defender and Schröder should do well in an improved role — but what else?
Their athleticism is through the roof thanks to Diallo, Ferguson, Bazley, Noel and Gilgeous-Alexander, thus making the Thunder daily highlight-creators — particularly so with a court general like Paul pulling the strings. Adams will play hard and make a difference, while Gallinari, if healthy, can carry the offensive load on most nights. As long as Adams is still manning the middle, the Thunder will be near the top in rebounds per game too.
Still, these are just parts of the whole and it’s impossible to make any sort of true-minded conclusions after losing the contributions of Westbrook and George overnight. The defense won’t be elite anymore and the offense won’t be either — fun, sure, but top-tier? Not likely.
– Ben Nadeau
Last year, the Thunder owned the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA; uncoincidentally, George almost took home Defensive Player of the Year. And although Westbrook isn’t hailed as a strong defender, he still tallied steals and got the team out in transition often. Replacing George with Roberson — talented but with injury history — and Westbrook with Paul — talented but with injury history and, well, old — should serve to see Oklahoma City plummet here. But an offense with plenty of questions left to answer could be a death knell on any potential playoff dreams in the Western Conference.
The defense will be serviceable, make no mistake. But the Thunder made a living last year as a complete, overwhelming unit in 2018-19. Elsewhere, Oklahoma City was a middle-of-the-pack franchise in three-point makes, attempts and percentages; while their assists tally, surprisingly, ranked in the bottom 10. The Thunder have a full and compelling roster, but no overwhelming standouts either.
This is, after all, a rebuild.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is it the Year of the Youngster in Oklahoma City?
For too long, aspiring talents were shifted aside to make room for Westbrook, George and whatever other veteran-ready contributors came to town for the win-now franchise. But entrenched in the next era — Paul’s albatross contract otherwise — it should be the young roster’s time to shine, develop and lay claim to the Midwest throne. Gilgeous-Alexander is a shoo-in — but what about Diallo? Or Ferguson? Behind Adams and Noel, will Patton get a fair shake? Will Bazley spend much of the season in the G League? Hell, there’s even Juwan Evans and Luguentz Dort, two other interesting guards that have gone unmentioned so far.
Presumably, the Thunder will do what they can to get out from under the final three years and $124 million owned to Paul — to what end, however, remains to be seen. On the other hand, if Gallinari stays healthy, he could be a movable asset on an expiring contract come the trade deadline in February. Aside from Paul, the Thunder will have just $32 million in major deals owed to Adams and Schröder in 2020-21 — so cap space, along with a mountain of draft assets, will be the Thunder’s best allies heading forward.
But until then, nobody is opposed to letting Oklahoma City’s four or five skywalkers loose on the Northwest Division and see what sticks, right?
– Ben Nadeau
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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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